In heavy metal history, the visual imagery that goes on album covers has long been almost as iconic as The Riff itself. The work of a particular artist becomes permanently associated with a band to the point where fans cry foul when that relationship is severed (of course, this didn’t help). Several bands have gone so far as to add a mascot to their album art. Really! It isn’t just Iron Maiden, but also Darkthrone and Iced Earth and Megadeth and more!
But beyond these mascots and dedicated styles are the places that art takes our minds long before we even drop the needle down. Be it a far away, fantasy landscape, images of gore and the grotesque, or an attempt provide poignant, intelligent visual art to poignant, intelligent music, most album art is permanently attached to the music in our minds. Hell, most of the time the art is our first impression of the album. Nearly everyone that I personally know has bought music based purely on the art, a habit that has no doubt died some in the age when one only has to go online to get a musical sampling, but even on Soundcloud and Bandcamp the art is right there to fuse with your impression of the music.
In honor of this great tradition, and of the artists themselves, we present to you The Last Rites Cover Art Tournament, our own little version of March Madness. The purpose is simple, to answer the question: What is the greatest heavy metal album art of all the times? No biggie, right?
The methodology was equally simple. We all submitted our favorite album covers in all of metaldom to form our full slate of 64 contestants. Emphasis was placed not only on images that are iconic due to the quality of the music represented (although there are many cases of that), but also on the quality of the art, the influence it had on setting the imagery for a scene, and just how damn well it fits the music. We did not necessarily limit nominations to art that was created originally for the albums, but as you will see, the vast majority of hopefuls are originals.
And now, we will vote, likely finding petty reason to temporarily hate each other because of our personal attachment to art on an album we hold dear. But hey, that’s what we do most of the time; we get together based on our mutual interests, and then spend the entire time arguing about them. Always fun, especially with whiskey.
Below you will find all 64 contestants and the starting brackets. Over the coming weeks we will reveal the winners of each match-up, running parallel to the NCAA Tournament.
And sorry, no First Four bullshit in this tournament. We don’t get enough marketing revenue to justify such frivolity.
The first region including the number 1 overall seed, Thomas Holm’s iconic artwork for Mercyful Fate‘s classic Don’t Break the Oath. Also included are one of the two Iron Maiden covers in the tournament, some disgusting works of old school death metal and Teutonic thrash, and appearances by some of the more prolific cover artists of recent memory, Costin Chioreanu and Paolo Girardi. Oh, plus some Sabbath, solo Ozzy, and a huge black smudge.
This glorious collection of varying and fantastical ‘eavy album art yields the bracket of gladatorial combat detailed below. Will any young upstart topple a legendary classic? Will we see the beginning of a tournament Cinderella (but not Cinderfella)? To the victor, the spoils!
Region II is topped by one of Edward Repka’s unmistakeable Death covers, the ultra pink, looks-great-in-all-over-print Leprosy. But right behind it in seeding are the first ever heavy metal album, one of Iron Maiden’s most iconic covers, and a little album called Screaming for Vengeance. After that? Everything from the weird to the comic book to the grotesque to the bubble-gum-boobed. Plus, with that Giant Squid, the bonus of some art from a guy who’s actually in the band.
How will this region proceed? Could the bold colors of Minoans possibly topple the bold colors of Leprosy? Will Destruction feel the Agony of defeat when Nuclear Assault sends them a Game Over? Will the pure muscle of that Kreator cover be able to get past the truly Ominous Inquisition art? Only the strongest shall survive!
The third region of our artistic arena is headlined by not only one of the most famous covers in metal history, but also the emotional weight of the relationship behind it. The friendship that started when a young Tom G. Warrior contacted H.R. Giger is now the stuff of metal legend, but back then it was unthought of that a giant of Giger’s stature would allow a tiny Swiss band to use his art. Stories are nice and all, but for To Mega Therion to take its #1 seed status to the Fatal Four, it’ll need to overcome 2x Seagrave, Necrolord, Whelan, and much, much more.
Behold the bracket of Region The Third. What horrors await as these battles unfold? Could the subtle horrors of Atra Mors prove too monstrous for even “Satan I”? Who will win the battle of Lovecrafian terror between Obituary and The Great Old Ones? Will this bracket provide a vehicle for Dan Seagrave’s ride all the way to The Fatal Four? Let the games begin!
In 1989, Dan Seagrave’s famous cover for Altars of Madness must have looked like a gateway to an alternate dimension; an alternate dimension spewing forth its death metal legions unto the world. For this, it is no surprise that it is our final #1 seed. But in Seagrave’s path are Lovecraftian horrors, True Norwegian Black Metal, gates opening, virtuous mothers, The Snaggletooth Express, and one of the best reissue covers ever. Oh, also Holy Diver. Should be easy.
Shall this region reveal itself to be the ultimate depiction of chaos? How shall the old school grotesquery of Reign in Blood fare against the modern disturbance of The Mother of Virtues? Could an image as simple as Transilvanian Hunger defeat such intricacies from The Antisphere? Gaze upon the battles that shall determine this region’s entrant into the Fatal Four and despair!
Stay with us over the coming weeks as these grand apocalyptic battles unfold. We hope you’ll have as much fun going along with us as we will arguing it out. Besides, this is bound to be far less disappointing for your favorites than the actual NCAA Tournament.