A friend and colleague of mine recently offered an interesting question on Twitter: What album did you decide to listen to based on the artwork alone?
That’s difficult to answer for a few reasons. First of all, when you’ve been writing about music for more than 15 years, it’s rare to come across music where you have no context whatsoever. And second of all, it seems like it’s even rarer lately to see an album’s artwork before hearing any of the music. While plenty of people like to romanticize about the idea of going to the record store, thumbing through the bins and finding something that just looked so damn cool you had to bring it home, that doesn’t happen much these days. I’m not sure it happened that much back then either, but I also grew up in the CD age, where the look of the format just wasn’t as impressive.
Still, everyone who chimed in had an interesting answer. One person mentioned Inter Arma’s Sky Burial, which has an evocative and ominous cover, if one that evokes spiritual meaning in its darkness. My own pick—though I don’t know why this was the first album to come to mind—was Thou’s Summit (see below) whose gritty red sky and factory smokestacks evoked something raw and compelling. And that also happened to be the first time I ever heard Thou; I’ve since become a pretty big fan (see the best tracks of the month for more on that). By the time a third person mentioned a metal album, it seemed a trend was developing: Metal cover art is badass.
Metal, perhaps more than any other genre, is founded on an album format with often spectacular cover art. Much of that is tied in with the escapism of metal; countless metal records prominently feature some sort of fantasy scene on the cover, sometimes illustrated, sometimes gorgeously painted, while others go for the darker side, depicting skulls, hellfire and the like. (We’ve all seen Slayer’s album covers—there’s always a pentagram.) There are exceptions; low-budget ’80s records didn’t always fare great, and despite being one of the all-time greats, Diamond Head’s Lightning to the Nations through several rounds of reissues never lucked out with artwork that wasn’t fugly. (For that matter, it could use a vinyl reissue sometime soon.) Exceptions aside, metal is one style of music where visual art isn’t just important, it’s utterly crucial, and more often than not, it can tell you a lot about the kind of album you’re about to hear.
Since the ’80s, the metal album cover has become an art unto itself, from Derek Riggs’ Iron Maiden illustrations and creation of the recurring character Eddie the Head, to Megadeth’s own mascot, Vic Rattlehead, designed by Ed Repka, who has also done countless works for the likes of Death, Hirax, Possessed, Vio-Lence and Toxic Holocaust. And in each of those cases, you know you’re about to hear something pretty awesome, because there’s a mischievous ghoul on the front grinning at you. I don’t make the rules; that’s just how it works. And then, of course, there’s Pushead, perhaps the most iconic metal designer, thanks to his work with Metallica. His designs adorn the covers of legendary albums like …And Justice For All, though he’s done his share of punk covers as well, and even the actually-pretty-metal-looking artwork for Dr. Octagon’s Dr. Octagonecologyst. His artwork has no doubt played a massive influence on covers in contemporary metal, though as the look of metal has evolved over the years, it’s arguably entered a new Golden Age of sorts.
One band with a singular cover art aesthetic is Denver’s Khemmis, whose albums such as Hunted and the just-released Desolation feature fantasy-inspired works illustrated by Sam Turner, who also does designs for Trve Brewing, where Khemmis drummer Zach Coleman is head brewer. Each cover features some variation of a warrior queen or a wizard (either Leonard, the good wizard, or LeRoy, the evil wizard), and the inspiration goes back to ’70s-era proto-metal and Southern rock.
“Zach had the idea of trying to have album art that has a sort of timeless feel, and I don’t mean that in a pretentious way like it stands outside of criticism,” says Khemmis guitarist/vocalist Ben Hutcherson. “But that it doesn’t read like an obvious heavy metal album. With the Frazetta style, we look back to album covers by Molly Hatchet. Even if you don’t like Molly Hatchet, and most people I know don’t, you gotta admit those album covers are badass, and you remember what those albums look like even if you forget what the songs sound like. We wanted it to have an epic grand feeling without telling the stories that our songs do. It doesn’t have to be so on the nose.”
Another album cover of late that struck me as being both mysterious and evocative is that of Our Raw Heart by Yob. Illustrated by Orion Landau, in-house designer for Relapse, it depicts a colorful collage of multi-colored circles, wings with eyes and a fiery starburst. In fact, it first appeared well before the album was announced, back when the band’s frontman Mike Scheidt wrote an update about the intense health scare he went through last year. Of course, when I had the chance to discuss the meaning of the artwork, he was hesitant to offer too much more information.
“It’s like dissecting a frog,” Scheidt told me in an interview earlier this month. “You can do it and get to the inner workings and see all the stuff, but the frog doesn’t survive. When I start talking about meanings and stuff like that, I put a barrier on someone else’s imagination and what it means to them.”
Scheidt did follow that by saying he’d tell me one-on-one if I see him at a show, so when he makes his way to this corner of the country, we’ll have to chat. But knowing the meaning isn’t really that important—it’s a striking visual that provokes certain interpretations and ideas, and has an affecting quality regardless of what the viewer gets out of it.
As much as the business model of music continues to change, and how the album as a product is less and less something that consumers have as much investment in, it’s still heartening to see that—at least in metal—these things are still important, and in many cases enhance the experience. Albums, particularly in vinyl formats, really are like pieces of art that fit on your shelf, so it’s that much more important that the piece of art you’re buying kicks ass. And metal fans definitely buy a lot of vinyl.
Now that I look back, there actually is another album I listened to based on the artwork alone (essentially): Baroness’ Red Album. John Dyer Baizley’s design, a kind of cross between Pushead and art nouveau painter Alphonse Mucha, immediately drew my attention. Partially because it looked a lot different than most other metal albums I’d seen—it was beautiful, for one, rather than campy or eerie, and the same can be said of his other designs, including Pig Destroyer’s Phantom Limb, which is probably the prettiest grindcore album cover I’ve ever seen, and yet still looks like it’s a pretty intense record. That’s a rare kind of talent.
The best metal tracks of June 2018
Extremity – “Grave Mistake”
Just a year after releasing their absolutely crushing debut album Extremely Fucking Dead, Oakland’s Extremity are unleashing another set of gnarly, guttural death metal, and I am 100 percent here for it. Though their name implies a certain level of superhuman ability (or endurance), Extremity aren’t necessarily that much more extreme than most other old-school leaning death metal bands these days. They are, however, among the best out there at the moment, extending from a Bay Area scene that has also yielded some equally awesome bands in Vastum and Acephalix. Their new track “Grave Mistake” is constantly moving at a sprint, or so its pummeling drum gallop would have you believe. But there’s almost a doom-metal sense of space in the dark riffs here, building atmosphere in a compelling way without giving up the sheer, muscular assault that the best death metal inevitably has. So no, they’re not the most extreme. But this kind of direct-to-the-gut death metal mayhem packs a hell of a punch all the same.
from Coffin Birth, out July 20; 20 Buck Spin
The Lion’s Daughter – “Die Into Us”
St. Louis’ The Lion’s Daughter made an early highlight of 2016 with Existence Is Horror, a punishingly sludgy metal album that sat in the middle of a number of different styles and aesthetics with an overall emphasis on visceral terror. Their new album Future Cult, out next month, finds them incorporating some new elements, namely a pretty heavy emphasis on synthesizer. (This is synth-metal month at Horns, in case nobody got the memo.) And that synth creates a robotic backdrop for the band’s hardcore and black metal mixture, which finds them taking on more accessible melodies while maintaining their bloodthirsty intensity. It’s future metal, wherein the future is terrifying and cold and every upright piece of flesh is preyed upon by carnivorous mutants. So fun stuff all around, really.
from Future Cult, out July 20; Season of Mist
The Armed – “Role Models”
The Armed’s latest release ONLY LOVE came out in April, but somehow I slept on it. And I’m a little disappointed in myself that I didn’t manage to include this earlier, but here’s my mea culpa. “Role Models” is a perfect example of the totally fucking weird, noisy and overwhelming sound that they create. Blending black metal, hardcore, cybergrind and shoegaze into one overwhelming slice of anarchy (with an appearance from Converge’s Ben Koller no less), “Role Models” is a lot of different things I love about metal swirled and smashed together. These elements probably shouldn’t all work together. But god DAMN is it an amazing sound—close to sensory overload if I’m being honest, but it’s a storm worth enduring. I don’t know exactly what to call this, I just know it rules.
from ONLY LOVE, out now; Throat Ruiner
Fórn – “涂地”/”Manifestations of the Divine Root”
A lot of regular readers of this column probably also know that regular Treble contributor Cody Davis runs a weekly column over at MetalInjection called “Funeral Doom Friday.” It’s a hell of a commitment (I know I definitely don’t listen to 50 funeral doom records a year), and the metal community owes him endless rounds of beers for doing the work. But it also means we get introduced to a lot of really great stuff that we might not otherwise. Fórn, a Boston-based band that’s been around for some time now, isn’t necessarily one of those deep DIY demo underground bands, but their sprawling new 12-minute track (actually two tracks) just showed up on that very column, and damned if it’s not a beaut. Intricately woven guitar harmonies, a production style that seems to suggest endless depths beneath the band’s feet, and an emotional weight that separates good doom metal from great doom metal. It’s gripping, wrenching stuff, ambient and aggressive in equal measure, beautiful in its slow-mo agony. Music like this requires patience and time to absorb, and the first 12 minutes are a hell of a ride, regardless of how soon the listener’s ready for the second.
from Rites of Despair, out Sept. 7; Gilead
Thou – “The Changeling Prince”
I try not to double up on picks from the same artist in the same year in this column unless it’s absolutely necessary. There’s so much great metal being released that it would be unfair to let one band capitalize on it for too long, but then again, after already featuring a pretty fiery Thou highlight recently, I can’t help but save another slot for the Louisiana band on the strength of the incredible “The Changeling Prince.” After 2014’s Heathen—one of that year’s best metal albums, far and away—they’ve issued three new EPs and will finish up with their latest full-length and first for Sacred Bones. The three EPs in the series break up their sound into three different aspects—noisy, grungy and acoustic—whereas the full-length, Magus, is a combination of the different elements of their sound, as represented in the utterly fantastic “The Changeling Prince.” Though by no means as epic as Thou are truly capable, “The Changeling Prince” nonetheless balances their crushing heaviness with a sense for melody and arrangement that sets them apart from their peers. Few bands in doom/sludge are creating such an interesting melodic sound as Thou are, accessible yet prone to new discoveries with each listen, dense yet beautiful in an overwhelming way. I, for one, am ready to embrace the summer of Thou.
from Magus, out Aug. 31; Sacred Bones
Piece by piece
The best metal albums of the past month.
Khemmis‘ Desolation: Khemmis offered up a truly outstanding set of metal with 2016’s Hunted, one so epic and heroic that it took about a week before it cracked my favorite metal albums of the year. Desolation is just as spectacular a record, if one that offers a more complex array of sounds, from darker moments that recall the theatrical grandeur of Mercyful Fate to even more accessible moments of immediacy (“Isolation” is a banger). It’s an album that I suspect will only climb higher on my favorites of the year as 2018 moves forward, though it’s already a hell of an achievement. (20 Buck Spin)
Tomb Mold‘s Manor of Infinite Forms: I’m a bit of a sucker for an old-school sounding death metal album with production that really crunches. Tomb Mold’s latest album is just that, and the Toronto band hits hard with an album’s worth of chainsaw-massacre guitar riffs and not-so-secret hooks. The best bands of the vintage death metal bunch (and new wave of vintage death metal) are those who slip some melodies into their slaughterhouse, and Tomb Mold is by no means holding back on that front. (20 Buck Spin)
Wayfarer‘s World’s Blood: Denver’s metal scene is pretty spectacular these days, and Wayfarer is one of the bands making it so. Their style of post-black metal incorporates the atmosphere of Godspeed You! Black Emperor and the Western darkness of Cormac McCarthy into something both haunting and uniquely American. I haven’t really heard many metal albums quite like this in 2018, but I definitely look forward to more from this band. (Profound Lore)
Yob‘s Our Raw Heart: This album’s been at the top of my most-anticipated list for most of the year, and it did not disappoint. Frankly, it’s one of my top three records of the year, so that’s going to be pretty hard to beat come December. (Though we’ve got six more months—or five if we’re being honest.) An emotionally heavy album that balances the Eugene, Oregon trio’s most abrasive tendencies against their most beautiful melodies and arrangements to date, it offers the totality of Yob in a 70-minute package, showing everything they’re capable of while suggesting just how much farther beyond that they’re still likely to go. (Relapse)
Zeal & Ardor‘s Stranger Fruit: When Zeal & Ardor released their debut album Devil Is Fine in 2016, it felt like just the beginning of some truly fascinating potential. Blending blues, spirituals and black metal, it turned a whole handful of genres upside down in the process, as well as tackling the politics of colonization and oppression in a way that black metal never really had before. Stranger Fruit maintains that fascinating blend while adding a richer tracklist with even more excellent songs. Zeal & Ardor started out strong, but now they feel fully realized. (MVKA/Radicalis)
If you haven’t yet, read my feature on Yob from earlier this month. They’ve released my favorite metal album of the year, and had a lot of interesting things to say about it.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.