There’s a symbiotic relationship that occurs between the cover art and the music within. Obviously, we’ve all been deceived before by an elegantly adorned record sleeve only to find the music within to be a little wanting, or, conversely, avoided a listen because the art was just that doggone horrific (or worse, bland). It’s interesting to note how, especially in the latter scenario, good music can not only excuse a poor cover, but often opens the artwork up to a re-examination.
Of course, this doesn’t help much when trying to get ears on a record. The cover is the first impression after all: it not only gets butts in seats, it sets the stage, adjusts the lighting, pumps in the ambience, and paints the set for the theater of the mind before the needle touches the record or the play button is depressed. A really good cover should be a window into the sound, a visual translation of a moment or an overall mood from its auditory muse. The best ones are often born of collaboration between the music’s creator and the talents of the visual artist entrusted in applying the translation. This is where the proverbial magic happens, and judging from the selection of not only stellar covers but some absolutely fantastic music our staff has curated below, I am wont to believe more than a few musicians responded to their final cover with the highest of praise: “It’s even better than I imagined!”
So what does that mean in 2023, where the A.I. generated floodgates seem to have been unleashed? Ethical qualms around copyrights and stealing jobs from visual artists aside, there’s something important missing in the art itself. A bot may be able to respond to prompts, but it lacks true imagination and the human connection that goes into creating an album cover. It will never be able to listen to a Cannibal Corpse record and spew out a cover, all it can do is copy Vincent Locke. The auditory/visual bridge simply isn’t there.
I get the allure by smaller independent artists that may see this as a cost-effective solution to slap some colorful A.I. image in the cover slot “just get the music out there,” but if that’s the case, commission a friend or pet to draw something. If budget’s a concern, offer a sandwich, a beer, a ride home from work, Gravy Lover’s Fancy Feast for a full week, whatever. If your music’s that good, it’ll justify it and you’ll have a great story attached to it. Or do what metal artists have done since the dawn of time and hit the neverending CostCo of the Public Domain. I’ve always wondered what Albrecht Dürer would make of Abigor or the hordes of other bands that have used the “Ritter, Tod und Teufel” engraving. Judging from his self portrait, I think he looks like he’d be a fan.
Wonder what he’d make of the ones we here at Last Rites found to be the most appealing this year. As always, feel free to share your favorites and whether or not you think Dürer would have enjoyed them in the comments. Links always appreciated! [RYAN TYSINGER]
If I grew horns and my skin turned kind of a fiery shade of red, I would probably drink an entire unlabeled bottle of what I can only assume is absinthe as well. In fact, if I heard some terrible news such as Urfaust calling it quits, I would also consume an entire unlabeled bottle of what I can only assume is absinthe. And obviously it would be best to do so in an underground lair with long-wicked candles lit and a sacrificial, ritual altar as a table. Because that’s how bad that news would be, especially after an album as great as Untergang.
But setting myself aside, Urfaust have long woven albums with twisting atmospheric fog and dizzying echelons of entrancing rhythms. So it’s only fitting that their cover art join in the dimensional-altering fun. And while Urfaust covers have featured ritual symbolism, animals, statuesque profiles and even demigods before, they have never so directly thrown a character to the foreground.
Shockingly, the Lithuanian artist has very little to her credit at this point. And what little has been produced in stark demonstration of another’s artwork, meaning cover art, she has shown a wide-ranging style and set of abilities none have so aptly conjured up the psychopathic intoxication of a band such as Urfaust. So not only is this cover a stunning piece of art but it is also a stunning partner to the music across Untergang. And what a way to make a debut by producing some of the best cover art for one of the best bands to be calling it quits in 2023?
Our collective horns are off to Iza Carlucci for this gem. [SIR WILLIAM OF UR-SAG]
I don’t think that, at first look, anyone would look at the cover of Dark Steel And Fire and think, “This probably sounds like dead-ringer for Bathory.” Even less likely: lost cuts from from between the Blood Fire Death and Hammerheart sessions! But the cover choice still makes sense in some alternate universe where Thomas Forsberg built his band around his freewheelin’ motorcycle-obsessed “Ace” persona rather than the Quorthon one.
Those colors really catch the eye, aye? Those grim, purple In The Nightside Eclipse skies that host the Far Away From The Sun castle with its Dark Medieval Times winding path leading to a field of Sadistikly Executed skulls and blazen orange magma, while a bit outside of the scope of the music of the album, all acknowledge that this whole project is a love letter to black metal’s yesteryears and take full license to have every bit fun with it. The golden demons in the foreground provide a border, reflecting the glean of the album’s feature: The inferno red bike and shining armor just pop right off the cover. Even the upgraded logo looks sharp, mean, and strong. The whole cover looks even better with the ultra gloss sheen of the LP sleeve!
González’s alternate vision of style of music fits precisely what the album captures of Bathory’s sound from a different point of view. The armoured warrior (take that, helmet laws!) atop his demonic Japanese import bike capable of outrunning jet fighters may seem a little odd, but hear me out: It may scream “speed metal” on the surface, but the choice of bike is key here. Were it a hellish chopper, sure–at that sort of thing you feel the speed of the tires on the road. When you’re hitting speeds of other side of 150+ mph, the only thing you’d better feel is a warrior’s heart steadily pounding controlled adrenaline, beating confident and true. The Norse windswept atmosphere is still there in the music, but González begs of us to see it as wind rushing by as his demon warrior zips through the traffic obstacles of his hellish morning commute. The relationship between the music and the cover does a lot to make The Gauntlet worthy of more than just a casual stroll through a fun “worship album.” It feels a little more personal despite (or perhaps because of) how on-the-nose they manage to nail the Bathory sound. So yeah, good job there, Raúl. Keep painting ’em like you hear ’em. [RYAN TYSINGER]
What strikes me the most about the artwork for At the Heart of Wintervale (an otherwise tranquil ski resort) is the fact that it has… well… sound. Like, you can absolutely hear this album cover, no? It very much encapsulates the overall Twilight Force design for the record, of course, but even before that you can easily hear the abrupt and blaring explosion that results from a terrifically ancient dragon rooooaaaaring as she erupts from her interminable subjugation ‘neath hundreds of years of ice and two tons of Dwarven steel chains. BOOOOOOOOOM!!!, howled the cover art for At the Heart of Wintervale, and all the world did hear its thunderous clap.
Kerem Beyit is credited for the work, a freelance illustrator who’s equally responsible for the last two T-Force full-lengths, and an individual who clearly has a sixth sense when it comes to capturing dragons in various emotional states. His wyvern familiarity runs deep—the sort of hidden awareness that makes it seem likely that he can’t help but conjure images of dragons most everywhere he goes, and something that makes it seem at least plausible that he has access to a mystical doorway leading to actual dragons willing to pose for portraiture. WHAT SECRETS ARE YOU HIDING FROM US, KEREM.
Beyit’s instagram is a treasure trove for fantasy enthusiasts. Not just dragons, mind you, but endless heroes, various legendary beasts, and all manner of nightmares frolicking about like the charmed pages from whatever core rulebook happens to be your favorite fantasy RPG. But those dragons, baby—Beyit really understands how to bring them to full life. And in the case of At the Heart of Wintervale, that means we get to see and hear their exceptionally explosive P O W E R as depicted on one of the most impressive album covers of 2023. Side note: Not sure what brings that brave knight to the party, but I think they’re gonna need a bigger sword. [CAPTAIN]
The piece of Benjamin König’s art that Hexvessel used for Polar Veil is a strikingly beautiful piece of work on its own merits, but even better is how perfectly it evokes the same feelings as the album itself. It is soft and inviting, but with a chill and suggestion of faint danger. The scene is simple, even restful, but brimming with mystery and melancholy. It feels a bit like an illustration you might come across in an old compendium of European folklore and fairytales, the world of Hans Christian Andersen or the Brothers Grimm, where the world is full of wonder but also hardship and terror that emerge in peculiar ways. König’s work for other bands (including Horna, Lustre, Old Silver Key, and especially for his former band Lunar Aurora) is stylistically diverse, but like Hexvessel’s music, seems always to radiate from a core of mesmerizing commitment. [DAN OBSTKRIEG]
Step Into The Light and Failure Will Follow were released as a double album, but the former was announced first, meaning that cover was the first one seen. It’s the type of artwork you can imagine hanging up in a cozy family cabin nestled into a serene forest setting. Perhaps seeing the momma bird feeding the babies provides fond memories of your own mother serving you and your siblings on summer vacations in that very cabin. Look a bit closer, however, and you’ll soon realize this beautiful robin appears to be feeding her babies some sort of fleshy piece of slop. The juxtaposition of a bird associated with spring and new life against a bloody offering of flesh is a touch upsetting.
As you follow that thought, you find where that robin acquired its disturbing treat. Failure Will Follow shows us the robin yanking meat off the bones of a dead deer. The deer sits in a seemingly comfortable position with its eyes open as if it’s not dead but paralyzed as it’s ripped apart and maggots are encroaching on the wound. The painting style has a classic, older feel with a modern brand of violence providing another eery counterpoint. The Acacia Strain’s music has always carried a pessimistic view of a world falling apart and robins scavenging on a deer is a pretty good visual representation of a world disintegrating and consuming itself. [SPENCER HOTZ]
If you’re familiar with the art of Adam Burke ‒ and as a fan of heavy metal in 2023, there’s a very high chance that you are ‒ you probably have a certain idea of what to expect when he paints up an album cover. Burke specializes in fantasy, sci-fi, scenes of nature, and horror, sometimes with a bit more of a surreal edge but always with a stunning use of brushstrokes and varying levels of detail.
With the painterly touch and mere hints of detail in the background, Burke’s style is all over the cover of Anachronism’s 2023 album Meanders. But where it differs is in the subject; nowhere to be seen is a wizard, astronaut, skeleton, animal, or living subject whatsoever, just water flowing over an otherwise dead planetary surface. On the most basic of levels, it makes sense that a different kind of band like Anachronism would be a different kind of album art from one of metal’s most recognizable painters. On a deeper level, there’s that water, flowing across the planet as unpredictably as the droplets on Jeff Goldblum’s hand when he’s proposing that Laura Dern be the next future ex-Mrs. Malcolm. Anachronism’s death metal flows, sometimes unpredictably, with improvisation (especially in the drumming) being a key aspect of their sound. Like waterways, the band weaves and diverges, only to come back together after moments of tension to reform their full power. A fittingly haunting and beautiful image for a rather gripping and unique death metal record. [ZACH DUVALL]
The first word that comes to mind when I think of Körgull The Exterminator is “kick-ass,” because that’s the most succinct summation of their raw thrashing metal, if perhaps not the most highbrow one. But then again, highbrow isn’t really what Körgull does, now is it? Released back in August, Built To Kill is the latest entry in their six-album run of kickassery, and the finest of all of them, an absolutely exhilarating blast of Sodom/Venom/Bathory bashing.
The second word that comes to mind when I think of these Spaniards is “post-apocalyptic,” in terms of both their sound and their visual aesthetic. Clearly indebted to early Voivod (their band name is taken from a track on RRÖÖAARR, with an added umlauted O as a nod to Motörhead), Körgull also adopted a certain vibe from those French-Canadian legends, a calamitous cacophony that matches as perfectly with Alastor’s skull-and-spike sketches as it did back then with Away’s iconic alien artwork. Alastor has handled Körgull’s last handful of covers, each one of a similar sketched approach, with this bat-winged, skull-faced being (presumably Körgull, but I can’t say for certain) front and center, either lording over warriors or wretched villagers or riding his armored steed into battle. They’re all monochromatic – Körgull’s world is black-and-white, mostly, although occasionally tinted red with blood or yellow with burning flame. They’re all filled with the symbols of death, of war, of flashing blade and bloody battle.
In whichever variation, our skull-faced protagonist is presented as heavily armored, a nightmarish villain from some fantastical wasteland adventure. For Built To Kill, he’s as close-up and detailed as we’ve seen him thusfar, standing huge and menacing atop a score of emaciated beings. His armor is adorned with even more skulls, the plates decorated with icons of empire (the double-headed eagle) and fascism (the Iron Cross) and fear (the biohazard emblem) and… the Rocky Horror Picture Show? That one’s maybe a bit outside any sociopolitical scope, but there’s something undeniably fun about Körgull, across the board, so it still works. Whatever he’s doing here, it’s scary and bleak and probably not going to work out for those poor folks down below.
But you know whom it will work out for, and brilliantly? You, my friend. And me. And anyone who listens to Built To Kill, or to any of Körgull’s catalog, really. Thrashing madness with the spirit of rotten rock ‘n’ roll, with all the skulls and spikes and monsters and booze and riffs and irresistible fun that comes with it? Yes, please. Simply put: Körgull kills. You could even say they’re built for it. [ANDREW EDMUNDS]
There are two distinct aspects of Ms. LeMay’s work to discuss in this blurb. First, we have to talk about that logo. Holy beheading, castrating fuck that logo is sick. Cruel Force have thrashed our faces and organs before during their prior period of musical activity but at the time their logo was something of a limp Tetris level with more of a fencing foil than a sword bringing the blood and guts to the fore. But this year the band did something brilliant, they employed an artist that actually understands how important it is to have a weapon that looks like it can annihilate your listeners, obliterate their genitals and, most importantly, match the absolutely radical cover art adorning the EP/LP.
Well, all of their 2023 releases were done by Maegan LeMay in a style that complements the musical onslaught of Cruel Force in the most vicious of manners. We encourage you to run the gamut of her work for Cruel Force including their single/EP At the Dawn of the Axe and their single/EP Night of Thunder in addition to the rivers of blood that ornament the LP above, Dawn of the Axe. If one thing can be credited to LeMay it’s that she convinced the band to wield an axe, rather than a weak sword, into battle.
We would, of course, be remiss if we didn’t discuss how awesome this particular cover is. Like the others from 2023 the temple of doom is displayed prominently on the cover. Evil skulls, executioners, and ghouls vomiting rivers of blood can be found at different levels. Despite the German roots the images conjured for the listener are those of Hollywood’s take on primitive jungle cultures who frequently sacrificed virgins, filled pits with snakes, and chopped off heads for casual games of futbol. As Dawn of the Axes snakes across its thirty-eight minute runtime, the color palette of the album cover, in addition to the totally radical temple scene, creates a perfect two-dimensional lava lamp against which to pump your fist, guzzle your canned beer, and slosh your urine-stained battle vest.
Thank you, Maegan LeMay for reinventing the image of an absolutely outstanding band in 2023.[SIR WILLIAM OF UR-SAG]
I feel like the only way I can convince you or how or why Brad Moore’s art for Coffin Mulch’s obstreperous debut LP is so incredible is just to tell you to… go look at the art. Are you looking at it right now? I appreciate that your eyeballs are sparing some time for these words but they really should be glued to the art. Moore’s ghastly surrealism is, of course, responsible for some wonderful recent covers for the likes of Worm, Tomb Mold, and the mighty Argus, but the color palette for Spectral Intercession really elevates his beautifully twisting forms, like slow-moving cosmic malignancies. And not only are those pinks and purples and oranges a lurid Rorschach, but the full horizontal scope of the painting covers even more ground, with bronze and brown and snotty greens populating the ghoulish mortuary. When you scan from left to right, are you seeing some kind of spectral conveyor belt whereby the groaning coffins are turned into the promised mulch? If you come try to pry the fold-out J-card art from the cassette tape version out of my hands will I bite you? Is Brad Moore the greatest metal fantasist working today? I really don’t think it’s too mulch to ask that you answer these questions for yourself. [DAN OBSTKRIEG]
TYRONE LE ROUX-ATTERBURY
If you’re going to release a stoner metal album, the polite thing to do is to give your potentially high listeners strong visuals to get lost in as you take their ears on a journey. With that in mind, the Acid Magus fellas are a well-mannered bunch. As you ride atop psyched-out doom riffs, you can blaze up and zone out on a million little details of the wild brush strokes surrounding this Moses-esque figure splitting the world around him. Is he raising the rambunctious elements of nature that seem to be reclaiming the buildings on the sides? Or is he culling them to bring order back to the world? A dilapidated castle in the rear center is buttressed by mountains that are being blanketed in what appears to be an almost sentient fog descending on the rocks. Above that is a mighty Sisyphean character holding up some sort of moon entombed in a magic of waves or rippling smoke.
The colors are at once muted and bright, with a gorgeous balance of greens, browns and purple-hued reds. Our wise sage is on his way to deliver you a message while the tunes ensorcell your mind. Each element of the cover is enhanced with extreme detail that you could pore over for hours to discover it’s magical secrets. Turn on Hope Is Heavy, puff, puff again and get transported to another world for a little while. [SPENCER HOTZ]
Oh, to have been a fly on the wall the first time the Mammatus boys got wind of Cristian Eres’ vision for the Expanding Majesty artwork. To say the artist nailed the looonnnngggg, drifting, otherworldly nature of the music tucked behind the visual is an epic understatement, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the scenario actually involved the Mammatus crew crafting this album AFTER seeing Eres’ phenomenal work… Or at least reforging certain angles of the album after witnessing it’s full glory.
Hi, hello, I would like to ride atop the clouds on that friendly looking dino-dragon on our way to a massive fortress modeled after a YES guitar circa 1983. I’m also guessing my cohort will get us to our destination before the three wizards traveling on foot, represented rather triumphantly in the supplemental inner gatefold image also included above. That means I’ll get first pick of whatever’s spread out on the snack table in the fortress fret vestibule, which is totally great. Hey, I just wolfed down a rather interesting looking brownie in like two bites… Can I expect to be conscious when the others arrive?
Cristian Eres is the champion with the brush in hand here—a Spanish artist who has clearly spent a significant amount of time worshipping at the altar of an endless array of heroic sci-fi artists from the ‘70s. Accordingly, Eres’ work for Mammatus feels quite worthy of glossy front pages for ancient bygone mags such as Dragon or Galaxy. Equally satisfying, though, is the way he blends in a heavy dose of hard-edged prog rock art from that same era, resulting in something that comes across a bit like a collision between Mœbius and the unparalleled Roger Dean (prehistoric Yes and Asia album covers).
Overall concept and illustrations aside, the colors here are also totally sublime—rich, warm, wide and hugely inviting, and when everything’s combined together, it all but demands any and all passersby to swing in and hear what sort of music might be deserving of such a wonderfully tempting escape. Pure and simple, it’s ideal album artwork, and for once the band managed to nail the look and placement of logo and album title to boot. [CAPTAIN]
Afterbirth’s latest record, the monstrous and pretty phenomenal In But Not Of, is so complex and multifaceted that it transcends tags such as “brutal death metal” or “progressive death metal,” even if it’s still absolutely both of those things (and many more). It’s a ton of elements that cohere into a beastly whole in ways that are constantly surprising, and it demands visual representation that likewise comes at you from all angles only to congeal into an incredible final form.
Alex Eckman-Lawn’s incredible cover art gives the album exactly what it deserves, a freakishly cool, sometimes disturbing, and always gorgeous image compiled through various means and styles. As a collage of several separate pieces, it allowed Eckman-Lawn to use hatched pen illustrations (the internal organs and machinery), delicate drawings closer to realism (the baby, the teeth, and the… growths), graphic design gradients (the helmet), and photos (the gloves), while framing it all with bright paint splatters and even more illustrations added faintly in the background. Like In But Not Of itself, the cover has countless layers and elements all fighting for your attention, but it manages to form into an incredible piece that can conjure a wide array of emotions depending on exactly where you’re looking or what you bring with you.
And it just fits the music perfectly. The body horror elements match Afterbirth’s most brutal edges and Will Smith’s dynamic gurgles; the machine parts might represent the precise technicality of their instrumental skills; the spacesuit is a fitting nod to the band’s futuristic and adventurous spirit; and the baby within the helmet a sign that beauty and innocence can exist even within the music of a band as punishing as Afterbirth.
But man… that baby in that helmet. Is this the baby at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey, representing a new level of evolution for the band? Is it Luke seeing himself within Vader’s charred helmet in The Dagobah Cave? Maybe [extreme Bruce Dickinson accent alert] “it’s loik, the small child, that still lives wi’in alluvus, innit?” Whatever Eckman-Lawn’s precise purpose for putting that infant within the seemingly exploded space helmet, the bébé is the key to unlocking the whole piece. Like the album, we’ll be uncovering the secrets of this incredible cover for years.
Oh, and the back cover is also amazing. Have a looksee, won’t you? [ZACH DUVALL]
I have broken the constraints of your mundane spiritual plane and traveled back in time. Don’t believe me? Trace a triangle on the floor using Devil’s Spit hot sauce from Famous Dave’s (my favorite). Place three candles at each point. Now, sit inside of the triangle. Take three deep breaths. Now, please close your eyes, count to five, and slowly open them. You will witness a scene of my interdimensional, levitating spirit looking down at my normie, third-dimensional self in February 2023, staring at the covers of Ulthar’s Anthronomicon and Helionomicon on my record shelf. “…Interesting,” my third-dimensional self says softly, stroking its beard with one hand and a glass of wine in the other. Then the voice grows slightly louder, and in the most pretentious, artsy-fartsy way possible, questions into the void of human existence, “What is this… that stands before me? What are these levitating extra-terrestrial-looking creatures in shades of black, gray, white, purple, and pink with beady red eyes? Why is the sky purple? What could this mean?” In my new interdimensional spirit state, I have the answers to these questions, but neither you nor Josh from the third dimension are ready for the secrets of the universe. I don’t make the rules. Take it up with the gods. And this isn’t because I have yet to learn what’s happening regarding these specific pieces of album art. I have.
However, what I can tell you is that they’re badass pieces by Ian Miller. They ooze Lovecraftian and cosmic horror and perfectly match the two albums’ overall tones. If you’re one of those fabulous folks who see music in colors, lucky you; the color palette of blues, pinks, and purples probably sums it up. Before we go any further, I recommend checking out both records. They are phenomenal. Anthronomicon is the more traditional album in the sense that the album is broken up into eight different tracks, while Helionomicon is comprised of two near-20-minute-long feats. If it helps you conjure up your interpretation of the album art—please, stop asking me to give you the actual meaning behind them—Anthronomicon translates to “Book of Man,” and Helionomicon translates to “Book of the Sun.” Do you get it yet? Do you?
Anyway, back to Ian Miller. You’ve probably heard of him. He’s an illustrator—obviously—based out of the UK and created art for Lovecraft paperbacks in the ’70s, Warhammer, and Ralph Bakshi’s film Wizards. Hell, he even did pre-production art for Shrek. Did you hear that? SHREK! Ulthar commissioned an original wide piece from Miller. They split the art right down the middle, creating two separate pieces that connect when sitting side-by-side like you see it above. Cool, huh?
So, there you have it, Earthlings. I’m sorry neither you nor Josh from the third dimension are ready to understand the true meaning behind the art. Maybe one day. [JOSH HEATH]