Released in May of 1983, Dio’s debut LP – Holy Diver – is among the greatest heavy metal albums ever, and a big reason why is its title track.
It’s centered around “a Christ figure” who, according to Ronnie James Dio, goes to another planet to do “exactly the same as we’ve apparently experienced . . . dying for the sins of man so that man can start again.” That concept, coupled with its killer riffs and melodies, resulted in an instant classic.
It was only a matter of time, then, before numerous other artists reinterpreted “Holy Diver,” with the 10 here (which are ranked worst to best) exemplifying some truly dramatic changes. They’re not all shiny diamonds or rainbows in the dark, but they’re certainly worthy of recognition if nothing else.
Bland pop/country crooner Pat Boone is no stranger to sanitizing edgy songs (see: “Tutti Frutti”). Unfortunately, he gave “Holy Diver” the same treatment on 1997’s covers compilation, In a Metal Mood: No More Mr. Nice Guy.
The jazzy orchestral opening is unsuitable but not too egregious; however, once it gets going, it becomes an unapologetically lame and wholesome swing/Big Band abomination. It’s not that any of the performances are bad – Boone, his backing singers and the musicians do their jobs well – but they’re in complete opposition to the original’s spirit and target demographic. At least it’s a fresh take, right?
Like the Boone piece, Brand New Idol’s synthpop rendition (from another genre-specific assemblage, 2004’s Elektrokuted: 17 Metal & Rock Tracks Revisited) warrants a bit of credit for doing something new. Of course, that doesn’t mean that it’s good.
On the contrary, its techno beats, computerized timbres and posh vocals transform the song into a superficially glamourous, innocuous and dated disgrace. True, there’s a very faint essence of goth rock and industrial metal that could be appealing if weren’t undercut by the prevailing upbeatness and glittery sheen. Where’s the grittiness? Where’s the hookiness? Where’s the reason for it to exist?
It’s a daring overhaul that doesn’t deface the core of “Holy Diver.” Spearheaded by steel pannist Tracy Thorton – who’s also adapted heavy metal standards such as Iron Maiden’s “Aces High” and “Hallowed Be Thy Name” – it’s a colorful and affectionate instrumental conversion.
The syncopation is unassuming and repetitive, and there’s little to it beyond the combination of percussion and steelpan, but it nails what it’s aiming for. Does it match Dio’s version? Absolutely not, but it’s a superb example of how musicians who specialize in using non-traditional instruments can make a track their own without doing a disservice to their inspiration.
Taken from 1997’s Humppamaratooni – which basically translates to The Hump Marathon – the retitled “Humpparaakki” sees the Finnish humppa quintet swapping the multifaceted aggressiveness of their predecessor for a quirkier and faster variation.
In fact, it’s downright carnivalistic, with a jubilant hodgepodge of accordion, organ, bass and drums setting the foundation for the comparably playful (but still slightly aggressive) singing. The supporting chants are nice, too, and while it’s clearly at least a tad tongue-in-cheek, “Humpparaakki” is nonetheless meticulously arranged and performed.
It’s just a shame that its much shorter duration leads to a lack of solos and other trademark embellishments.
Like their humppa comrades, the equally frisky Steve ‘N’ Seagulls hail from Finland. However, they focus on cooking up a peculiar brand of rockabilly, hard rock, country and bluegrass, all of which is on display here. The rustic banjo prelude is stylishly inviting, presenting a customized yet identifiable motif.
Likewise, the lead vocals and backing harmonies are dignified and alluring, just as the ever-expanding arrangement becomes lusciously pastoral by the end. Along the way, there’s a resourceful three-way instrumental trade-off, and overall, it does what all great covers should: stay true to the original amidst adding loads of individual flair.
With a name like Metalachi, you pretty much know what to expect, and this Mexican ensemble don’t disappoint. As with all the tracks from 2018’s Tres, this one funnels the DNA of its forebearer into a genuine mariachi template.
Thus, trumpet, violin, acoustic guitar, guitarron and exuberant singing are prioritized over conventional metal elements. That said, there is a cool electric guitar solo about halfway in. It’s an exceptionally festive and welcoming alternative to Dio’s composition, showcasing why Metalachi are masters of what they do (and why they didn’t deserve to be eliminated from America’s Got Talent’s 10th season).
American musician Andrew James Witzke has his hands in several projects, ranging from country outfit Ski’s Country Trash to goth rock troupe Beloved Enemy. Even so, it’s his 1950s rock ‘n’ roll endeavor, Ski-King, that’s perhaps the most impressive one, as his 2013 take on “Holy Diver” demonstrates.
With its Southern twang and accurate tempo, it sort of seems like what might’ve happened if the 1983 installment was itself a heftier reincarnation of a Johnny Cash or Elvis Presley song. It’s marginally foreboding, yes, but it’s also somewhat lighthearted and loose, with down-home accentuations and Witzke’s spirited personality shining through.
Much like how Gary Jules ingeniously reinvented Tears for Fears’ “Mad World,” Puddles Pity Party converted “Holy Diver” into a powerfully vacant and sorrowful gem. Led by delicate acoustic guitar fingerpicking and downtrodden bass notes, “Big” Mike Geier sings with unadulterated poignancy.
The reverberation on his voice adds to the track’s haunting weightiness as well, underscoring the craftsmanship he puts into pronouncing each syllable. Lastly, the unexpected detours into “We Three Kings” and “Eye of the Tiger” surprise and amuse, respectively, without detracting from the piece’s overarching pathos. It proves that it’s often the sparsest songs that linger the longest.
This is easily the most faithful entry on this list because the metalcore fivesome stick quite closely to Dio’s vision. Nevertheless, it’s too authentic and awesome not to include, especially since the group injects enough of their own flavor to make it feel distinctive.
Specifically, both the guitar work and Howard Jones’ voice are a bit fuller and – dare I say – more epic. Plus, Jones’ occasional screams, alongside the trickier guitar solo and elaborate percussion, add ferocity and complexity. It’s a damn fine substitute and a faultless exercise in precise emulation, so there’s really nothing to dislike or criticize about it.
Pain of Salvation is one of Sweden’s greatest contemporary bands, with an irresistibly idiosyncratic blend of progressive metal and art rock punctuating nearly everything they do. Obviously, they lean almost entirely on the latter category for their jazzily organic adaption, and it’s all the better for it.
Frontman Daniel Gildenlöw’s soulful manner and expansive range are immediately captivating, and the surrounding harmonies illustrate the vocal elasticity of his bandmates. Similarly, the arrangement is characteristically sophisticated yet eccentric, with its gentle tones and vibe evolving into a vigorously articulate and adventurous jam as only they could create. It’s an extraordinary accomplishment.