More than any other subgenre of rock, and maybe any genre of music as a whole, heavy metal relies on the power of the visual artwork surrounding it. More than anything, this is because metal music is imbued with a sonic weight and emotional scope that’s so massive, so elaborate, that it needs fantastical and evocative images to accurately represent it. Much like how an incredible metal riff can make the right listener feel instantly elated and more complete as a person, so can the right illustration on an album cover make a hesher feel they are finally understood.
It’s no surprise, then, that metal’s greatest illustrators have risen to acclaim within the genre on the same level as some of metal’s biggest musicians. These painters, cartoonists, and photo manipulators are known around the world for creating representations of albums that capture the viewer’s eye and the message of the record as a whole. Their distinctive styles and work pedigrees make having an album sleeve created by one of them a badge of honor.
Here are the 15 illustrators of album covers who have most powerfully colored the world of metal…
15. Sam Turner
Most contemporary metalheads will recognize Sam Turner’s art from the covers of the last three Khemmis albums, and beer aficionados will have seen his work on the bottles and merch of Denver metal hub TRVE Brewing. But though it’s always lurked relatively underground, Turner’s art has most likely crossed fans’ eyes more than once, whether on the sleeve of 3 Inches Of Blood’s epic third album Fire Up The Blades, the cover of Speedwolf’s brilliant debut Ride With Death, or the logo of west coast powerviolence act Black Breath. Sam’s distinct style, a mixture of Moebius’s detailed line-work and Frank Frazetta’s broad-strokes barbarianism, has made him one of metal’s most vital visual artists, and the kind of illustrator whose work you just can’t pull your from
14. Justin Bartlett
Jesus fucking Christ. What Justin Bartlett may not have in detail or color, he makes up for in sheer psychological horror. His album covers for such acts as Dragged Into Sunlight, Lord Mantis, and Detritivore have a simplicity to them that makes them look like they were created by the most disturbed child on earth. At the same time, his more detailed work for bands including Hooded Menace, Aura Noir, and Trap Them prove that Justin has the chops to back up his skin-crawlingly scraggly material. Incredible even as he gives you the goddamn willies.
13. Doug Johnson
Like some of the other artists on this list, the majority of Doug Johnson’s visual artwork isn’t for metal artists — it’s just that those metal albums he did do art for are some of the genre’s most iconic. With the three albums he illustrated for Judas Priest — Screaming For Vengeance, Defenders Of The Faith, and Turbo — Doug not only created a sharp, polished aesthetic that perfectly aided the band’s deliciously catchy riffs, but he also helped define the look of ‘80s heavy metal for a generation, who appreciated the clean, efficient way Doug depicted battle monsters and death-eagles. Moms of the ‘90s are more familiar with the jazzy the logo he did for the Nathan Lane-starring revival of Guys And Dolls — so hey, at least you have something to talk about with your mom come Christmas!
12. Dan Mumford
At the end of the day, Dan Mumford is another artist whose work probably adorns more merch and posters than actual album covers, with The Black Dahlia Murder, Trivium, and Whitechapel all utilizing his work on some of their more infamous shirts. But his cover art for modern acts like The Hell, Protest The Hero, and A Day To Remember — most notably on the latter’s 2008 epic Homesick — has made him one of modern metal’s most vital visual artists. His use of color, specifically neon blues and magentas, helped reinvigorate the slowly-growing-stark world of extreme music art. And while old-school fans cried ‘poser’ at his loaded palette, the recent work he’s done for Iron Maiden and Black Sabbath proves that Dan’s art isn’t just for tank tops.
11. Michael Whelan
The Lovecraftian art of Michael Whelan was vital to several metal bands’ success, as well as one label’s rise to fame: Roadrunner Records. Michael’s paintings graced the covers of many of the albums that established Roadrunner as a tastemaker in metal, Obituary’s Cause Of Death and Sepultura’s Beneath The Remains, Arise, and Chaos A.D. Old-school heads, meanwhile, know him best as the painter behind Cirith Ungol’s biggest releases. And while he’s created original sleeves for bands like Evile and Soulfly, it’s his sprawling Lovecraft paperback art — used not just on Cause Of Death, but also releases by Demolition Hammer and Bludgeon — that have earned him a distinguished place in the hall of greats.
10. Mark Riddick
You know you’re doing something right when the biggest pop stars in the world ask you to redo their names as death metal logos. Even before he was contacted by Rihanna and Justin Bieber, Mark Riddick was arguably the most recognizable extreme metal artist of the last 20 years. His gory, twisted depictions of demonic perversion and stitched-up goat zombies added a vivid, old-school quality to the covers of albums by Arsis, Horrendous, and Fleshgod Apocalypse, not to mention merch for Dethklok, Morbid Angel, and Carnifex. He also might be the most musically-accomplished artist on this list, having played in bands including Fetid Zombie, Macabra, and Grave Wax. A defender of the faith, through and through — even as his art looks horrifying enough to eat you alive.
9. Dan Seagrave
Of everyone on this list, Dan Seagrave has an interesting distinction: he’s metal’s great landscape artist. While clay zombies and green elementals occasionally populate Dan’s work, what he’s best known for is his sprawling portraits of jagged stone outcroppings or lava fountains in massive ancient temples. Not only has this added a sense of scale to timeless albums by bands like Entombed, Dismember, Gorguts, Morbid Angel, Warbringer, and Rivers Of Nihil, it’s also taken those bands’ aesthetic focus away from your typical mushroom clouds and demon mutants, expressing the heaviness of natural elements. Seagrave’s art is a reminder that that the world around us and the ruins of past civilizations are as dramatic and frightening as any hell we can imagine.
8. Vincent Locke
We could list some of the other bands whose album sleeves Vincent Locke has illustrated, but let’s get right to it: he’s Cannibal Corpse’s cover artist. Perhaps the most banned illustrator on this list, Vincent’s work on ‘80s underground comic Deadworld got him metal’s most infamous art gig, painting dead infants, post-mortem cunnilingus, and capes of faces for the most brutal band on the planet. It should be noted, however, that his credits also include Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman and the graphic novel A History Of Violence (which would inspire the David Cronenberg film of the same title). But real talk: we’re here for the maggot dick on the Vile cover. Here’s to the man who reinvented what it was to be disgusting.
It’s not just that so many of the albums featuring cover art of Kristian “Necrolord” Wåhlin are excellent — it’s that many of them changed the course of metal as a whole. Obvious entries into this category include At The Gates’s Slaughter Of The Soul and Dissection’s Storm Of The Light’s Bane, which helped establish death and black metal’s lushly-painted aesthetic in the ‘90s. But Kristian’s credits also include re-thrash classic Symphony For The Devil by Sweden’s Witchery and American game-changer Nocturnal by The Black Dahlia Murder. Whatever genre he delves into, Necrolord leaves an indelible mark, creating iconic covers that are forever burnt into the minds of metalheads worldwide. Hail.
6. Don Brautigam
Overall, Don Brautigam has only a few metal album covers to his name, but man, what album covers! His most recognizable credits include Metallica’s Master Of Puppets and Black Album; Anthrax’s Among The Living and State Of Euphoria; Mötley Crüe’s Dr. Feelgood; and Testament’s The Ritual — not a bad back catalog, all things considered. Of course, that’s just the art Don has done for metal albums, while his full resume includes clientele like James Brown, Charles Mingus, and Chuck Berry, whose dreamy pastel album sleeves have Don’s smooth yet decisive touch. That said, when millions of Metallica fans are walking around with your art on their T-shirts, it’s hard to argue that it’s your work on a jazz compilation that best represents your legacy.
5. Larry Carroll
With just three illustrations, Larry Carroll became one of the greatest visual artists not just in metal, but in all of rock music. His cover art for Slayer’s three most famous records — Reign In Blood, South Of Heaven, and Seasons In The Abyss — added a desolate, psychological bent to the band’s acidic, demon-haunted thrash metal. Had the covers of these albums featured just another horde of reptilian demons a la those on Hell Awaits, the most evil band of the Big Four might never have connected with fans the way they did; instead, Larry’s art perfectly matched the arch-evil tone that Slayer exuded. While the artist’s cover for 2006’s Christ Illusion certainly fits Slayer’s later output, it was his red-raw approach to those three crucial records that made his death earlier this year a tragedy for metal fans across the globe.
4. Ed Repka
When one thinks of thrash metal art, they usual picture an Ed Repka album cover. The painter’s ability to draw nuclear wastelands and rotting corpses in livid detail helped define the genre’s entire look, both in the ‘80s and during thrash’s return in the late ‘00s/early 2010s. The man’s catalog is mind-boggling: Megadeth’s Peace Sells…But Whose Buying? and Rust In Peace; Vio-Lence’s Eternal Nightmare; Nuclear Assault’s Game Over; Death’s Scream Bloody Gore; Municipal Waste’s Hazardous Mutation; Toxic Holocaust’s Hell On Earth — and that’s not even counting that he designed the Dark Angel logo. Few bands have a back catalog as utterly crushing as this man.
3. Joe Petagno
The primal, evocative artwork of Joe Petagno can be seen all across heavy metal as a whole, gracing album covers by bands including Angelcorpse, Spirit Adrift, Autopsy, Marduk, and Genocide Pact (to name a few). But his legacy will always be intertwined with that of one band: Motörhead, for who Joe created the infamous Snaggletooth mascot and then painted the covers of thirteen of their studio albums (not to mention various singles and boxed sets along the way). To think of Joe as only the War Pig’s creator does his massive body of work an injustice — the man is one of the most prolific painters on this list — but when your credits include the covers of such bangers as Overkill, Orgasmatron, and Rock ‘n’ Roll, it’s no shame to play the hits, as it were.
2. Wes Benscoter
It’s rare that an artist can make extreme metal’s horrific face look elegant and poetic, but Wes Benscoter found a way. While his most recognizable work is certainly the cosmic skeleton from Slayer’s 1994 album Divine Intervention, denizens of metal’s more horrifying hells will recognize his art from albums by Kreator, Cattle Decapitation, Mortician, Nile, and Autopsy to name a few (his cover for Autopsy’s Tourniquets, Hacksaws, And Graves, included above, being especially spectacular). Wes’ work is singularly fantastic, never sacrificing detailed depiction while working an elemental, psychological atmosphere to his paintings that many traditional death metal album covers ignore to their discredit. Truly awesome.
1. Derek Riggs
There is one face more synonymous with metal than that of any musician: Eddie, AKA Ed the Head, AKA Ed Hunter, the zombified mascot of Iron Maiden who was created and painted by artist Derek Riggs. With the invention of Eddie (the first picture of whom was originally titled ‘Electric Matthew Says Hello’), Derek not only created metal’s most iconic album cover figure, he coined the very idea of metal bands having mascots. Most importantly, his colorful, atmospheric depictions of cityscapes and historical settings helped inform heavy metal’s entire aesthetic, adding a sense of high-functioning overkill to the genre’s look and sound. When you see art that’s ‘heavy metal art’ — usually depicting a burnt-out city with a leather-clad mutant in it — you have this man to thank for it. Aces high, every time.
Posted on November 10th 2019, 2:30pm