Features: Metroid's Metal Makeover

How five guys blasted the series' haunting soundtrack into a whole different genre - without sucking

The trouble with covering beloved music is that it’s so easy to lose something in the translation. Successfully capturing the original work’s intent and mood is atypical; what most often happens when things go south is the heart and soul of the piece are mangled with good intentions. It’s not enough to play the same notes and sing the same words: you need to know enough to meddle in the right places and how to take the right approach.

Five guys, riddled up and down the east coast of the United States, have beaten the odds and done just that with their video game cover band: Metroid Metal.

Taking the series' trademark cold and haunting ambience, Metroid Metal turns it up to a level dangerous for your speakers. It’s the kind of music that surges you with newfound nostalgia and leaves you with a desire to headbutt Ridley’s stupidly antagonizing face.

“Metroid is sci-fi, brooding, and all about tension and release,” founding member, mixer and guitarist Grant “Stemage” Henry said. “Metal is very much the same way.”

The beauty of it all is how well it manages to fit in and replace the original soundtracks. Despite being a stylistic polar opposite to the games’ alien, low-key electronica, the underlying melodies and sense of exploration are still there, albeit more fist-pumpingly aggressive.

“If you're going to write music that sounds creepy you can either write metal or atmospheric music,” guitarist Dan “Danimal” Behrens said. “Metal is more fun from a performance perspective.”

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Metroid Metal live at MAGFest.

Metroid Metal is made up of five members: Henry, Behrens and Micheal “Kirby” Molnar on guitar, Dan “chunkstyle” Taylor on bass and Kevin “Cheddar” Lawrence on drums. Henry is based near Charlotte, North Carolina, with Lawrence and Taylor 200 miles to the west on the outskirts of Asheville. Molner resides in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; Behrens in Buffalo, New York.

But listening to their first full-length album Varia Suite, you’d never know that they all live hundreds of miles apart. With Henry acting as the band’s Grand Central mixing hub, members would record their parts separately and send them in for assembly.

The recording process for Varia Suite, which pulls songs from Metroid, Metroid II: Return of Samus, Super Metroid and Metroid Prime for a metal makeover, began in late April of this year almost by accident. Talk of putting out an album at first seemed to take them in the direction of laying down a couple tracks and throwing them online, but the project snowballed and more songs made the list. By August, Henry and Taylor had finalized the mail-order instrumental bits into fine-tuned mixes and were ready to go.

Some of the games’ music lend themselves easier to the metal translation. Super Metroid, the band’s unanimous favorite entry, is possibly the most straightforward to convert.

“In general, the least arrangement work is done in terms of turning [that soundtrack] into metal tracks,” Molnar said. “With the NES and Prime games, there's so much that's completely different or even nonexistent in the original music, but with the tracks in Super, they're pretty close to straight covers with guitars.”

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Playing their debut gig at MAGFest.

As the saying goes, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

“The melodies tend to be pretty iconic — particularly in the older games,” Taylor said. “What Grant has done is keep the melodies intact but arrange a structure underneath that both pays homage to the original, but also takes it in a new, more metal-y direction.”

Debuting as a live band on New Years 2009 at game festival MAGFest, Metroid Metal hasn’t had the luxury of doing a lot of gigs. So far, that’s the only one, but the band is scheduled to play PAX in September.

Not only do they contend with living far away from each other, but Metroid Metal also faces the stigma of being a video game music group. Molnar’s other band, tempsoundsolutions, has faced similar challenges.

“I know people who have come to a show, rocked their asses off watching us, and they come up to us afterward and have no idea that we were just doing game covers,” he said. “And usually when I tell them, their answer is something like ‘oh wow, no way, I'm not sure I would've come out to see that if I knew ahead of time.’ Video game music is about nostalgia and nerdination for a lot of people, but I really and truly believe that it stands on its own musically — it's just sad that it has to overcome such a huge stigma before it gets to the point where people will allow themselves to come out and see it.”