No matter what your freshman English teacher once told you when she caught you sneaking Once Upon the Cross in one ear instead of listening to her drone on about Keats, heavy metal is music. Music is of course something you hear, meaning that of humankind’s five senses, heavy metal is most closely associated with sound.
What of the other four senses? Anyone that has spent a good amount of time at shows or shopping for records knows that metal can be a full sensory experience. Touch is the throbbing of the bass in your chest, the uncomfortable rub-up by a drunk stranger, or the full assault of a fun pit. Smell could be the welcoming must of a vintage record store of any of the more obvious odors associated with a reeky show (one friend of mine recently said one of the best things about a show was “fart anonymity”). Taste is probably the biggest stretch to associate with heavy metal, unless of course you love pairing a good brew with your machine gun riffs or have ever taken a mouth full of sweaty hair from someone’s headbang backswing (it happens). So yeah, metal’s association with a few of the five senses isn’t always glamorous or even within health codes. We all know this.
After sound, no other sense associates stronger with metal than sight. The lights. The stage shows. Corpsegrinder windmilling. Blurry fingers delivering 100 notes in a split second. Rock music and heavy metal are visual experiences, to be sure.
But the relationship between the sound and sight is strongest with album cover art. Long before you saw Eddie pop his head out late into a Maiden show you probably saw him standing over a corpse on the cover of Killers. Those among us that grew up in record stores or still visit them know what it’s like to blind buy something just for the art; the snider among us might even point out some bands that get more attention than their music merits based on the quality of their cover art; and countless among us have made The Molly Hatchet Mistake. Even in the digital age album art is meant as a first impression, staring at you in high resolution on Bandcamp or from your iTunes library (right, Dan?).
Album art is the result of countless hours of work by countless artists that deserve proper accolades. They provide the first visual settings for the escapism or catharsis, and like the bands themselves are just trying to get their art out there in the world to add to the total of our human expressiveness. That’s a very good thing, certainly better than anonymous farts or catching some Unidentified Mosh Pit Fluid in your mouth on accident.
Below are some of our 2021 album art favorites. As always, you’re invited to share yours along with website and Instagram links. [ZACH DUVALL]
Is there anything in black metal quite like the fabled “blue” art album covers? Emperor’s In The Nightside Eclipse, Dissection’s The Somberlain, Sacramentum’s Far Away From The Sun, and Dark Funeral’s The Secrets Of The Black Arts all boast iconic art in hues of twilight that have grown to be synonymous with a particular sect of mid-90s black metal. That dark fantasy art style feels like both an homage and a breakaway from the Tolkien / Moorcockian high fantasy of Rainbow’s Rainbow, Cirith Ungol’s Frost And Fire, or perhaps the more barbaric, Howard-esque work adorning the cover of Omen’s Battle Cry. Furthermore, the same comparison can be made between the rough attempt at first edition Dungeons & Dragons-style art of Attacker’s Battle At Helm’s Deep and the kinda-traced-but-sorta-reworked-enough-to-get-around-any-significant-copyright-infringment style of Necromantia’s Crossing The Fiery Path. The latter’s connection to the dark fantasy of the Ravenloft modules for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons only further feeds the analogy. It’s a specific sort of adventure, a more specialized, focused exploration of The Original Idea™.
What does make Edwards’ work for Stormkeep’s debut full-length in tune with the music is how similar the style is to that of the Ravenloft D&D modules as Tales Of Othertime is with mid-90s black metal. In fact, when the art was premiered, it took a few of us independently double-checking to make sure it wasn’t from Ravenloft! The feeling is there, but it stands alone as an individual piece, a conglomeration of homage and inspiration. The colors are certainly of the same palette, the feeling is the same, yet it is a masterful work in its own right The way the lightning cracks the sky, the way you can feel the winds whipping the cape of the wizard. The way the castle looms over the landscape. It’s the powerful overbearing perspective that makes the piece larger than life.
Much like the music, the art style itself sits at a specialized nexus of inspiration, an original take on something familiar. Comparisons abound, but none feel quite right, even though both the musicians and the artist are setting very specific goals in terms of stylistic boundaries. They both channel the essence of their chosen muse without becoming carbon copies–and it’s all the difference between a blatant ripoff and an inspired love letter to an era long gone by. [RYAN TYSINGER]
HARRY JENKINS / INEPT ALIENS
Metal art is quite often wonderfully branded towards the particular style of music. A majestic warrior brandishing his blade is a great first impression for top notch epic metal, while a war metal band putting anything other than black, white, or red on their art would likely lead to excommunication from the scene. But it’s fun to be surprised by an artist going outside the typical genre box. Maybe not Pink Bubbles Go Ape-levels of outside the box, but something fun and most importantly of high quality.
Such is the case with Inept Aliens/Harrey Jenkins’ art for Atvm’s beastly full length debut Famine, Putrid and Fucking Endless. Atvm plays a melodic, thrashing, and progressive brand of death metal that reaches back to any number of great early 90s classics. Such influences – Human, Unquestionable Presence, etc. – were typically adorned with some sort of “thinking man’s” artwork.
Less so the case with Jenkins’ illustrative/comics approach. It helps greatly that his style is so refined and his color choices absolutely on point. The green and yellow cutting through all the red are particularly striking, while his use of solid colors instead of gradients and blends adds to the impression that this is out of a surreal comic book. But it’s really his characters that sell it. They’re monsters, specters, aliens, etc., but they all look various degrees of curious, friendly, or even huggable. Look at the guy with the big white eyes on the left and tell me he doesn’t look like a friendly chap. Or how about the little black guy popping his head out for a quick hello? Even ol’ flattop in the lower right – the only appearance of a color gradient – seems like he’s more in need of a good Samaritan than he is looking for a fight.
Maybe that was the point, to combine monstrousness with a friendly vibe in the same way Atvm pairs death metal with a lot of melody, but with an unconventional-for-the-genre art approach. Or perhaps the band loves fun. Or perhaps the art just rules. I choose to believe all three. [ZACH DUVALL]
So much of the ethos of heavy metal has to do with reaching for extremity and maximalism that those of us immersed in the genre hardly ever stop to notice it. After all, Death’s debut record isn’t called Speak Mildly Bruised Gore at a Reasonable Volume and Metallica didn’t hit the scene with Reprimand ‘em All, or hmm… Okay, Just Some of ‘Em. That commitment to more frequently spills over into the visual element of heavy metal’s presentation, and often with tremendously satisfying results. Still, this means that a band can make that much greater an impact if they opt for restraint.
The cover for Swallow the Sun’s excellent new album Moonflowers is just such an example of the old maxim “less is more.” The Finnish gloomlords have never had a particularly unified visual presentation, with somewhat wildly varying cover art styles and even logos, but the beautiful, intimate cover to Moonflowers (created by the band’s guitarist and leader Juha Raivio) is the most striking they have had to date. The starkness of the blood-run moon is softened by its thick, smeared texture, and the simplicity of the central image is given added depth when you learn that Raivio painted it with his own blood. The flowers look so much more realistic because they are real flowers that Raivio picked and dried, but even without understanding the mixed-media approach, the effect of the piece is to highlight the both contrasting and complementary layers of the natural world, and how they often echo and intensify our own feelings and struggles.
The cover also suits Swallow the Sun’s music perfectly, with its mix of bleakness and simmering rage, elegant darkness, and delicate beauty. The creation of art can often be a painful, solitary experience, but in sitting with someone else’s pain, we sometimes come to better understand our own, and perhaps both parties are less alone for it. [DAN OBSTKRIEG]
Hopefully, you recognize Foreverglade‘s cover art as the work of Brad Moore, who’s also created wonderful art for Argus, Pale Divine, Tomb Mold, and a bunch of other cool bands. If so, you’ll notice that this is one of his more muted pieces in terms of color palette. There is a nice range of colors here, it’s just subdued, hazed, flattened. Turns out that effect is a major part of how this art fits the blackened death-doom within so well.
The scene depicted is an alien place and yet somehow human. There’s vaguely humanoid bits and pieces throughout. It was a long time ago, though, that this place became something inhuman, overcome by something else, something slimy and ropy, very old and unyielding.
The thematic link from the cover to the music through the title shows commitment to the album as art. It may not be immediately obvious, but it’s there on Foreverglade. Subtle at first, it’s unmistakable, and unshakable once seen.
Notice the color palette again. Muted as it is, the persistent range of colors within the murk is crucial. It’s a natural palette and yet, the scene feels so unnatural, a wonderful juxtaposition of human geometry, architecture, dominated by the much more fluid shapes of nature. But even that’s not quite right. At the center of the scene, a little lower and left: bubbles. This scene is under water. Now those weird fish-looking things hovering over a defleshed torso make more sense.
Far behind the grazing fish, stairs descend here, ascend there, suggesting a very large dwelling and probably busy. But busy at what? An eye to the far right gives us the best clue. Again, it’s not obvious, but a vaguely humanoid form is obscured by underwater growth. Now follow the lines from its peak to notice the lines of a hooded robe, itself tracing the contours of flowing gray hair on a deformed, skinless head. This revelation makes clear the meaning of surrounding shapes: a pair of boney arms, a decrepit rib cage, and looming above, the high back of an ornate throne.
You see him now, draped in slime, a once haughty king, his reign a brief pause in a process beyond time. You can almost hear his Ozymandian magniloquence, once so certain of its legacy, now lost forever to the glade. [LONE WATIE]
Take a look at T-Six Illustration’s Facebook page and you’ll find numerous samples of Mark Riddick-esque black and white drawings of wildly detailed, scratchy skeletons and other beings in various states of ripped apart. Seriously, look at the eyeball shooting out from this skeleton getting shot in the back of the head. Graveripper’s second EP in as many years is adorned with one such skeleton, which appears to be employed in Chernobyl to collect ravaged body parts.
What really helps set this artwork apart from similar pieces is the focus this singular body offers. Most covers of this style would fill every inch of available space with more chaotic environments, piles of bodies or decimated buildings that create an overwhelming image. While offering details to pore over for hours, that corner-to-corner approach can also push the brain to shut off and look away. Here we have one primary figure with a simple square around it, logo above, title below and plenty of open space. The detail on our hazmat hero is still phenomenal and shows the Radiated Remains as much of him appears to be melting.
This design would still look killer in black and white but coating it in that striking yellow makes it all the more eye-popping. There’s a nice little detail in having all the eyes be white as well. Put this cover on any shelf or in any bin and a person is sure to at least momentarily pause when they see it and that’s what a good cover should do. [SPENCER HOTZ]
MATTHEW CARR / PUTRID GORE ART
Quebec City’s Outre-Tombe love their horror, as is confirmed by glancing at any of their three covers or listening to their music. This year’s Abysse Mortifère took things several steps further than even the excellent Necrovortex. It’s rawer, nastier, more primitive, and overall more monstrous than its two predecessors, crucially being released right on Halloween. “Putrid Matt” Carr did the cover for both Necrovortex and the new one, and while his art for the former is fun, gory, and full of haunted vibes, it’s nowhere near the unknowable terrors on the cover of Abysse. Like the band, he upped his game.
You don’t need to be told that the key feature of this piece is the spider horror smack dab in the center of everything, devouring some poor soldier with too many teeth as it looks on with too many eyes and walks with too many legs. (Yes, I realize that it’s an accurate number of spider legs, but nothing should need eight legs to move; that’s the devil.) Poor soldier boy even seems to have some remaining grip on his sword despite his guts already being a foot or so away from where God intended, which is likely what has all those bats salivating. The corpses in various states of decay also hint that this monster has been feeding upon the latest foolish hero for quite an age.
Nothing is particularly subtle about Carr’s art. The colors are bold, garish even, as if to make it slightly painful even as you avert your eyes from the bloody devourment (the moss looks almost fluid), while he applies pointy-pointies wherever possible. It all carries a glorious 80s horror quality to it, from graphic novels and movies (tell me you don’t imagine that monster shape-shifting like The Thing) to video games, perfectly matching the extra fun ugliness the band found on their album. May this partnership continue to reap grotesque rewards. [ZACH DUVALL]
It seems a given at this point that Eliran Kantor will find his way onto most any annual Best Of list that concerns metal album artwork, yes? Throw Adam Burke into the ring and the fight for for first prize as “The Most Astonishing Album Artist To Land Since Dan Seagrave” would be a pretty gnarly one, and I have a feeling Kantor would rise as the victor.
Making such a substantial splash from one year to the next clearly has a way of leading to larger awareness, further exposure and bigger clients, all of which results in a portfolio that looks…well, like Eliran Kantor’s website, which is filled with work that looks as if it could land in most any art gallery across the globe. Getting the call from the Helloween camp, though, must have generated that Next Level of excitement for Kantor, as adding one of the true pioneers of a genre to your resume immediately puts your work in front of a million+ people. As such, you better bring your flippin’ A-game when it comes time to put brush to canvas, which, clearly, Kantor accomplished in spades with Helloween.
It’s a two-way street in this case, too, make no mistake—Helloween hasn’t exactly knocked the ball out of the park for the last decade-and-a-half with regard to album cover artwork. Attaching an in vogue name such as Eliran Kantor to a new record that’s intended to showcase a newfound energy with all the pumpkins united was a very smart move, and Kantor absolutely nailed the BIGNESS of the event. The Keeper is obviously key here, as are the 7 Keys, and the rest of what’s going down across Helloween simply explodes with the sort of rumpus a celebration such as this absolutely deserves. In short, amidst likely the most significant “go big or go home” event in Kantor’s career to date, the fellow in question elected to go colossal. [CAPTAIN]