Friends, we have arrived at the end, and what a journey it was to arrive here. We saw a King of the Dead take out Ozzy and his Ultimate Sin. Metallica’s Puppets were no masters next to Michael Whelan, who himself was ousted three times in one round. Slayer Reigned over Snaggletooth, and Eddie won a battle of mascots with Vic Rattlehead. Giger clipped some Sad Wings, while Death infected Screaming for Vengeance with Leprosy. Hell, we even had
Seagrave toppling Seagrave, only for another Seagrave to get booted later by Murray and Holy Diver.
To say that it has been a battlefield of both classic cover art and classic music would be a gross understatement, but there is one more clash to behold.
This is it. The original field of 64 heavy metal album covers is now a mere two. We have arrived at The Championship. The War for All the Marbles.
This is Godzilla vs Mechagodzilla. Kirk vs Khan. Batman vs Joker. Luke vs Vader (pt II). Rick Deckard vs Roy Batty. James Bond vs Blofeld. The Good vs The Bad (The Ugly was never much of a threat). James Bond vs Blofeld again. Sam vs Gollum. The Ghostbusters vs Gozer the Gozerian. Max Rockatansky vs Toecutter. The Bride vs Bill. Marty Mcfly vs Biff. James Bond vs Blofeld one more time. Connor MacLeod vs The Kurgan.
This is Mercyful Fate vs Emperor. Don’t Break the Oath vs In the Nightside Eclipse. Thomas Holm vs Necrolord.
And there can be only one.
Without further ado… we present the verdict.
IN THE NIGHTSIDE ECLIPSE
Region III Champion and #3 Seed
Emperor – In the Nightside Eclipse
Artist: Kristian “Necrolord” Wåhlin
Kristian Wåhlin, best known as Necrolord, is a remarkably private, quiet individual considering the influence he’s had on heavy metal. He’s painted art for one hundred ninety metal albums and counting, the vast majority of the time that art being what adorns the cover. Some bands have had their entire aesthetic shaped by Necrolord, yet his website features only a few small interviews from gallery showings, all in Swedish (a YouTube search brings up a brief interview from when he was painting the cover for In Mourning’s Afterglow, also in Swedish). Necrolord could be a celebrity among the heavy metal crowd, but he has clearly chosen to let his art speak for itself.
And speak it does. In the Nightside Eclipse invariably arises any time people start talking about the best of black metal, and this being The Internet, that happens frequently. Musically, Nightside is remarkable, and the cover art absolutely lives up to that level of notoriety and scrutiny. People know this art, and they remember it.
First, consider the color. The painting is nearly monochromatic, but it isn’t the black and white corpsepaint of a Darkthrone cover. Nor is it the simple blue stamp of Mayhem’s famous De Mysteriis. No, this painting may be mostly blue, but it’s a richness of blues. From the ice blue of the moon to the deepest navy of the forests, this painting contains depth. Consider also the slight warmth that’s allowed to creep in with the few brown tones used on the characters in the bottom left corner, just to keep all the blue feeling frigidly cold by contrast.
Second, consider the setting. A fantasy tower, some fantasy warriors approaching. It’s most likely that these Albrecht Dürer-esque warriors are orcs and the tower is Minas Morgul, the Tower of the Moon. But whether it is exactly those things or merely inspired by those things is largely immaterial, as the painting isn’t a portrait of orcs nor an architecture study. No, it’s a landscape. The orcs and the tower are the edges of the painting; they frame the main focus, which is a frozen hedgerow of trees, an impenetrable mountain range, and an infinity of angry clouds that roll away only to allow the passage of Death, the final horseman. This particular Death is a recreation of Gustave Dore’s 1865 painting that Emperor had already used as the cover of their debut self-titled EP, thus tying this painting into the history of the band as well.
Third, consider the songs themselves. “Into the Infinity of Thoughts.” “The Burning Shadows of Silence.” “Beyond the Great Vast Forest.” “The Majesty of the Nightsky.” “I Am the Black Wizards.” It’s all here in this single painting. Here the great vast forest, there the night sky. The painting feels both infinite and silent in that way that cold snowfall seems to suck the very sound from the air. And what lives in that tower if not the black wizards themselves?
Necrolord’s paintings are large and incredibly detailed. Crushing them down to the size of a CD cover does them all a disservice, particularly this one. These days, the album art is much more likely to be seen in a tiny iPod screen or compressed and mangled in a web browser somewhere. One has to consult Wåhlin’s official website to find out what the actual color balance of “In the Nightside Eclipse” is meant to be, and that image is a mere 500 by 500 pixels; not even the record companies have a properly colored version of the cover. But when you do see the art in its highest quality, the details become even more astounding. Have you spent time looking at the evil horned and eyeless faces in the woods? How about the lake and waterfall beside the tower, or the symbol mounted on the gates of the tower itself? Have you noticed that the horde of angels following Death stretches back to the horizon itself? This is a painting that one could spend hours appreciating in detail and still find something new to catch the attention the next day.
So that’s it. In the Nightside Eclipse. It fought through many contenders to make it here to the top of the tournament, and it absolutely deserves this place. Take some time and appreciate the cold blue of black metal.
[K. Scott Ross]
YOUR IMMORTAL CHAMPION:
DON’T BREAK THE OATH
Region I Champion and #1 Seed
Mercyful Fate – Don’t Break the Oath
Artist: Thomas Holm
Bands, labels and PR companies enjoy pushing heavy metal’s age-old “danger element,” even in the 21st century. But apart from the unlikely event that a band might sneak into your home and force you to listen to their new record at knife-point, it’s difficult to imagine any sort of true peril resulting from spinning something you could conceivably download from the same joint that offers bulk toilet paper and Harry Potter books, and do so while sitting in a cafe eating a cronut. Strange times, indeed.
Not the case in 1984. Metal was still young, as were the majority of its fans, and the absence of the internet’s convenience made being an enthusiast a more severe and tangible commitment. Perhaps that doesn’t seem like it should make that big a difference, but consider the following scenario: it’s 1984 and a 13-year old kid hitches a ride to the record store. He’s quickly lured into the metal LP section via the ensorcelling powers of all the Eddies, mechanized Judas Priest battle-beasts, sci-fi adventures, and the slews of slipshod Conan the Barbarians brandishing stage swords. After a few solid minutes of flipping through all the requisite genre shenanigans, he suddenly finds himself confronted by one of the single most striking representations of evil ever put to two dimensions. The dominating brilliance of those curling yellow flames mesmerizes him, and the diabolical manner in which the Devil throws that cautionary finger his direction explodes every single preventative Sunday School tale in the back of his mind into a damning wildfire. Even if the distress and complications involved in trying to hatch a plan to smuggle such a direct violation into his God-fearing parent’s home ends in a surrender with yet another Scorpions record in tow, that ruinous image is burned into his brain. And without today’s convenient online avenue for immediate fellowship to test the validity of any conceivably naive unease, he will eventually have little choice but to give in to temptation, even if he doesn’t do it that day. Don’t Break the Oath: album artwork at MAXIMUM power.
The internet, for all its wonder and facility, has lifted the veil from all of metal’s mysteries. And perhaps that was unavoidable. Human beings are perpetually inquisitive creatures driven to the point of meddling to solve our mysteries. Hell, the gratification I felt while researching what Thomas Holm has been up to since doing so much quality work for Mercyful Fate/King Diamond over the years was noticeable, but there was also the smallest sense of regret in confirming just how human Mr. Holm is. He is a wonderfully talented artist, and the breadth of his portfolio spans everything from children’s cartoons to pet portraits. So, no, as slim as the chances were, the wondrously devilish cover art for Don’t Break the Oath didn’t just rise from the flames; it was made by a man who is willing to be commissioned to airbrush a tractor on the back of your van. I guess that kid really isn’t in peril for having this record in his life all these years.
Then again, the greatest trick…
Well, that’s all, folks. We hope this has been as fun for you to read as it was (agonizing) fun for us to compile and write. Now go blast Don’t Break the Oath at maximum volume until little Ms. Wilkerson next door calls the local authorities.