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.
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, Metallica, Mayhem, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”