Heavy metal is, first and foremost, sound. Such is the truth for all music, but it’s also so much more. For example, with each style comes, well, style. Michigan’s Fab 5 was inextricably linked to the hip-hop culture of the time, shitty pop country artists wear shitty plastic cowboy hats and sell them to their shitty fans, the grunge scene might as well have taken place within a flannel shirt, and metalheads – if you’ve never noticed – like black t-shirts and denim vests overloaded with band patches. There’s even a book about it.
Album art is part of this style, of this culture. At one point it might have actually been the source of it, although it’s been such a chicken and egg situation for so long that it’s probably a fool’s errand trying to pinpoint the first time someone stitched cover art onto a jacket. Just try to imagine Iron Maiden without decades of Derek Riggs doing their art. His visuals – and his various Eddies – are so linked to their music, the culture around their music and live shows, and their branding that it’s impossible (and even a mite unnerving) to imagine them apart. There’s even a book about it.
Think back to the first time you saw Eddie pulling ol’ Lucifer’s strings on The Number of the Beast, the murderous implications of Kill ’em All, or the simple horror of the self-titled Sabbath record that started it all. When several members of the Last Rites crew first saw John Martin’s incredible painting being used for While Heaven Wept’s Vast Oceans Lachrymose we simply stared in awe. Imagine death metal without Dan Seagrave. Imagine Tom G. Warrior without H.R. Giger. Imagine What’s Going On without the rain and that searching look on Marvin’s face. Imagine Born in the U.S.A. without The Boss’s fit ass. You can’t do it!
Album art obviously sets the tone for our perception of the music before we hear the soundwaves (or at least it does for the type of decent humans that still digest music in album form). Inappropriate art might give a misconception of the tone or emotion, while bad art might have a fan dreading upcoming music. At the same time, consistently bad art on the albums of great bands might eventually become points of endearment. Any big music fan that claims to have never been swayed one way or the other by album art is a goddamn liar. A goddamn liar, I say!
Cover art is also – and this is an incredibly important point – the work of artists. There are humans behind those images. Shocking! I like to do some art. I’m not very good at it, but I like to do it. Even making mediocre art for personal fun is a lot of work, and creating the kinds of visuals that often adorn our favorite music is an extremely time-consuming and painstaking process. The brushstrokes on the final image may only have taken 50 hours, but the research, trial and error, and time spent finding inspiration might have taken twice that amount of time. Peeking into the process itself is also often fascinating. (That’s another of my favorites from this year. Looks glorious on a t-shirt. Hello and how are you, Caroline. Thank you for the fashion.)
The point: these people deserve our praise and thanks. They help to shape our perceptions of music while also providing the looks that we sport when gathering en masse to celebrate tunes, friends, and drinks. In that spirt, we’ve chosen some of our favorite album art from 2020. These might have struck us due to their sheer artistic beauty, appropriateness for each album, or our desire to eventually have them sewn onto a vest (looking at you, Ryan and Freeways). The point is that they struck us in some way, and we like to give a shout out to our palette pals out there. [ZACH DUVALL]
Have you ever been on the open road? I mean really out there, counting the miles as they pass as you’re burning fuel across empty lands with nothing on your mind. It’s too early to start thinking about your destination, no. That kind of thinking when you’re over a thousand hard miles out from the goal sends you into a tailspin of anxiety at the sheer desolate asphalt before you. No, this is a time for good tunes, self-reflection, and wondering when you’ll be hungry enough to temporarily abandon your highway quest and pull over for a bite to eat. The cover art to True Bearings seems like something hanging up in a roadside diner way out in the wastes, the kind of place with checkered tablecloths, pie on the counter, and rarely witnesses patronage outside of anyone with less highway experience than the “road dog” class. What a perfect album cover for a band that makes those miles seem like yards. Of course, we’re referring to Ontario’s own Freeways.
The artwork so perfectly captures not only the feeling of the band, but the freedom of a big mover out on the open road. The steady stride of a rolling highway uninterrupted by the woes of traffic, nothing but the driver and the pavement. It’s not quite photorealistic – there are a few exaggerations in the artwork, particularly on the front end of the Winnebego, but it’s just enough to add to the feeling of the size of the wide, open range vehicle. The vintage paint scheme on the camper reflects the spirit of Freeways with their throwback rock ‘n’ roll swagger. While not exactly photo-realistic, the artwork is very honest in its portrayal of the imagery. The soft lines and gentle coloration make it all the more comforting, and the Winnebago just pops against the ice-blue backdrop. It’s an inviting cover, begging the observer to slip the record out of the sleeve and onto the platter of the turntable and off on a whirlwind, free spirited journey through the icy Canadian highway system. [RYAN TYSINGER]
AGHY R. PURAKUSUMA
At first glance, the cover for Stillbirth’s seventh full-length appears to be pretty standard bloody fare for a death metal band. The pseudo-mechanized gladiators sawing each other apart even act as a nice Warhammer 40K ode to Bolt Thrower. Allow your eyes to move above these armor-clad gut spillers, however, and you’ll find a bevy of hidden Easter-egg characters that further nod to the hint-hint, wink-wink brand of nonsense the band is partial to in their lyrics and sound.
Directly above the battle is a man inexplicably wearing a baseball cap in colosseum times serving up some sort of gutted and fried varmint. Head to the right in the same row and you’ll find Goro from Mortal Kombat quadruple-fisting massive beers. Just above him to the left, you’ll find a fish monster smoking a cigar. But, their finest achievement may just be the meme-ification of the cover art by adding smudge the cat silently judging from the left-hand corner. I highly encourage you to track down a physical copy of the release, so you can enjoy all the silliness that can be found on the full piece created by Aghy Purakusuma, including Jason Voorhees smoking a bong. To call a slam band ignorant has always bee a form of compliment and it is a delight to find an example of art that so perfectly captures the genre’s ignant-ass nature. [SPENCER HOTZ]
There are several reasons why I went with the art adorning Dark Tranquillity’s latest for one of my cover choices this year. First, it was done by former guitarist (and at one time one of their main songwriters) Niklas Sundin, who has been creating increasingly cool visuals for their music in recent years. Second, the sci-fi imagery is perfect for a band with so much sheen and futurism in their music. It also stokes the imagination, leaving a viewer wondering about this lone figure, this alien world, and that big fireball coming from the sky.
But the main reason I chose it? It’s just intensely cool. Sundin’s graphical style – which isn’t far off from that of another great in Costin Chioreanu – is as appropriately polished and precise as the band’s music, while I can’t imagine a better choice of colors for such an image. That streak of blue, like some sort of exoplanet lava that solidified suddenly mid-flow, adds so much to the yellow-orange-red hues of the rest of it. And the bar running down the middle, be it a transportation field or some sort of malevolent force of destruction (why are there words hidden in there?) ties the whole thing together. Even Sundin’s choice to have the whole thing dripping into the abyss below is a nice touch of surrealism.
Super cool. Wicked cool. Cool. [ZACH DUVALL]
Even when the album art isn’t necessarily great, you can always count on the cover of a Fates Warning album to give you a reliable sense of the mood and feeling inside. The album cover art for Fates Warning’s 2020 release, Long Day Good Night, happens to be the former and do the latter, perhaps better than any other album in their venerable catalog.
Commissioned to British artist and illustrator, Patrick Atkins, the art on Long Day Good Night reflects the music of the album in so many wonderful ways. The contrast between light and dark and, more importantly, the blending of them, recognizes their interdependence in a life of full experiences. The texture employed, a hallmark of Atkins’ work, especially underscores the importance of how we process those experiences and the notion that, depending on one’s perspective, where focus is centered, which detail might be highlighted under a given circumstance, the sense of what’s happening and what it implies will be at least a little different.
The composition of Atkins’ piece is so important and uncannily reflects that of the music it signifies. The simple figure looking into the sunset somehow conveys a thoughtfulness, a contemplation of what’s beheld. Behind the figure, its shadow is cast on the wall of a humble home, posing the plain and profound question of which position more accurately represents the figure’s place. Is it to the horizon, the wide open, to chase the sun? Or is it behind, where structure and stability provide safe station. Can it be both? Does it even matter? [LONE WATIE]
The artist behind this (Lauren Gornik) also handled the cover art for the brilliant Midnight Dice EP released in 2020. And, while these two covers are very different, they are both excellent. The point here is that Lauren is crazy talented when it comes to illustrating album covers (as well as racing fliers, comic covers, etc.). But, you ask, why are we highlighting the Sölicitör in particular? For starters, this cover has a frame on it which is basically my kryptonite. Second, it’s not even a straight up, boring square-inside-a-square type border. Instead, it’s got little angles that help situate the illustration inside the red border. Also, the red of the border ties in the red logo to the high contrast illustration in the background. Thus, we don’t end up with the frequent disaster of an album cover with a band logo haphazardly hurled into the mix by the layout editor just before they print. So all credit to Annick Giroux (layout) and Lauren Gornik for that beauty.
All of that belies the fact that the illustration back there is fucking badass. Sure, there are skulls, skulls on fire, zombie skulls glaring at you out of zombie hunger and plenty of sludgy grossness in which they can muck and mire their way towards their next meal (which is you). And sure, there is some awesome badass speed metal queen made out of lightning and energy to command those zombie troops. But above all it’s the attention to detail that makes the Sölicitör album cover stand out. It’s the fine line work on the brick building mixed with the thick marker work of the ooze. It’s the balance of the dark, dark blacks and the year-old semen tone of the grayish-whites. The piece is cohesive, visually exciting and altogether a perfect take on an older, sadly misplaced style of speed metal covers. More of this please.
Curious about the music that matches that beautiful cover? Check out our review! [MANNY-O-LITO]
Zbigniew Bielak may not be a familiar name for you, but chances are you have seen his work with a number of high-profile bands in recent years, including Ghost, Paradise Lost, and Gorguts. His past work shows a penchant for extreme detail with a majority of designs sticking to black and white with sparing use of bold colors to highlight the designs. The complex detail in his past work was generally used to either create an overwhelming effect across the entire piece (Pleiades’ Dust) or form into a unified, simpler whole (The Plague Within). With Alphaville, however, Bielak’s complexities become a background that better highlights the domineering centerpiece of a towering skyscraper, whose opulence demarks a sign of rule and condescension toward its surroundings. The face on the skyscraper is actually quite similar to the one on Pleiades’ Dust, almost as if that piece was merely a blue print offered to a mad architect to create an overcrowded future version of Gotham City that would appear in a reboot of Batman Beyond.
What you see on the album cover is only about half of the full piece and it is remarkable to behold as a complete creation. Imperial Triumphant has always tried to make music that embodies the crushing extremity of a city like New York and this piece does a great job of showing a metropolis that continues to sprawl at the expense of humanity; so much so that sparse inclusions of green life at the bottom still have sharp geometric lines and if you look close enough you’ll see one of the only humans in the piece throwing themselves out of a building to die. This cover is a suffocating, complex and garishly opulent work that perfectly pairs with the band’s mission and looks to the point that it immediately brings to mind the brass masks Imperial Triumphant sport onstage. [SPENCER HOTZ]
Even though the genre is now 50 years old and sports a head-spinning amount of stylistic diversity, if I asked you to pick out, say, a half-dozen album covers that best exemplify heavy metal and have worked to solidify its iconography, if our lists didn’t look quite the same they could at least pick each other out of a lineup. A bit of Black Sabbath here, a dash of Don’t Break the Oath there, and perhaps a soupçon of Overkill or The Number of the Beast or British Steel. Can you imagine, then, if you tried to stuff as many such elements as possible into a fanatically detailed whole? That’s not quite the intent of the the cover art for Körgull the Exterminator’s Sharpen Your Spikes, but Alastor Nihilosatan’s effect is to lovingly render a fiendish range of gruesome detail from across the spectrum of heavy metal’s bulging purse of visual signifiers in this monochromatic assault on simplicity and common decency.
Of course, for a band that took their name from a Voivod song, you can see a fairly outsize influence from the timeless covers of War and Pain and Rrröööaaarrr, given the… *ahem*… rather spiky nature of so many of these lines. Although the Sharpen Your Spikes cover is almost impossible to parse at a simple glance, the lack of color actually works to really draw the viewer’s eye in to try and pull out each and every grimy scene. And although they’re not quite easter eggs, it’s hard not to feel like you’re part of a conspiratorial sort of wink when looking at that very Bolt Thrower-ish skull in the top-left border, or the somewhat doughty dwarf-like figure at the lower-right, or the slightly Left Hand Path vibe of the engraved tablet at bottom-left, or the chainmail-hooded dude straight out of the end of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade sporting a wicked nosebleed, or the eyes and hands creeping out of the triangular cave, or the nuclear waste-huffing figure with the gas mask, or, I don’t know, the HALBERD-TOTING SKELETON WARRIOR ASTRIDE A MECHANICALLY ARMORED HORSE CLUTCHING THE SEVERED HEAD OF A SLAIN FOE. This is a piece of art which says, in summation: “Heavy metal is fucking great.” Are you not entertained? [DAN OBSTKRIEG]
I’ll be the first to admit, I was one of those who thought Mariusz Lewandowski art was getting a bit overdone by the end of last year. This really isn’t a criticism against the artist, but seeing his work pop up on the covers of Atlantean Kodex, Mizmor, False, and Fuming Mouth, to name a few, began to highlight a certain repetitiveness in style and palette selection. However, there’s an undeniable larger-than-life quality in Lewandowski’s work, and the bands that chose his art similarly mirror a particular grandiose trait in their music. Of course, it’s no exception when it comes to Atramentus, whose epic debut centers around the curse of immortality as its protagonist witnesses not only the deaths of all he ever loved but the end of time on Earth itself. The looming spectre of hooded death descending over not only the warrior, but encapsulating the entirety of the landscape and the sky itself piles on the weight of the horrific drama of the album’s theme. Lewandowski’s palette choice is much more muted and somber – few oranges and yellows are used, drawing out that feeling of the dying sun’s last light and the freezing cold that envelopes the planet. The lone warrior stands broken and defeated, a minuscule remnant of uncanny life, forced to suffer through the twilight of existence as everything collapses into emptiness.
Many a great cover have been sullied by poor logo and title placement, yet the cover to Stygian ties the descriptors in well. The ornate descent of the band logo is reminiscent of the old Helheim covers, with a golden side panel adorning the empty space on the left side of the cover. Unobtrusive, yet noticeable and balanced with the artwork, this is one of the few times where the logo actually adds to the art, rather than distracting from it. The album title in the lower right corner is there, should one choose to seek it out, but doesn’t detract from the mood of the piece itself, allowing the cold, somber, emptiness of a world long dead to emanate from the brush of Lewandowski, and solidifying his place amongst the great contemporary artists that the heavy metal world keeps on speed dial. [RYAN TYSINGER]
The artwork for Ripped to Shreds’ sophomore full length is one that was destined for vinyl. The busy lower half of the artwork, along with the darkened reds and purples of the sky, make for a piece that could easily be overlooked as a thumbnail on your phone or in the corner of your Bandcamp page. What appears to simply be a warm glow in thumbnail becomes a violent warzone of carnage when it’s in your hands. Several soldiers are engulfed in varying levels of flame, a man drags his fire-ravaged body across the ground and another is seen being blown apart with his severed arm flying away. Ripped to Shreds main man, Andrew Lee, has been vocal about trying to incorporate his Asian-American heritage into a music scene that all too often permits or outright supports racism. Guang Yang brings that aspect into the cover art with the beautifully drawn lion statues as well as the architecture of the building that burns in the background. The colors are lush and blend wonderfully from the top to the bottom to create an eye-catching piece displaying a few fellows that perhaps should not have followed the motto of “fire walk with me.” This is a great example of an artist and band wanting to bring the carnage and gore typical of death metal and grindcore into a direction that is uniquely their own; and they nailed it! [SPENCER HOTZ]
The world of metal artwork is largely bereft of true art. Primarily, the covers we see are illustrations (albeit some brilliant ones) or over-touched graphic design. Frequently we the same sad ideas rehashed over and over ad nauseum until their shock value has been lost to the passage of time. When a band does opt for true art (say Panzerfaust) it’s usually a historically significant piece or a Zdzisław Beksiński or Hans Ruedi Giger ripoff. Never are those works delivered with the specific album in mind. But with Egregore (and many Sentient Ruin releases) there is an attention to artistic detail of the whole that belies the often comical nature of heavy metal’s serious business.
For the piece chosen here Lev Sloujitel (rumored to be involved in the criminally underrated 夢遊病者) has chosen to trend DARK. If you blow that image up you’ll see evidence of the obsessive compulsive, Type A personalities often connected to genius. Like some sort of anarchist Mark Rothko there are layers and layers of black and slightly-darker-black which create an organic, textured abyss upon which he renders the horrifying creature-thing meant to embody the sonic destruction of Egregore contained within. And while Lev’s work on the background shows just how much effort can go into subtlety, the main focus, that creature-thing, shows us just how successful restraint and the use of negative space can be when attempting to induce crippling fear.
The set of arms (or is it just one set of arms in motion a la Duchamp?) wrested from hell (a seeming mix of ballpoint, brushes, charcoal, pencil, photography, calligraphy and digital scans went into the summoning) and placed upon the demon’s body begin heavily-detailed (at the top) and fade into swampy terror as layers of work are stripped away revealing the stringy sinew that makes up the skeleton of the beast. There are few, if any, artists working the metal scene that understand subtlety (in addition or both organic and digital mediums) and there are even fewer that have the ability to push their understanding of history and culture into a work that can be either visually terrifying or theologically provocative (depending on the viewer). Lev Sloujitel (aka The Lev Hand Path aka Heart of a Lion aka Lionheart) might just be the one. [MANNY-O-LITO]
KEVIN E. TAYLOR
It would be easy enough to appreciate Kevin Taylor’s gorgeous art for Grayceon’s latest album on purely artistic merits. The detail on the emerging butterfly and chrysalis; the way his touch makes the butterfly appear slightly wooden, or the branch appear almost muscular; the slightly muted color palette; the fibrous look of so much of it. All signs of an artist that isn’t just immensely talented but also comfortable with his style and approach.
But the appropriateness of this cover for Grayceon goes far beyond just the beauty (although beauty and their music obviously go hand in hand). The choice of a monarch butterfly finishing its transformation is so perfect a metaphor. Few things in nature appear so miraculous to the layman’s eye, as if the metamorphosis from caterpillar to monarch is a work of magic. Grayceon’s music itself often feels magical and inexplicable, as the simple combination of cello, heavy metal guitar, drums, and vocals create a sound so much more lush, orchestrated, and emotionally deep than it would appear on paper. These elements go into their band chrysalis, and out comes a creation with as much grace and almost painful beauty as the monarch butterfly. Hard to think of a more apt representative in nature for this album and band.
Taylor’s composition also shows a similar restraint as the band, with nothing but a very light gray background behind the subject. The band wisely made their logo and album title barely visible as not to distract from the image. Far more bands should embrace such an approach. [ZACH DUVALL]
JEKYLL & HYDE
As is the case for most any band lucky enough to count twenty-plus releases to their name, Deep Purple’s art direction over the years has seen more than its fair share of ups and downs. While the bulk of the work has traveled a terrain most would consider “serviceable,” we’ve also seen everything from the utterly iconic (Burn and In Rock) to the absurdly unfortunate (Bananas and Now What?!) to the surprisingly derivative / Devinative (Infinite).
With album number twenty-one, Whoosh!, the band finally loops back to the iconic zone, thanks to a Milano, Italy graphic design firm called Jekyll & Hyde (with further assistance from Jenny Seiler.) Deep Purple has a fairly long history of relying on graphic design teams in lieu of more traditional brush & palette artists, and one of the advantages of electing for this route relates to how a graphic design firm will generally take care of everything having to do with a record’s overall look. This may not seem like such a big deal until you realize how often we’re faced with a tremendous looking commissioned artwork that ends up having the band’s logo and the album title haphazardly slapped overtop by someone who wouldn’t know cohesion if it snuck up from the sewer and bit ‘em while perched on the can.
In the case of Whoosh!, everything front-to-back looks as smooth as silk, and it’s of course crowned by an exemplary visual on the front cover that encapsulates the band’s overall concept behind the record—“the transitory nature of humanity”—in a way that makes it nearly impossible to not wonder what sort of music hides within. Jekyll & Hyde even goes so far as to tweak the 1968 version of the band’s logo in deference to the fact that Whoosh! sneaks a nod to Shades of Deep Purple by including a fresh interpretation of “And the Address.” VERY smart. And very sharp looking.
As for the image itself, what better way to depict the fleeting essence of humankind than an astronaut slowly disintegrating while in the midst of “boldly going where no one has gone before?” And yes, there’s even some, um, deep purple in the mix. Really just top-shelf design work from every angle, and something certainly fitting of a band as iconic as Deep Purple.
And hey! The record itself is pretty damn great to boot. Victories all around! [CAPTAIN]
Psychotic Waltz’s triumphant return to the progressive metal stage in early 2020 benefitted mightily from the band’s willingness to honor their past while simultaneously embracing the present and focusing keenly forward. Album art isn’t critical to a record’s success, of course, but it is often a reflection of a band’s depth of commitment to the project at hand. For A God-Shaped Void, Psychotic Waltz knew they were going all-in and that meant bringing back Travis Smith for the cover art.
Smith did the artwork on Psychotic Waltz’s last studio album, Bleeding, his approach to which was successful in capturing the band’s approach to the music. His focus on A God-Shaped Void was similar in casting his interpretation of the music in the mold of the unknown, both cosmic and cognitive. Psychotic Waltz loves to explore such themes and Smith conveys that third eye focus perfectly in his presentation of themes, both temporal and existential.
The colors and textures of the piece feel old and traditional, even as its subjects convey a futuristic, other-wordly space. The strange detritus (eyeballs and devils and angels) in the foreground points to a past that feels familiar but is barely defined in present terms, and from it rises a series of stones representing the pathway to somewhere else that may be the future, but maybe just a new interpretation of what’s been and is. And where some sense can be made of the abstractions, connections drawn between elements, strange pixelations cast even that into doubt, because of course only uncertainty is certain. [LONE WATIE]