Design Observer

About
Books
Job Board
Newsletters
Archive
Contact



Observatory

About
Resources
Submissions
Contact


Featured Writers

Michael Bierut
William Drenttel
John Foster
Jessica Helfand
Alexandra Lange
Mark Lamster
Paul Polak
Rick Poynor
John Thackara
Rob Walker


Departments

Advertisement
Audio
Books
Collections
Dear Bonnie
Dialogues
Essays
Events
Foster Column
From Our Archive
Gallery
Interviews
Miscellaneous
New Ideas
Opinions
Partner News
Photos
Poetry
Primary Sources
Projects
Report
Reviews
Slideshows
The Academy
Today Column
Unusual Suspects
Video


Topics

Advertising
Architecture
Art
Books
Branding
Business
Cities / Places
Community
Craft
Culture
Design History
Design Practice
Development
Disaster Relief
Ecology
Economy
Education
Energy
Environment
Fashion
Film / Video
Food/Agriculture
Geography
Global / Local
Graphic Design
Health / Safety
History
Housing
Ideas
Illustration
India
Industry
Info Design
Infrastructure
Interaction Design
Internet / Blogs
Journalism
Landscape
Literature
Magazines
Media
Museums
Music
Nature
Obituary
Other
Peace
Philanthropy
Photography
Planning
Poetry
Politics / Policy
Popular Culture
Poverty
Preservation
Product Design
Public / Private
Public Art
Religion
Reputations
Science
Shelter
Social Enterprise
Sports
Sustainability
Technology
Theory/Criticism
Transportation
TV / Radio
Typography
Urbanism
Water


Comments (1) Posted 05.31.12 | PERMALINK | PRINT

Rick Poynor

From the Archive: Graphic Metallica



Black metal band logo by Christophe Szpajdel, 2011

One of the more unexpected displays at the
Graphic Design: Now in Production exhibition, which recently opening on Governors Island, New York, is a collection of death metal and black metal band logos by Christophe Szpajdel, whose work can also be seen in his book Lord of the Logos. This kind of subcultural design falls outside the decorously schooled concerns of many graphic designers and it’s good to see it receive attention. It gives me an excuse to post a piece about metal album cover design not previously available online.


In the annals of gratuitously ghoulish album cover design, Slayer’s Reign in Blood still stands as some kind of perverse classic 25 years after it first thrilled the teenage thrash-metal fans it was aimed at and sent shivers of revulsion through their parents. Three figures, one of them wearing a bishop’s miter, carry a goat-like figure in a chair. There is a decapitated head on a pole and other bodies pierced by spikes hang in the background. What makes it worse is that the painting is really accomplished. The packed composition has been constructed with great skill as a set of shadowy, interlocking forms that drag your eyes into every toxic corner, allowing no escape from this hellhole of the damned.

Slayer, Reign in Blood, American Recordings, 1986. Design: Stephen Byram. Illustration: Larry W. Carroll

It might come as a surprise to learn that the designer of this fine piece of epic nastiness is Stephen Byram, celebrated today for his graphically delicate and playful CD covers for the Screwgun jazz label. Heavy metal music graphics are more or less off the radar when it comes to most designers — unless, that is, you happen to be a heavy metal fan yourself. I listened to the founding fathers of heavy metal in my teens — Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin — and I would still count myself a rock fan now, but not of this kind of rock. The big hair, the bare chests, the ax-man heroics, the ludicrously overblown song concepts: it all cried out to be ridiculed and, when This is Spinal Tap hit the screens in 1984, it was.

But this was an earlier, milder kind of heavy rock. Meanwhile, metal was being retooled and retuned. In the 1980s, it began to splinter into a range of subgenres that even diehard metalheads sometimes have trouble telling apart: speed metal, thrash metal, death metal (and the related grindcore), black metal, groove metal, nu metal. There’s even a neo-classical variant of metal. Metal musicians developed the death grunt vocal and perfected the blast-beat drumming style. And, as it evolved, metal became faster, harder, darker and more ferociously extreme, its status as a controversial subculture signaled by the way that big music stores segregate it. Over here, for most of us, is wholesome rock and pop; over there is metal. Sometimes I would flip through the metal album covers, absorbed by the way these images combine to express their own bizarre, unholy, violent and nihilistic view of the world.

No group of musicians has shown greater commitment to the idea of the logo than the metal bands. Motörhead, Anthrax, Slayer, Kreator, Death, Megadeth, MetallicaMayhem, Bathory, Burzum and Manowar — they all have them, big, eye-bashing, and usually centered at the top. Iron Maiden’s band logo, one of the most influential, looks like it was bolted together from angular chunks of, well, iron. Obituary’s appears to be forged from glinting scalpel blades. Darkthrone’s could be a spidery cluster of branches or lightning bursts; as if following the directions of the most stringent identity manual, the Norwegian band has diligently applied its logo to every release in the past 20 years. Years before it became fashionable among respectable designers to talk about “flexible identities,” metal album cover artists were dedicated exponents. Logo color changes were never a problem, and they could drip blood, if the occasion demanded — no surprise, it sometimes did — or mutate into the shape of a bat.

Motörhead, Motörhead, Chiswick Records, 1977. Illustration: Joe Petagno

These flexible identities were pictorial, too. The British band Motörhead set the standard in 1977 with their Snaggletooth skull sprouting curved boar horns, devised by American artist Joe Petagno and the band’s leader, Lemmy. “The inspiration came from just being a naturally pissed-off bastard!” Petagno explained. Elaborate variations on this icon have graced many of Motörhead’s covers. Iron Maiden’s first album, in 1980, featured another painted band mascot, Eddie the ’ead, a murderous-looking skull-head cursed with burning eyes, wizened flesh, and hair like straw. Artist Derek Riggs created a never-ending supply of scenes involving Eddie as an ax-wielding psycho killer, as a chained-up madman, as a zombie rising triumphantly from the grave, and became a cult figure in his own right.

Iron Maiden, Killers, EMI, 1981. Illustration: Derek Riggs


Megadeth, Peace Sells . . . But Who’s Buying?, Capitol Records, 1986. Illustration: Edward J. Repka
 
Images like these were tacky and tasteless, but they were executed with enormous style and verve, and only a prude could take exception to them. They were no more disturbing, and no more of a threat to the nation’s moral fabric, than a fantasy comic book, or a drive-in horror movie meant to give you a pleasant scare. Sometimes they had acidic humor, too. On Edward J. Repka’s cover for Megadeth’s 1986 Peace Sells . . . But Who’s Buying?, yet another mascot, Vic Rattlehead, a skeleton in a suit, with a visor riveted to his eye sockets, metal plugs blocking his ears and staples clamping his mouth shut, leans on a “FOR SALE” sign as fighter planes swoop over a destroyed building that looks suspiciously like the United Nations. It was a prescient piece of satire, as things have turned out.

“You can call metal many things: stupid, ugly, noisy, violent, and base, and you’d be right,” note James Sherry and Neil Aldis in Heavy Metal Thunder, a collection of heavy metal covers. “But unlike other genres, metal can laugh at its own absurdities.” That’s true up to a point. We can only trust that the guys in Manowar, still apparently in love with the idea of muscle-bound warriors waving big swords around, do see the funny side.

In the late 1980s, as death metal became more abrasive in sound and morbid in its lyrical concerns — death, mainly — so did the covers. Most of us would have to work pretty hard to extract a laugh from the grisly goings-on depicted on the painted cover of Cannibal Corpse’s Butchered at Birth: the title says it all. This was nothing, though, compared to the image decorating Carcass’s Reek of Putrefaction, a collage hacked into shape from autopsy photographs, which has to be hands-down winner in the “most alarming and offensive record cover of all time” category (you’ve been warned). Those in the know say that it’s a vegetarian polemic against meat-eaters. That didn’t stop squeamish record stores from banning it.


Bathory, Blood Fire Death, Black Mark Productions, 1988. Painting: Peter Nicolai Arbo, 1872

Defenders of metal point out its political side and say that the music is about pride, independence and free will. But it was the anti-Christian excesses of black metal, which ran to church-burning in Norway, that did most to bring the genre into disrepute and force it underground. Black metal bands claiming to be Satanists daubed their faces with corpse paint and emblazoned their covers with the satanic Sigil of Baphomet, an inverted pentagram containing a goat’s head. Yet even black metal, for all its juvenile compulsion to mortify the faithful, can still produce moments of graphic grandeur. The cover of Darkthrone’s Sardonic Wrath (2004) is a deftly rendered pencil drawing by Lorenzo Mariani, an Italian designer and metal fan. Taking Gustave Doré’s engravings of The Crowned Virgin and The Last Judgment as his models, Mariani pictures bad angels with swords, smiting a chain of naked bodies writhing in the darkness. The Darkthrone logo, thrown into relief by the unearthly light, hangs in the air like a demonic presence, meshing perfectly with the image’s monumental symmetry.

Darkthrone, Sardonic Wrath, Moonfog Productions, 2004. Illustration: Lorenzo Mariani

Heavy metal’s extremity, as a set of aesthetic choices and as a way of life, exerts an enduring fascination for observers that’s part admiration, part repulsion. As with other kinds of popular music, fans grow older but they don’t necessarily grow out of it — there are middle-aged metalheads now. Since Deena Weinstein published her scholarly Heavy Metal: A Cultural Sociology in 1991, academic researchers have continued to pore over the subculture, and metal offers shiny nuggets for pop anthropologists, too. Canadian artist Steven Shearer uses capitalized song titles and lyric fragments from death metal tracks in white-on-black poster poems exhibited in art galleries and, in 2006, on a huge external wall in Berlin. Literary gems from the Diesel-sponsored project include the lines “Ancestral necrosodomy,” “Herpetiform filthgrinder,” and “Suck my unholy vomit.”

The challenge today for metal’s design interpreters is to find ways of referencing the genre’s musical and visual heritage without regurgitating imagery that has had all the life chewed out of it. Nightmares, an album by a young metal band called Architects, shows it can be done. Sure, it features a screaming, disembodied head in profile, with orange flames licking around the eyes and mouth. But it’s a piece of contemporary digital graphic image-making, not a cartoon-like painted scene. You might almost say it was subtle.


Architects, Nightmares, In At The Deep End Records, 2006. Design and illustration: Tank Axe Love


This is a slightly edited, differently illustrated version of a column first published in
Print magazine, September/October 2006 under the title “Gothic Extra Böld.”


See also:
How We Learned to Live with Zombies
On My Shelf: Continuum’s 33 1/3 Series 

|
Share This Story

Comments (1)   |   JUMP TO MOST RECENT COMMENT >>

That looks great! I really like the colors he used.

06.12.12 at 09:06


Design Observer encourages comments to be short and to the point; as a general rule, they should not run longer than the original post. Comments should show a courteous regard for the presence of other voices in the discussion. We reserve the right to edit or delete comments that do not adhere to this standard.
Read Complete Comments Policy >>


Name             

Email address 




Please type the text shown in the graphic.


|
Share This Story



ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Rick Poynor is a writer, critic, lecturer and curator, specialising in design, media, photography and visual culture. He founded Eye, co-founded Design Observer, and contributes columns to Eye and Print. His latest book is Uncanny: Surrealism and Graphic Design.
More Bio >>

DESIGN OBSERVER JOBS









BOOKS BY Rick Poynor

Uncanny: Surrealism and Graphic Design
MG Publications, 2010

Typographica
Laurence King, 2001

Obey the Giant: Life in the Image World
Birkhäuser Architecture, 2007

No More Rules: Graphic Design and Postmodernism
Yale University Press, 2003

Looking Closer 3
Allworth Press, 1999

More books by contributors >>

RELATED POSTS


Records for Life: Rethinking the Immunization Card
In conjunction with World Immunization Week, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation challenged the global health and design communities to reconsider the immunization card, classically one of the principal barriers to vaccination.

Critical Graphic Design: Critical of What?
A review of the current state of critical graphic design.

Lucia Eames, 1930-2014
An appreciation of Lucia Eames (1930-2014).

Inalienable Rights, Wolfsonian-Style
A review of  the inaugural "Power of Design" ideas festival in Miami.

De Vinne at the Grolier Club in New York
A review of the Grolier Club’s quiet, yet noteworthy exhibition, “The Dean of American Printers: Theodore Low De Vinne and The Art Preservative of All Arts”.