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Various Artists: Whatever Nevermind

Kylesa, Torche, Cave In and more tackle Nirvana's classic 1991 album

Last year, Virginia record label Robotic Empire put together a tribute to Nirvana’s third and final album ‘In Utero’ to celebrate Record Store Day. Following the success of ‘In Utero, In Tribute, In Entirety’, they’ve turned their attention to ‘Nevermind’ for Record Store Day 2015 and have unleashed it on the wider world. The question is, have the artists involved done Nirvana’s masterpiece justice?

In 1991, Nirvana’s record label Geffen hoped the band would shift 250,000 copies of their second album Nevermind. That would’ve been a result as the Seattle trio were largely an underground act. Following the success of breakthrough hit-single Smells Like Teen Spirit (and to a lesser extent Come As You Are, Lithium and In Bloom) Nevermind went on to sell over 30 million copies worldwide. It propelled alternative rock into the heart of the mainstream, and provided a generation of disaffected youths with angst-ridden anthems that still resonate to this day.

Neither Nirvana nor Geffen – or anyone else for that matter – could’ve predicted the impact of Nevermind. But its success was more than just a case of right place, right time. Underneath all the raw punk aggression lies a perfectly-crafted pop record. There’s an abundance of abrasive dynamic shifts (a technique unashamedly borrowed from 1980s alternative rock bands like The Replacements, Pixies and Sonic Youth) but there’s also plenty of power chords and catchy melodies, ensuring memorable tunes break through the wall of distortion and feedback. Kurt himself stated his intention with Nevermind was to write pop songs that sound like “The Knack and Bay City Rollers getting molested by Black Flag and Black Sabbath.” And he succeeded. The 12-tracks contained on this masterpiece (and it is a masterpiece) retain all of their haunting, beautiful power. They’re timeless. And Whatever Nevermind is proof.

The 12 songs on this tribute compilation (14 if you include the two blistering bonus tracks from Louisianan sludge metallers Thou) range from faithful reproductions to radical reimaginings, and in many instances, force to you hear these familiar songs in new and exciting ways. Torche’s stoner metal style seems pre-made for In Bloom, whilst White Reaper’s take on Territorial Pissings and Cave In’s searing version of Breed are punk rock marriages made in heaven. Circa Survive give Drain You an atypical upbeat soft rock makeover whilst keeping it raw and honest. Spanish black metal outfit Wrong do Stay Away the dark and unsettling justice it deserves, and the post-hardcore leanings of Touché Amoré are perfectly fitted for Lounge Act.

Elsewhere, the spoken word approach of Jordan Dreyer (La Dispute) effortlessly serves the unsettling Polly – a song which Krist Novoselic says Cobain wrote after reading a newspaper article about a 1987 abduction and rape of a teenager in Washington. Kylesa’s take on Come As You Are sees Phillip Cope and Laura Pleasants’ vocal harmonies add to the track’s haunting nature, while its Killing Joke-inspired riff is overshadowed by the Georgia quintet’s murky guitar tones. Lithium is arguably the album’s highlight, thanks to the droning, doom metal-meets-psychedelic dream-pop of experimental Japanese noisemakers Boris and their almost unrecognisable rendition of this Nirvana fan-favourite.

Twisted folk-punks Pygmy Lush make full use of the dynamic shifts from quiet to loud in On A Plain, starting sparsely, then building the song into a swirling wall of exquisite sound, before lowering things to a quiet whisper. And Philadelphian shoegazers Nothing strip Something In The Way all the way back to a piano-led arrangement which really brings home just how cinematic the Nirvana frontman’s music could be, as anyone who’s seen the recent documentary Cobain: Montage Of Heck will attest to.

Ultimately, it’s indie noise rockers Young Widows who have the hardest job of the lot – covering Smells Like Teen Spirit. But they nail it! It was never going to be a patch on the original (obviously none of these covers are, so get over that before playing this album) but it’s a fresh reworking of a song we’ve all heard a thousand times, and as such, it should be celebrated. As should Whatever Nevermind and Cobains’ songwriting genius. Kudos to all involved for not desecrating a classic album.