Hello, friends. We hope you are enjoying our little dedication to the history of cover art in heavy metal. We hope it’s extra fun for you that we aren’t just writing about art we love, but that we have mercilessly pitted these covers against each other in single-elimination gladiatorial combat. After all, just writing about great art without a gimmick wouldn’t be much fun, now would it? Of course it would (not), but that’s just not (is) us.
This tournament started only a week ago, and already the original field has been hanged, drawn, and (literally) quartered to only 16 contestants. The biggest casualty this time appears to be thrash, with classic albums from the States, Europe, and South America all facing the axe.
But that is how it appears. In truth, a single person felt the blade more than anyone else this round: Michael Whelan. The creator of art for countless unforgettable metal albums and fantasy books (sometimes both at once) is decapitated no fewer than three times within. He entered the tournament with three hopefuls, and all three survived the initial round, giving hope that at least one of his covers would survive long into the tournament. But alas! He has been completely culled, along with 13 others, to which we pay homage below.
Region 1 is beginning to partly resemble a peasant uprising. While the top two seeds remain alive, a couple of lower-seeded albums are coming for them. First is #5-seeded Kosmonument by Olli Kiviluoto, which knocked off a classic Bathory cover for a date with #1 overall seed Don’t Break the Oath. But the real Cinderella story of this region is #11-seed Arcturian, which knocked off one of the Whelan casualities in King of the Dead. For his troubles, Costin Chioreanu now gets to face the triumvirate of Eddie the Head, Derek Riggs, and Iron Maiden.
Last one in closes the coffin door…
#3 Seed: Cirith Ungol – King of the Dead
Artist: Michael Whelan (originally the cover for Michael Moorcock’s The Bane of the Black Sword novel)
It has been suggested by some of my terrible idiot friends colleagues that Frost and Fire is the superior Cirith Ungol cover. Both Michael Whelan pieces are superlative (though neither is as great as Whelan’s Chaos A.D. art!), but King of the Dead is better not because King of the Dead is the better album (although it is, by a tremendous margin), but because the painting absolutely nails so much of musty ol’ heavy metal’s creaky aesthetic: swords, heroes, goblins, gigantic undead skeleton kings, and an all-around straight-faced commitment to such pulpy exploits. Truly, Whelan is master of the pit. [Dan Obstkrieg]
#4 Seed: Bathory – Blood Fire Death
Artist: Peter Nicolai Arbo (Åsgårdsreien, 1872)
Boy, if this would have been a contest of which music best suits a piece of classic art, the results would have been different. Listening to “Odens Ride over Nordland” is enough for anyone to agree Quorthon’s selection of Peter Nicolai Arbo’s Asgårdsreien was the perfect choice for Bathory’s iconic switch to the viking sound of heavy metal that came to full form on Hammerheart. In fact, Asgårdsreien may have helped inspire aspects of the new genre itself. [Konrad Kantor]
#7 Seed: Megadeth – Peace Sells… But Who’s Buying?
Artist: Edward Repka
Much has been made of the relationship between Iron Maiden and Derek Riggs, but the most crucial relationship between band and artist in all of metal is that between Megadeth and Ed Repka. If that sounds far-fetched, let me put it to you this way: Megadeth only has two great albums, and Repka did the cover for both. Coincidence? I think not. For those of you born at the tail end or after the cold war, the Peace Sells cover might seem a little cryptic. You see back in the old days, the Russians were the evil nemesis of the good old U. S. of A. Actually, now that I think about it, you probably get the gist. Mutually assured destruction is the grim joke of the Peace Sells cover. But where some see a lifeless and very orange wasteland, Old Vic Rattlehead sees opportunity. [Jeremy Morse]
#9 Seed: Black Sabbath – Sabbath Bloody Sabbath
Artist: Drew Struzan
A kid with good debating skills in the 1970s could probably successfully argue to his or her parents that Black Sabbath was not a “Satanic band.” The argument could probably stick until the release of Sabbath Bloody Sabbath in 1974. This is the most overt album cover of its time, and is only rivaled by Witchcraft Destroys Minds & Reaps Souls by Coven for its open nods to Satanism. The 666 leering defiantly above a bed of orgy participants swooning in ecstasy was illustrated by Drew Struzan, who would later go on to illustrate over 150 movies posters and at least 30 album covers. [Dave Schalek]
As of this round, Region II has no upstarts challenging giants and no Cinderella stories. The top four seeds will all be alive for the Sweet Six(66)teen. On one hand, this lack of surprises could be seen as a disappointment. On the other hand, the next round will feature Death versus Judas Priest and Iron Maiden versus Black Sabbath.
DEATH. JUDAS PRIEST. IRON MAIDEN. BLACK SABBATH.
#5 Seed: Deathspell Omega – Fas – Ite, Maledicti, in Ignem Aeternum
Artist: Timo Ketola
Upon initial glance, the curious artwork for Deathspell Omega’s follow up to Si Monvmentvm Reqvires, Circvmspice and Kénôse does not exactly bring the words “Go, Accursed, into Everlasting Fire” to mind. After all, isn’t metal supposed to be about skeletons, witches, wraiths, flames and SATAN? With many of Fas‘s more elaborate “spiritual” concepts directly drawing from post-surrealists like Georges Bataille, many wrote this band off as being nothing but pretense in a half empty glass. Others heralded the mostly anonymous band as the champions of extreme metal. With the truth being somewhere in between, there’s no denying just how thought-provoking Deathspell’s depiction of man falling from grace truly is. [Konrad Kantor]
#6 Seed: Nuclear Assault – Game Over
Artist: Edward Repka
It’s 1986 that Edward J. Repka, under the name Ed Repka, created the iconic cover for Game Over. Nuclear holocaust, gore, and explosions have gone hand-in-hand with killer thrash albums ever since. The burning city. The fear, the zombies and the general post-apocalyptic nature of the cover are what make it so special. Also, the liberal use of red, orange and yellow shading created a stark standout from the dark blues and black commonly gracing the shelves of your local shop. It’s a cover that is strong enough to result in a blind purchase on cover strength alone. [Manny-O-War]
#7 Seed: Mastodon – Leviathan
Artist: Paul Romano
Okay, so maybe this wasn’t a fair nomination, because in order to get the full scope of Paul Romano’s lurid aquatic vision, you really need to see the complete painting, not just the portion visible on Leviathan’s front cover. The white whale towering up out of the depths to shatter Ahab’s ship to timbers is eye-catching enough, but the framing of that conflict in the larger piece – between fiery skies and teeming waters – presents the theme as elemental rather than situational. Mastodon, too, summoned their most apocalyptic vision with Leviathan, and with Romano’s crucial assist split their lungs with triumph. [Dan Obstkrieg]
#8 Seed: Kreator – Pleasure to Kill
Artist: Phil Lawvere
Kreator is a comical band. No matter how many decent lyrics Mille Petrozza writes about the modern world, there was always a bit of a comical escapism from his voice and their absurd thrashing heft. This is why Phil Lawvere’s cover for Pleasure to Kill is so perfect: it looks like, is shaped like, and even behaves like a comic book. The ludicrously muscled mascot guy looks like any number of superheroes, but look closely at the skeletons to see the real trick. Are they attacking? Worshiping? Thinking of retreat? Our main character is the only figure present that is sure of its purpose, which is to kill, with pleasure. (Interesting note: evidently Lawvere and Kreator aren’t exactly on good terms regarding them making money off of his artwork on merchandise.) [Zach Duvall]
In the battle of Seagrave versus Seagrave, Seagrave won… and lost. His complex, bonkers art for Effigy of the Forgotten took out his equally bonkers, blue-enough-to-be-by-Necrolord art for The Key, and now he naturally faces the actual Necrolord when he goes up against In the Nightside Eclipse. Elsewhere in Region 3, H.R. Giger’s Satan I stays alive against poor Michael Whelan to earn a date with some Sad Wings. Demons in top hats or burning angel wings, who ya got?
Abandon all hope, ye who exit here…
#4 Seed: Sepultura – Arise
Artist: Michael Whelan
Crab claws, eyeballs, great walls, yowling maws, alien shrooms, a lonely noose, a tortured martyr, one smoldering brain, and hell, why not throw bloody Stonehenge smack dab in the middle to REALLY get the cheeched heshers something to wangle about while sinking into the cushions and getting whipped by riffs. According to Michael Whelan, Arise was “a chance to experiment and have fun.” Job well done, Mr. Whelan. 15 Hugos, 300+ book and magazine covers and the Science Fiction Hall of Fame are all nice, but being the apple of thrashlord eyes worldwide must be the true feather in the cap, no? [Michael Wuensch]
#6 Seed: Neurosis – Times of Grace
Artist: Bob McDonald
While the artwork for Times of Grace looks like it could have easily been drawn up with a marker on a paper napkin at a fast food restaurant, the perfect placement of both its fonts and imagery makes it the most recognizable and iconic cover in what is a stellar discography of album artwork. In addition to perfect image placement, Times of Grace has a subtle yet striking amount of texture, not unlike a wooden carving. Most of all, the artwork and the band itself share the common element that makes them both so great: they’re fucking loud! [Konrad Kantor]
#7 Seed: Nocturnus – The Key
Artist: Dan Seagrave
Ahhh, to be a fly on the wall during the conversation between Mike Browning and Dan Seagrave when Mike unveiled the intention of a concept album about a cyborg that goes back in time to destroy Christianity. And really, who better to paint that picture in 1990 than the dude who already had his name attached to bands like Morbid Angel, Carnage and Entombed? Incorporating keyboards into death metal back then was completely preposterous, but getting Seagrave to portray an evil android using a pentagram key to jump back to Bethlehem in order to destroy the manger certainly was not. [Michael Wuensch]
#8 Seed: Obituary – Cause of Death
Artist: Michael Whelan (Lovecraft’s Nightmare B, 1981)
Originally slated for the cover of Sepultura’s Beneath the Remains, Michael Whelan’s Lovecraft’s Nightmare B ended up on Obituary’s Cause of death. (Lovecraft’s Nightmare A, incidentally, was used for Demolition Hammer’s Epidemic of Violence.) Sepultura wasn’t too happy about the switch, but ultimately the dark, macabre imagery is a better fit for what is Obituary’s darker, heavier and more horrifying music. It is also fitting that what is arguably, Obituary’s best album is matched with, inarguably, its best cover art. That deformed pupil still creeps me out. [Jeremy Morse]
Let’s face it, Transilvanian Hunger being in this tournament was a nice story, but it wasn’t going to last, especially not when it had to go up against Dan Seagrave. Altars of Madness moving on keeps hopes of an all-Seagrave championship game alive, by the way. Wouldn’t that be both cool, and fitting? Also, how about a lineup featuring a cover full of public nudity versus a cover drowning a priest? Not to be all “hey, man, that’s pretty metal,” but uh… hey man, that’s pretty metal.
Ring for their damnation, these albums are at the gallows end…
#3 Seed: Candlemass – Nightfall
Artist: Thomas Cole (part of The Voyage of Life, 1842)
Although we tried to stick as much as possible to original album covers in our nominations, the resonance between Candlemass’s crowning triumph and the 150-year old painting by Thomas Cole was too stirring to ignore. Cole’s four-painting sequence from 1840 is called The Voyage of Life, and it’s not hard to imagine why Marcolin, Edling, & co. wanted to use the “Old Age” painting when you recall the magical crescendo of “Samarithan”: “The first one she said to me, ‘Don’t be afraid’…” Just like Nightfall itself, the romantic painting evokes awe, mystery, terror, beauty. Ring the bells, brothers and sisters… [Dan Obstkrieg]
#5 Seed: Motörhead – Orgasmatron
Artist: Joe Petagno
In 1986, Motörhead was in a state of flux. Coming off the original lineup’s lowpoint in Iron Fist and odd-but-not-terrible sidestep Another Perfect Day, it was unclear where Lemmy would go next. Even before hearing the album, just the cover image of Orgasmatron had to give fans confidence. What could possibly better represent the speed and power of Motörhead than a train blazing so fast that it is turning red from heat? Nothing, I say, and Joe Petagno’s timeless image of The Snaggletooth Express (©) was an unparalleled statement of confidence that matched perfectly with this classic album’s unparalleled swagger. [Zach Duvall]
#7 Seed: Sleep – Dopesmoker (2012 reisse)
Artist: Arik Roper
How does one create a cover for an album about nothing but weed that says “heavy metal” but doesn’t come across as ridiculously tacky? Arik Roper did it by turning to Dune for inspiration. A caravan of desert dwellers treks slowly across an arid plain, their custom designed drug-paraphernalia backpacks making sure not a single ounce of THC is wasted. The giant reverberating fuzz of Sleep’s guitars drones in their ears, making the entire trip an unintelligible yet irresistible haze that one must push through just to see what’s on the other side. [K. Scott Ross]
#9 Seed: Darkthrone – Transilvanian Hunger
Artist: Tania Stene
I know what you’re thinking, that this cover isn’t so much good as it is iconic. Calm down, I agree with you. But, it’s so iconic, and so recognizable that it deserves a place in the pantheon of best covers. Every black metal warrior from here to Lake Titicaca has appropriated some aspect of this cover for their demo tape. The simplicity of the cover amplifies the black metal anguish and creates a sense of longing that is often overshadowed by overdone artwork. Sure, it’s not the best “art” but it’s iconic as fuck. [Manny-O-War]
Later this week, the field gets sliced to a mere eight.