Killing Art: Exploring Old-School Death Metal Album Covers
Inspired by the recent episode of On The Record focusing on album art, contributor J. Andrew Zalucky decided to explore the artwork of death metal a little further…
Though it has a reputation as music for disturbed, bone-headed social misfits – old-school death metal actually had a lot more intelligence than it’s given credit for. From the years spanning roughly 1987 to 1993, the genre saw a flowering of foundational works that explored the vast wasteland of human fears: death, dismemberment, terror, insanity and the reality of evil. This wasn’t only reflected in the music itself, but had a lot to do with the artwork as well. For example, here's The Ten Commandments from Malevolent Creation:
In the foreground, you have the Moses character seemingly fused with the demonic presence, with the image of the two tablets held above Mt. Sinai. But this time, the tablets don't lead to the promise land, it destroys it. See what I'm getting at?
The album art of the time had a few key characteristics. One obvious one is the use of color. In many cases, there would be an emphasis on one color over others: the reds would be VERY red, but the other colors washed out or at a lower contrast. There were some precedents that present a similar technique, such as Napalm Death’s Scum and From Enslavement to Obliteration and Slayer’s Hell Awaits. But there is a certain look and feel to classic death metal that distinguishes it from these precedents, or the melodeath of the Gothenburg scene or the blackened sounds of Dissection and Sacramentum.
Other features include a high level of detail, again syncing up well with the technical nature of the music. And unlike thrash the NWOBHM, the death metal set often kept the band logos small, usually off to the upper-left or right-hand side. At the very least, they didn't put their identity in your face so much as the concept they wanted to push. Few visual artists represent this style as well as Dan Seagrave. The bio on his site describes his art as:
a meticulous style to convey epic scenes…Evoking themes of greed, isolation, depersonalization, and evolution.
Though he certainly wasn't the only great artist working on cover art at the time, this statement of purpose perfectly encapsulates what it meant to create a cover in this style.
Note: It has just occurred to me that Entombed decided to use papyrus font on the first album. But in all fairness, the style was not as overused in 1990 as it is now, so I think we can leave them off the hook.
But let's back up for a moment. The album that arguably started death metal as a genre (one distinct from thrash) was Possessed’s Seven Churches, but the movement itself was really propelled by Death’s Scream Bloody Gore. Check out the artwork by another great metal artist, Ed Repka:
There’s the strong use of reds and purples, and a high attention to detail. And yet there’s nothing really horrific about the subject itself, more of the celebration of death as a concept. I mean, those skeletons look like they’re having a grand old time! It’s like the one in purple is saying “Come, step into my office…behold!!!” It's as if when we die, we all just hang out in a dungeon and rage together! Still, they are skeletons and the band’s name is Death after all.
Let's focus more on the idea of extreme themes. The artwork of bands like Gorguts and Dismember comes across as extreme because the glaring use of purple, bright green or red-orange. The albums call attention to themselves and stimulate the imagination, but the terror is all implied and open to interpretation. What one viewer sees as "cool" can be seen by another as creepy and unsettling, or just kind of silly. Honestly I’d go for all the above, especially the with the Lovecraftian monster on Considered Dead. Is he wearing a hat of some sort?
And therein lies the genius of extreme metal, the use of art to imply extreme themes and concepts, without resorting to blatant shock value.
They didn’t need to be gross to give the viewer an idea of art’s direction. Whereas bands like Cannibal Corpse, Autopsy and Exhumed just took the gore and shoved it right down your throught. This isn’t meant as an slight to these bands, merely a distinction between one approach and the other. At least the way those bands used gore had the power to terrify the listener, whereas many cookie-cutter-gore bands since have seemingly locked themselves into a “gross-out arms race” which totally defeats the purpose of trying to make enduring music.
And we can debate the "best death metal album of all time" until we're all blue in the face, but many listeners still come down to the blue-framed Altars of Madness. Notice the chaos occurring in the center of the image, and how that chaos is contained by the ring of blue, slowly cracking open. It implies the violence and madness of Morbid Angel at their very best and gives the listeners a peer into the world they're about to enter as they hit "play."
Though the artwork contains a lot of detail and little nuances, there’s still a drained, scrappy look that retains the raw character of the music – one that predates the higher production values that would come later. And if you look closely, the album titles have that slightly blurred look that reminds one of old movie posters from the 80s and early 90s (especially Spielberg flicks).
There’s something very fascinating about the style and its place in time. In a way, the art kind of reminds me of old Magic: The Gathering cards (totally just outed myself as another type of nerd, but oh well).
And when you consider how death metal album covers changed in the mid-to-late 90s, you have to wonder: “What the hell happened?” For many albums made after 1994, the trend turned to either weird, incredibly bad computer graphics, or plain, all-CAPS laden covers made to fit with a more “hard rock” image (gross). Don’t get me wrong, the 1987-1993 style is just as “dated,” but in a different way.
One style has a flair of the “classic” about it, whereas the other feels kitschy and cheap, you know…like a lot of things from the mid-to-late 90s. It's like watching Blade Runner or the first Terminator film; you can tell it was made awhile ago, but the storytelling is so strong and the imagery so compelling that you're able to enjoy it on both an objective level and with a bit of nostalgia mixed in. The use of crude 3D graphics reminds me of my teenage self when I took a class on Photoshop and simply used the "difference clouds" effect for everything. Take Hypocrisy as an example:
The covers for those first two albums were so awesome! And then look at the cover for Abducted! And it's not like their music declined in quality. I love the song "Killing Art" so much, I named this editorial after it! It's just that one style looks like a cool artifact from an archeological dig, the other looks like something a game developer had going for the PS1 but wound up shelving after giving it five minutes of thought. Nothing against the band obviously (ugh, but even the self-titled too! Are those supposed to be aliens chilling in lava lamps or something?! Ok, I'll stop).
For Amorphis, I figured this album art works a little better for the concept than Karelian Isthmus, though I happen to slightly prefer that album. Tales from The Thousand Lakes still has an extreme sound and image to it, but the rich blues that you see on the cover imply something different from the blood and combat displayed on the first album. For more on this album, I suggest you check out this insightful article from Invisible Oranges. I include an image of the first Sentenced album here as well, which has about a thousand different things going on in it. Like Hypocrisy, the artwork on the following album would be more attuned to the style of the mid-90s, but like Hypocrisy again, the music would stay great (anyone who doesn't think North From Here is one of the best melodeath album ever needs to get his or her head checked). But like Amorphis, the musical style would change drastically after the first two records.
Think about the concept of color again. After a while, it must have gotten a little tiring to see the rainbow of colors blaring at you. What ever happened to the darkness of albums like Seven Churches and Morbid Tales? This is one of several inflection points between death metal and black metal. The black metal explosion of the early 90s wasn’t only about stripping the sound back to its barbaric roots, but it was a question of aesthetics as well. This meant a pure black-and-white approach, with only a touch of red or blue mixed in here and there. Interestingly enough, this shift is evident in Darkthrone as a band, take a look at Soulside Journey:
This is in stark contrast to the standard, black-and-white, single-band member with corpsepaint style they would perfect on the three following albums (A Blaze in the Northern Sky, Under a Funeral Moon and Transylvanian Hunger). The cover of Panzerfaust went for an even more basic approach, with a seemingly underexposed picture in the woods with a solitary black figure obscured in the foreground. Interestingly enough though, the logo seems to work perfectly for both genres.
Then again, as you can see from the cover of the upcoming Unleashed album, this use of color in death metal is still very much a viable form. And it’s all the more interesting, seeing as Unleashed hadn’t really used this kind of artwork on their classic records, except for Shadows in the Deep I guess. It has everything, the logo isn't too big, the green on the horizon is very strong, but everything else has a sort of subdued effect, and the image overall is very detailed (e.g. the flames, clouds, the ruins). The Black Dahlia Murder sometimes employs this style as a self-conscious tribute to the great bands of old, especially on the covers of Nocturnal and Deflorate, which makes sense considering Trevor goes completely nuts for this stuff.
Anyway, I hope you enjoyed considering some of the deeper themes behind classic death metal album covers, and have learned that the art of death metal can be so much more than the consumption of internal organs. I realize there's a bit of over-analyzing to all of this, but that's only to reflect on the profound creativity of these bands and the artists that helped their albums come to life (er, death?).
However, there is one thing you all can help me with, what the hell is going on in the image below? Even with all of my snobbish analytical skills, I'm simply at a loss here: