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  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Kassel

Carpenter Brut's cover of "Maniac" places the listener inside the mania

A "darksynth" retooling of a 1980s movie soundtrack classic gives the lyrics and title a much more fitting treatment.

I've included a few covers in my Senior Year Soundtrack up to this point. For most of them, I'd actually heard the cover versions before the originals; take, for example, Heart's take on "Alone," Johnny Cash's version of "Hurt," or the Friends of Distinction's cover of "Grazing in the Grass." Only once prior to tonight — when I discussed the Fugees' cover of "Killing Me Softly With His Song," made popular by Roberta Flack — had I heard the original version before the cover.

I think, with how quickly I can get attached to certain songs, I generally have some sort of reverence to an original version. However, tonight's selection falls in the same camp as "Killing Me Softly," where for one reason or another I end up preferring the version I hear later. This time, my preference results from the cover's apt instrumentation.

Michael Sembello's smash hit "Maniac" rocketed to success through its use in the 1983 movie Flashdance. I've always liked the song, but something about it always felt a bit... hollow to me. To me, it sounds as if there's something missing that, if there, would have made the track much more danceable than it is. I'd heard a couple covers over the years, but I had still yet to hear that thing, that "it" factor that connected the dots and filled out the song to the point where I couldn't help but sing and dance along.

Then, within the past month, I happened upon a cover of "Maniac" by French producer Carpenter Brut, featuring the vocals of Yann Ligner from rock band Klone. This electronic rock version — a mix of glam metal with Carpenter Brut's "darksynth" style — is a maximalist approach to the tune that fills up the sound spectrum, and my headphones with it. Upon hearing the cover, I realized what it was that I felt "Maniac" needed all along — a sound that matched its title. Carpenter Brut's version certainly captures the mania of its central figure as she dances and is taken over by the music.

I love how unassumingly Carpenter Brut's cover starts, with a recreation of the initial beat from the original version. There's no sign anything's going to really change in terms of style — and then, without warning, the beat drops and launches the listener into the world of darksynth. A heavy sound filled with distorted synthesizers and with tinges of metal guitar and bass, it's a much darker soundscape than Sembello's original, and it conveys a very different mood. Whereas the original remains light throughout, Carpenter Brut's take is undeniably heavy in its explosive chorus, even before Yann Ligner sings over it. The suddenly massive sound certainly is apt to send listeners into a frenzy that matches the title much more than any other version I've heard.

The chorus on its own is enough to love about this cover, but there's also so much more to it that helps capture its fittingly manic energy. The verse continues the darksynth soundscape through high-pitched pads and pipe organ synths that feel both ominous and downright creepy at times. It's appropriate to represent a manic through those sorts of emotions... especially when considering that songwriter Dennis Matosky's initial lyrical inspiration was a news report on a serial killer. I never knew this aspect of "Maniac" until researching it for this article, but hearing just how well the various verse synths capture a horror movie-like mood makes me wonder if Carpenter Brut was aware of it when he began working on his cover, which was finally released in 2020 after first being played live four years earlier.

As much as I like all the elements I've already discussed, though, I think my favorite part of Carpenter Brut's take on "Maniac" is the break and solo after the chorus. I always felt this part of the original song felt a little awkward with the instrumentation was used, suddenly introducing a guitar that feels to clean for the line it's playing. In this cover, though, the metal breakdown — punctuated by drum fills that provide a much-needed counter to the otherwise constant backbeat — and the subsequent screaming guitar solo sound so natural, to the point that I wonder why the 1983 original didn't do something similar. In one word, it's cohesive, rather than feeling disjunct or out of place. The right instrumental and timbral choices can go such a long way toward making a track flow and be thematically successful, and I definitely feel that Carpenter Brut understands that when I hear how he approached re-tooling Michael Sembello and Phil Ramone's original production.

It's hard to divorce a song made popular through a movie from said movie, but in doing so, Carpenter Brut gave new life to "Maniac," by giving it a facelift and making it appropriately frenzied for its name. Just as "the dancer becomes the dance" through Michael Sembello's lyrics, the mania comes to reside in the listener upon hearing this darksynth cover.


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