ART OF DARKNESS – THE GROSSEST ALBUM COVERS IN METAL

Originally published in Metal Hammer special The Devil’s Music.

humanureAS a veteran of the most extreme manifestations of all things metal, Hammer prides itself on being hard to shock and even harder to nauseate. That changed a couple of years ago with the release of an album by US grindcore outfit Cattle Decapitation called Humanure. The cover was a painting by Wes Benscoter of a cow shitting out human remains, the face and torso still visible in the heap of excrement. We’ve seen albums that depict DIY surgery, demon rape, grossly mutated sexual organs and acts of barbarism so foul that we dare not describe them and merely sighed and chucked them on the pile to be reviewed or – more likely – used as Frisbees. But somehow that sleeve was the one that had us retching our lunch away. If they set out to make people barf then they succeeded wonderfully.

Strangely enough, the band thought twice about the cover and when their label Metal Blade gave them the option of changing the sleeve (Hammer had been sent an early promo) on the grounds that they would find it impossible to have it stocked in any record store anywhere, they chose to do so.

Cattle Decapitation are all militant vegans, and the sleeve was actually making an unsubtle point about the consumption of animals, turning the food cycle around by having the cow eating man.

We didn’t want the sleeve to gross people out. We think our music and our lyrics do a good enough job of that already,” singer Travis Ryan told Hammer. ”But we were getting complaints that people couldn’t find the album in the shops and that’s exactly why we signed with Metal Blade in the first place.”

sabbathMETAL album sleeves have offended since day one. Black Sabbath’s eponymous 1970 debut featured an inverted crucifix inside, something that raised the hackles of the great and the good eager to save our youth from the forces of darkness. Strangely enough, though, it also managed to piss off the band as well. “We had no say as to what went on the cover,” says Tony Iommi. “It was all down to the label. People keep asking us who the girl on the front cover is and I have to tell them to this day that I have no idea.”

The washed out picture is credited to Marcus Keef, the in-house designer at their label Vertigo records and was actually taken at Mapledurham Watermill on the River Thames. The girl on the cover was supposedly an  actress hired for the shoot who later met the band long after the album had been released. The image suggested a witch or a ghost and further reinforced the bands’ links to the occult. Alex Sanders, Britain’s self-styled King Of The Witches, attended several Sabbath gigs and tried to get them to attend his covens supposedly on the strength of the cover alone. Marcus Keef also designed the sleeve for ‘Paranoid’ [which was originally to have been called ‘War Pigs’ hence the blurred picture of the bloke in the crash helmet waving the sword which graced the cover] as well as a poster included with ‘Master Of Reality’.

Although it was all a bit of a happy accident, Sabbath’s first album is one of the few where the sleeve actually looks like the music sounds: malevolent in a way you can’t define, vaguely hallucinatory, the stuff of uncomfortable nightmares. But it wasn’t until the release of ‘Sabbath Bloody Sabbath’ with its skulls and demons that they got one again that you could argue was at all appropriate to the way that they sounded.

Early metal bands, in fact went through the same corporate cookie cutter as every other band be they prog, pop, soul or even easy listening middle of the road. Usually the record company’s idea of a great sleeve was a cheesy band shot or – worse – one of those vaguely surreal concept photos typically produced by the design partnership Hypgnosis. It wasn’t until the late 70s and early 80s that a definite metal style emerged, artwork for album covers, t-shirts and posters that actually gave you some idea of what the band sounded like. It was art that looked as heavy and evil as the music sounded.

The inspiration came from horror comics, science fiction and fantasy art, medieval engravings of demons and devils, the great mad renaissance painter Hieronymus Bosch and cheesy porno. More often than not these ingredients were all blended together into a ridiculous whole.

virginEarly metal sleeves came under attack from feminists, and sometimes not without good reason. In This Is Spinal Tap the band are told that their sleeve for Smell the Glove is sexist and won’t be used to which they reply ”Great, we want a sexy sleeve.” In real life, German mullet-haired metal merchants The Scorpions had the artwork for their 1976 album ‘Virgin Killer’ pulled. The sleeve depicted a naked pre-pubescent girl, with what looks like a crack in the glass of a frame obscuring her crotch. It’s a creepy sleeve not least because we can now see that it’s a piece of child pornography and while for most of us it’s hopefully going to be our only exposure to it, for some it may only be their first. There’s still some debate as to what was going on in the minds of the band at the time: some suggest that it was once again the record label pushing them through blatant controversy. If that’s the case it backfired and The Scorpions became successful in spite of the sleeve and not because of it. Whatever the reasons the sleeve was pulled in many countries and the original is now a much sought after collector’s item.

Iron Maiden were one of the first bands whose album and singles cover art had a kind of consistency, an identifiable logo and a style of their own. Maiden’s early art by Derek Riggs was raw and juvenile. They also weren’t above inventing ‘controversy’ for publicity reasons, such as the cover of ‘women in uniform’ which depicts Margaret Thatcher getting stabbed by Eddie. Maiden’s covers are too silly to be truly evil, but Riggs’ apocalyptic horror comic style was to have a big influence on later, more extreme bands.

reignWith the emergence of more extreme music in the 80s, a new and more extreme sort of image was needed to package it in. Slayer’s ‘Reign In Blood’ depicts Hell as a knock off of Hieronymous Bosch’s The Garden Of Earthly Delights (a painting that has graced many a black metal and death metal album cover, incidentally) but the truly diabolical sleeve was that of ‘Seasons In The Abyss’ which depicted the Slayer logo set in a fascist-style eagle, that seemed to confirm all those rumours about their alleged Nazi connections. Of course they shook it off with the usual “what, us Nazis?” how dare you comments.

frankenchristBut the most Satanic and evil sleeve of that decade wasn’t actually a metal band, it was the much banned 1985 album ‘Frankenchrist’ by The Dead Kennedys which featured the painting Landscape XX, or Penis Landscape by the visionary Swiss artist HR Giger. Giger is probably best known for having designed the exomorph from Ridley Scott’s Alien. He had designed album covers for prog bands like ELP (‘Brain Salad Surgery’) and Magma (‘Attahk’) but they were comparatively anodyne. Giger’s style is to blend organic and mechanical forms in a realistic and disturbing way. Landscape XX depicted rows and rows of erect penises inserted into disembodied vaginas. It wasn’t so much pornographic as anti-pornographic: having looked at it and figured out what was going on, you really didn’t feel like shagging for a while. The band was sued and charged with distributing harmful matter to minors. They eventually won the case, but singer Jello Biafra’s Alternative Tentacles label was almost driven to bankruptcy.

Giger’s Satanic imagery is said to derive from vivid nightmares that he has suffered from all of his life. His work has always been a major inspiration for the more Satanically inclined metallers. Celtic Frost, Danzig and Attrocity have all used his paintings on album covers and those that can’t afford Giggler often plump for the many imitators that he has spawned.

But while Giger’s art is – regardless of its subject matter – beautifully executed and technically brilliant, the same can’t be said for the visceral nightmares that began to grace the sleeves of bands like Carcass, Cannibal Corpse and Anal Cunt.

butcheredAs befits a band with songs like ‘Skull Full Of Maggots’ and ‘Born In A Casket’, the art for Cannibal Corpse’s ‘Butchered At Birth’ featured cover art by Vincent Locke (of Dead World Comics fame). It shows two skeletal zombie surgeons performing a gory abortion on a corpse while all around them there are dead foetuses and the skeletons of new-born babies hanging from the walls. Although we are inured to this sort of thing, when they arrived in the early 90s they were probably the grossest things many of us had ever seen. The records still can’t be stocked to this day in Germany in the original sleeves.

This sort of painting harks back to the gory glory days of the uncensored American horror comics of the 1950s such as Tales From The Crypt and Vault Of Horror which eventually became so extreme that there was a backlash against them leading to the comics industry adopting a voluntary code of practice and effectively castrating comics for the next 30 years.

It’s kind of hard to tell people who are shocked by these images that they are actually very funny: sure, it’s dark humour and arguably it’s sick humour but it’s so over the top that it can only be a joke.

jesus_is_a_c___tshirtHumour, though, can land you in court. When Cradle Of Filth produced their first batch of Jesus Is A Cunt t-shirts, they knew that they would be controversial. Even a decade on there are still hapless teens in out of the way towns getting arrested for wearing them. Oddly, nobody seemed offended by the masturbating nun on the front. It was the logo on the back that got punters into trouble the world over. The t-shirt was condemned by the Catholic League of New York and the Lord Provost of Glasgow, subsequently forcing record shops to take them off their shelves, thereby making it the most sought-after and bootlegged t-shirts in the country.

Christians, despite their unwarranted power in the US politics, are really a soft target and easily offended. And they are fun to offend. You can hardly begin to count the number of ‘blasphemous’ album covers and t-shirts that proliferate in the murky depths of the extreme metal underground. One personal favourite is Christian Death’s ‘Sex And Drugs And Jesus Christ’ which features a junkie Jesus injecting heroin. Marilyn Manson’s ‘Holywood’ depicts him in a crucifixion pose which offended many of the groups whose sole reason for existence seems to be to get offended by Marilyn Manson. Even here in the arguably more secular UK, the fly posters for the album generated a small scale campaign by evangelical types to rip them down and deface them with stickers exhorting us to go to their church.

Interestingly, however, most bands stick with poking fun at Christians. Other faiths, as we now know, won’t exactly take it quite so calmly. Hammer has often quizzed bands who make a big display of how anti-Christian they are why they don’t have a pop at, say, Islam. Why don’t we see t shirts proclaiming that The Prophet Mohammed Is A Cunt or – worse – a pig? Who will be the first band to depict the Prophet on the sleeve of one of their CDs (he doesn’t have to be doing anything: depicting him is enough)? The answer is probably never.

Some bands have said that they would draw the line at attacking Islam because they are not racists (though Muslims are not a race) and that they will only attack things within their own culture. All admit that they don’t want to spend the rest of their lives sharing a hidey-hole with a Danish cartoonist.

Extreme evil art these days is confined to the underground, partly because it has become a bit cheesy but also because of the commercial might of chainstores such as Wal Mart in the US. When Nirvana released ‘In Utero’, whose sleeve depicted a vitrified female corpse displayed in the Smithsonian Museum in Washington (wings added by Kurt) the chain decided that they would not stock it as they found it offensive. Nirvana relented and issued it in a different sleeve for Wal Mart because as Kurt Cobain explained, when he was growing up that was the only place that you could buy records.

Wal Mart is notoriously puritan and since they account for millions of sales, artists and labels are only too willing to tailor their product to accommodate them.

As the standards by which we define extreme music shift, so too the power of images to shock is diluted. Every day Hammer receives envelopes full of albums by black metal and death metal bands from countries that you’ve never heard of and many of those have artwork that depicts mutilations, plates of viscera, gory killings and senseless torture. Some are mildly amusing but most are just a little bit pathetic.

Most of the artists who really convey an image of evil and terror do so through their stage shows. Gorgoroth, for example, release pretty dull albums in pretty dull packages but their live show complete with flaming torches, crucified groupies and mouldering goats heads on stakes convey a real sense that you have entered Hell.

And despite the controversy over the cover of ‘Holy Wood’, Marilyn Manson never seems link his paintings to his music. Odd, because they are powerful, dark works depicting murder and mutilation, albeit in a less figurative and more abstract way than most common or garden death metal sleeves.

And while Slipknot may serenade serial killers and the like, their albums are always released in packages that are unlikely to upset the apple-cart at the Wal Mart chain.

ratmOne of the most shocking images ever to grace an album cover was that on Rage Against The Machine’s 1992 debut. It was a classic news image of Thích Quảng Đức, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk burning himself to death in Saigon in 1963 as a protest against the oppression of Buddhists by the US-backed government of South Vietnam. it’s a powerful image because it’s an image of a real death, a snuff photo if you like. It isn’t there for a sick thrill; there is a point to it, something that becomes apparent in RATM’s politically charged music.

Perhaps because you can now see really gross uncensored images of the war via the internet and increasingly in the mainstream press – real decapitated soldiers, people burned to death in their cars – the power of a painting or a drawing of some gut-dripping zombies doesn’t really have the same effect as it once had.

Where can the imagery of evil go next? We shudder to think.

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