Giants have fallen. With the round of eight — the Execrable Eight — if you will, giants have fallen. Three of the original four top seeds do not survive to advance to the Fatal Four, but these defeated works of art are not just important to our writers, our readers, these bands, or these albums. No, they are important for their place in metal history. Each was influential or part of a major era’s style, donning a classic album while adding to its legacy.
As you will read below, we hold these artworks in massive esteem. Some of our elder writers remember seeing these illustrations in full vinyl-sized splendor before even hearing a note of the music. It was a different era, to be sure. Not better, not worse, just different. The resurgence of vinyl has most likely brought a lot of attention back to album art, with record store shelves again packed with new albums attracting eyes with 12×12 art. (This is what movie detectives would call “a hunch,” as I don’t have any empirical evidence to back it up.) Achieving a purer analog isn’t the only reason that modern music collectors are shelling out a few more bucks for the waxy version. Bands are even using vinyl reissues as chances to replace the unfortunate original art of an album with something far better.
Below, you will find the latest casualties, which are fewer in number but greater in stature.
The end, and with it immortal glory, is in sight.
Sometimes the most likely thing is exactly what occurs, and in Region I, the number one overall seed has ridden its path of dominance all the way to the Fatal Four. In doing so, it has eliminated perhaps the single most pure and iconic image of the Iron Maiden mascot Eddie the Head. Not even Eddie’s axe could escape the fiery demon at the heart of Don’t Break the Oath. Can anything else?
There is nothing innocent about the exile to which the great Killers is banished…
#2 Seed: Iron Maiden – Killers
Artist: Derek Riggs
Though Derek Riggs did the cover for the first Iron Maiden album, it was based on an existing piece entitled Electric Matthew Says Hello, which makes Killers the first Iron Maiden album to feature all-original Derek Riggs art. (It should be noted, however, that Riggs did original art for several of Maiden’s singles previous to Killers, many of which are iconic in their own right.) There is no denying that Killers is a cover in much the same vein as its predecessor –- both feature Eddie in a moonlit urban landscape — but in every way the successor is superior. Instead of the background being dominated by a brick wall, we get multi-story buildings with back-lit curtains adding color, and a wider view of the cloudy night sky. In every aspect, the lines are firmer, and the details richer. The most important difference of all, of course, is Eddie himself: Where Electric Matthew was a menacing enough character, Killers features Eddie fully realized, looking straight at you with a wide sinister grin and showing no shame or fear of being caught in the midst of red-hatcheted murder of the most brutal sort.
In many ways the Killers cover represents the state of Iron Maiden at the time. With Paul Di’Anno on the mic, Iron Maiden sounded feral, street-wise and dangerous, but with the addition of Adrian Smith on guitar, the band also had its most potent and accomplished line-up of the pre-Dickinson era. As time would go on, Riggs’ depictions of Eddie would grow more cartoonish and sometimes a bit campy, and the band’s music would loose much of its punkish edge (Though certainly much was gained to take its place.). Killers, however, captures a band that was, in a certain way, at a certain time, perfect. [Jeremy Morse]
But Riggs and Iron Maiden would not be denied total entry into the upper eschelon, no way. With Powerslave, Riggs and Maiden have taken out another legendary team in Death and Repka, not to mention another top seed. In the end, the gods and pharaohs of ancient Egypt proved too powerful for the nuclear (pink) wasteland and its heavily irradiated victim. Will Powerslave have what it takes to take the title, when so much of the Last Rites staff disagrees on what is the greatest Iron Maiden art?
It fought valiantly, but it is time to pull the plug on Leprosy…
#1 Seed: Death – Leprosy
Artist: Edward Repka
With few peers and even fewer betters, Ed Repka is an artist every fan of heavy metal knows and (hopefully) loves, even if they’re not a fan of the particular genre off-shoots his art most often depicts. His career has been built on a foundation that emphasizes frighteningly realistic nightmares with varying degrees of whimsy, but what puts this nutcase on the absolute top shelf has always been his fearless color palette. “Bold abuse of color” are four words that have often been used to describe Repka, and I’m sure I’m far from alone with my sincere wish that I could have been present during that first sit-down meeting where Scott Burns showed them Death fellers Repka’s ultimate rendering of Leprosy. The early sketches (included in the remastered version, by the way) were, of course, sans color, and they portrayed the doomed protagonist in a much more sinister light. The final product, however, turns the narrative on its head. Any semblance of malevolence is exchanged for a prevailing sense of tragedy in that lonesome eye, and the assertive use of pink is absolutely genius, not only because of its buck-wild uniqueness, but also by virtue of giving the overall vibe an intense sickness. If you were lucky enough to be a metal fan in the late 80s always on the lookout for the next extreme, you literally had NO CHOICE but to pick this record up to see what the hell was going on. Unparalleled in its weirdness and singularity, Ed Repka’s Leprosy is a bullet-proof example of flawless execution from start to finish.[Michael Wuensch]
As we head into the Fatal Four, Necrolord is as close to a tournament Cinderella as we have left. After all, the merely 3-seed status of In the Nightside Eclipse is downright lowly compared to the previous domination of To Mega Therion. Not only that, but this is H.R. Giger we’re talking about here, a giant of both the music and movie industries. The guy literally created the visual style for one of the most important movie franchises of all time. But even Giger can be taken down, and that is exactly what Necrolord’s fantastical (blue), orc-filled (blue), nightmarish (blue), mountainous (blue) and blue realm has done.
New kingdoms will indeed arise, but they will be neither Celtic nor Frosty…
#1 Seed: Celtic Frost – To Mega Therion
Artist: H.R. Giger (Satan I, 1977)
The cover painting is entitled Satan I, and the gatefold painting is entitled Victory III. Both artworks are by the late Swiss surrealist H.R. Giger. By the time of the release of To Mega Therion in 1986, Giger had already won an Oscar for Alien. The story behind the use of Satan I and Victory III is a famous one, and is detailed in Tom G. Warrior’s retrospective/semi-autobiography Only Death Is Real.
The release of To Mega Therion was a watershed event for a number of reasons, not the least of which was the use of these artworks. Here we have perhaps the first intersection of fine art and extreme metal; at least, in terms of the cover. This was a game changer, and it resulted in black and death metal being taken far more seriously as art, rather than as just a form of rebellious, underground music. The use of these paintings perfectly complements the serious direction that Warrior was trying to achieve.
Although just as iconic, there’s a reason, in my opinion, why you don’t see Black Metal, Bathory, and In The Sign Of Evil being taken into consideration for inclusion in this tournament. The reason is To Mega Therion and Giger’s artworks far outstrip anything else seen previously on a first wave black metal album cover. Admittedly, Satan I and Victory III are not my favorite paintings by Giger. For example, the top hats of Satan I elicited a few snorts of derision behind the scenes here at Last Rites. But, in metal, there are no other paintings by Giger that are more important. [Dave Schalek]
Another top seed downed and another bracket background made obsolete. But more than that, the elmination of Altars of Madness means that the great Dan Seagrave will not be taking part in the last rounds of this tournament. Dio mascot Murray has vanquished Seagrave with the same ruthlessness wish which he took care of that poor priest. As a reward, Murray, Randy Berret, and RJD earn a fateful date with Don’t Break the Oath. Have fun.
Dead! Altars is dead! Fools! Altars is dead!…
#1 Seed: Morbid Angel – Altars of Madness
Artist: Dan Seagrave
For the longest time, I thought the cover for Altars of Madness depicted a portal, something opened by arcane spells orchestrated at the very altars of which the album title speaks. Those faces then, the tortured (and wonderfully cartoony) images were souls that had been trapped in some other realm, and would forever experience insanity, torture, and you know, madness. According to artist Dan Seagrave, it is instead “a flat disc of fossil material that has captured souls.”
So I was partly right. Souls are suffering. And what a bounty and variety of souls they are. Within that disc are demons and madmen and jokers and ghouls and ogres (and Methodists!) and everything else that is unimaginably threatening and demented. Everything is so perfectly woven; eye sockets become cheek bones become chins become jaws become foreheads become utterly inhuman sets of teeth. And surrounding this disc, this ancient Ghostbusters trap, is an aura and barely contained emanation of power. This thing is going to burst, and when it does, it’ll be real wrath of God type stuff, fire and brimstone coming down from the skies, the dead rising from the grave, human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together… mass hysteria!
Even if my opinion of this being some portal to a devil realm proved to be untrue, it’s still hard to not view the Altars of Madness art as a gateway of sorts. After all, this was the first time that (a merely 18-year-old) Seagrave had illustrated a cover for death metal, and he would go on to illustrate the covers for countless genre classics afterwards. This was a watershed moment for heavy metal not just musically, but visually. From this point on, the visual style of Seagrave and his typically less talented imitators would go hand-in-hand with death metal. [Zach Duvall]
Ladies and gentlemen, the Fatal Four is set…