Sick, Blasphemous, Tasteless: The Cover Art of 2006
by: T. DePalma
[Click here to open this article's image gallery in a separate window.]

Before MP3s, the greatest enticement to buy a group's CD -- besides fanzines or being mentioned in one of your favorite bands' thank you lists -- was the cover art. Even today, everyone has at one time or another passed through the store aisle and bargained on something that was advertised so pleasingly, often to our morbid or epic sense of imagination. Sometimes it paid off, other times you wound up with a Mortification CD before you had time to realize your error.

Now that idea of a previously unheard of group or album can be easily rectified free of cost, record labels have resorted to all kinds of ornate packaging and accessories to expand the artwork provided and help combat the threat of downloading with an expansive, tangible incentive. And there are still those artists and labels dedicated to a raw aesthetic, spending hours of time and energy to complete their work by hand.

As musical influences expand, so must the art reflect this change, even as the old styles resurface through the next generation. In the last five years, metal has experienced an enormous surge in popularity, although it remains in part a grudging, ironic acceptance. The common stigmas remain about the art and "culture": either sick, blasphemous, or tasteless. To the first, absolutely; the second is almost a necessity. The third? Well, that's just being hopeful. In actuality the last year has seen an incredible variety of work from across the genre, some easy to pigeonhole, others attractively incomprehensible.

Still, the image often eclipses the artists themselves. Aside from legends like Ed Repka, Andreas Marschall, Dan Seagrave, Wes Benscoter and Joe Petagno, they are mere names lost among an album's liner notes. Perhaps it's better that personality is embodied only through creation; or perhaps it's just another facet of the artist's generally thankless experience.

However, these individuals play a key role not only in marketing a product, but completing a concept, often linking back to the music itself. Indeed in some cases they are regarded as the band's silent member. In others, the visuals outshine even the musical works they are to accompany. They might be fans of the music or not. They may even be a musician in the band. They may be dead. The list below aims to highlight the most interesting work seen this year made by people we hardly see at all.

1. Celtic Frost - _Monotheist_ (Century Media)

Spend a little time with the artwork for Celtic Frost's _Monotheist_ and new and terrifying things begin to appear. Through the densely layered collage one immediately grasps the outlines of huge tarantulas, prophetic ravens, and gaping mouths of the damned. Hands reach up from the dark, mutating mass as serpentine wisps of hair; malformed eyeballs stare from the skin of this... thing, and other decaying faces -- of the band themselves -- float from the shadowy enclaves of its soul-eating manifestation.

Swiss poster artist Michel Casarramona was contacted by good friend and Celtic Frost bassist Martin Eric Ain to create what would in effect become a visual campaign to launch the Emperors return. He succeeded magnificently.

Exactly what you see, however, depends on what version of the album you're looking at. The CD, like the digipak release, produces only a hungrily staring, zombie-like portrait on the front cover. But the digipak, designed by Ain, also uses other portions of the collage to color the four panel spread, and even includes a fold-out poster reproducing roughly 90% of the finished piece. The vinyl release portrays the same poster on the cover, but unfortunately this has been transferred in a less than satisfactory color tone that obscures much of the detail. Included in the gallery is a full reproduction of Casarramona's artwork, courtesy of the artist himself.

For more information on this piece check out our exclusive interview with Michel Casarramona.

You can also visit his website at casarramona.ch.

2. Mastodon - _Blood Mountain_ (Warner Brothers)

Helping to continue a theme that began with fire, then water, and now earth, artist Paul A. Romano returned again this year to helm the design and visual presentation for Mastodon's Warner debut, _Blood Mountain_. Introducing the band to a wider audience, the album required a cover that would succeed beyond past collaborations, and with a concept as fertile as we have here, it seems Romano had no choice but to again be guided by age-old mythologies inspiring the band's concept. As William Blake once wrote, "Great things are done when men and mountains meet."

Lyrically, _Blood Mountain_ concerns the journey of man against the forces of nature -- scaling a great mountain -- incorporating folk creatures like werewolves and other altered mysteries like the Cysquatch (one-eyed Sasquatch) and Birchmen to move the tale along.

Romano's vivid, sprawling artwork realizes these forms as vibrant deities, closely patterned after Indo-Aryan / East-Asian art and symbolism. The Cysquatch, clothed in lion skin, sits among fierce representations of ocean waves and nebulae which guard the character of Aum (Om). The likeness of a Japanese Shukongojin, a guardian figure of Buddhist tradition, is evoked as well, but these are only part of the auxiliary panels.

The main focus of attention comes by way of the cover's radiant world emanation: a three headed stag, physically reminiscent of the Hindu god Shiva. Engulfed in a halo of flame, two wolves form on either side of his head, reconciled into being, a third eye opening from the middle brow. Antlers adorned in prayer beads, bells, rings and flowers emphasize a theme of rebirth. Its chest is made of flourishing green gardens, its arms of blue fish scales. Its hands are locked in mediation, bridging the gulf to the abysmal womb, where blood flows out and onto melting ice-caps below. The Buddhist "wheel of law", here placed center-breast, is displayed in recognition of the Heart Chakra. This symbolizes harmony of being; its animal counterpart is the deer. The psychedelic aureole surrounding the upper body pays tribute to older representations like The Great Sun Buddha (Japan).

The titular mountain has been interpreted, partly by the band themselves, as an attempt to achieve success on the gigantic Warner label; however, since Romano relies so heavily on carrying over these Dharmic themes, perhaps the symbol deserves a similar reading. A deeper realization might be that this image is the very personification of the album's mountain. Here as a spiritual mountain or godhead, perceived from within -- the last icon to be shattered on the path toward illumination.

[Paul A. Romano recently wrote in to help clarify some aspects of his painting for CoC: "The heads flanking the stag's are actually bear and jaguar, playing into some Native and South American myths... In truth the painting is still in progress and has more outside of the themes set up on _Blood Mountain_. I will be putting it online later this year sometime."]

See Romano's website here.

3. Dolorian - _Voidwards_ (Wounded Love Records)

It may seem, as CoC co-editor Pedro Azevedo noted in his own review of Dolorian's third album, that the group is in "no rush to go anywhere in particular"; however the visuals accompanying _Voidwards_ help offer some insight into one of the most obscure records of the year.

Inside, the booklet traces a path from boiling, thermal pools of earth and moss covered rocks to luminous sunsets. Each image is captioned by fragmented, dreamlike lyrics. Here, Dolorian's purpose seems less like a wallowing migration of gloom than a reflection and ritual of the self through the lineaments of earth and time. The cover art, by Anti Haapapuro (guitar / voices), is no less pregnant with such prodigious symbols, and naturally no two people are likely to reach the same conclusion on their intent. What's more, it's not even clear exactly what is being portrayed.

A row of ominous peacock feathers surrounds what looks like a peeled skull, cracking egg-like in several directions as a sliver of light breaks from underneath the upper crest. The inner eclipse? Who knows? One is drawn to it magnetically.

4. WTN - _Black Hearse_ (Scrotum Jus Records)

For the release of a new compilation of demo and EP cuts from Singaporean grinders WTN (War Torn Nation), Scrotum Jus Records contacted Portland-based artist and writer Dennis Dread. Since 1997, Dread has edited Destroying Angels, his zine of underground art, culture and music. At the same time, his uniquely styled ballpoint pen drawings have been used for similarly putrid releases by Engorged, Autopsy, Abscess and Phobia. In 2005, his portrait of the Norse goddess Freyja was featured in Portland's Heathen Arts exhibit, alongside works by Robert Taylor, Nicholas Tesluk, Michael Moynihan and Markus Wolf of Waldteufel. But for WTN, Dread returns to the gory pulp and punk-influenced art that's been his signature. The black hearse spills open in a pile of entrails as hungry ghouls descend on a dead and soon to be headless (but well-endowed) female that just happens to be at the scene. Well, if she's just gonna lay there...

The detail here, spreading from cold full moon sky to the foreground's graveyard romp is impeccable: a bloody hand print stains the car door, greasy intestines lay shining in the moonlight and the undead (four in total), dressed in leather strapped boots and devilocks, pick apart the remains. Dread has even opted for vintage Cadillac fins on the hearse itself and a beard of maggots for the freak emerging from between those stiff white thighs. Tom Araya would be proud.

Writing on his personal blog, The Battle for Art, Dread remarked that he "drew the cover art for _Black Hearse_ for $100 and five copies of the CD." Explaining, "I generally charge much more than that, but this was a tiny D.I.Y. label in an underdeveloped nation that asked very nicely. And I have a total fucking weakness for Asian zombies." After months of no communication he finally received the final product in September, along with twice the amount of discs he requested. It's no exaggeration when he says that these sick little fuckers have literally been "around the world and back!"

Dread's skill intensifies the impact of themes that have been bungled for years in this genre, and is always guaranteed to pull you back while browsing through endless catalog titles. With sharp definition and a sharper sense of macabre humor, _Black Hearse_ leaves no chance for obscenity overlooked.

Dennis Dread's website is at www.dennisdread.com.

5. Catacombs - _Into the Depths of R'lyeh_ (Moribund Records)

Inspired by, though not specifically based on the stories of H.P. Lovecraft, Catacomb's debut full-length is the realization of years of fine tuning by sole member Xathagorra Mlandroth (this is his legal name), who forcefully states in the album's liner notes that doom "is something to be experienced, not just listened to..."

_Into the Depths of R'lyeh_ takes its name from the dwelling place of Lovecraft's most recognized creation: Cthulu, the ancient one. Deep beneath the ocean, he calls out to his cult from the silence of abysmal exile. In dreams he summons them to the dead city below.

Artist Lars Simpkins created the cover in close coordination with Mlandroth's ideas, dedicated to honoring this iconic figure with the full dread of his alien form (half dragon / octopus). To this end, Simper casts the dark god in the act of summoning, staring outward as his lifeless subjects float through the city's famous "non-Euclidean" structures. The congregation gathers among eerily lit caverns under the murky glaucous "sky" to greet the Lord at his church of hideous coral spires. Cthulu Fhatgn!

Archgoat - _Whore of Bethlehem_ (Hammer of Hate Records)

Chris "Thorncross" Moyen is arguably the most well-known underground artist working today. His unalterable style -- often breaching into color, but predominantly focusing on black and white renderings of muscular he-goats, reapers and other creatures of occult rites -- has been the source of much praise and hand wringing. You either love it or hate it.

To usher in the mighty Archgoat's return, Moyen's pen seems to carve out rather than draw the image of the title's apocalyptic harbinger; here entranced by waxing and waning moons, hovering within the void.

Click here to visit Moyen's website.

Arsis - _United in Regret_ (Willowtip)

For their sophomore album, Arsis once again chose Mark Riddick to handle the cover and interior artwork. Riddick is another artist whose style often harkens back to the "do it yourself" style drawings of early death metal, but his work certainly stands out among the rest. Coupled with a background in design, his portfolio includes works done for groups as varied as Capharnaum, Rune, Necrophagia, Cephalic Carnage, Demoncy and his own musical projects like Yamatu and The Soil Bleeds Black.

For _United in Regret_ (originally titled "Lust Before the Maggots Conquest"), Riddick has put his morbid mind to the task and created an exceptionally detailed collection of prints, each full of half-maggot, half-man creatures emerging from the soil on top of a pile of severed heads, stylishly finished in a blood speckled floral pattern.

The Riddick website can be found here.

Cathedral - _The Garden of Unearthly Delights_ (Nuclear Blast, North American Release)

For as many years as he's been creating such unique and fantastic paintings, like some incarnation of Hieronymus Bosch and John Tenniel, it seemed inevitable that Dave Patchett and Cathedral would finally collaborate on something so aptly titled as _The Garden of Unearthly Delights_.

This is the eighth Cathedral album Patchett has worked on, and his surreal imagination has yet to falter. Another work that's revealed only one piece at a time, _Garden_'s cover crops out a woman in scarlet robes as she clutches a glowing skeleton emerging from forbidden fruit. The (first?) couple is surrounded by demons, horned devils, snakes and wild growth of branches stretching across the canvas, all impeccably showcased in Patchett's strange outlines, like ancient papier-mache cutouts. Sin begets sin as a full moon presides over this necromantic affair atop the tree of good and evil.

[Dave Patchett's own remarks on this piece were forwarded to CoC via his webmaster, Mike:

"Lee Dorian, of Cathedral, arranged to meet me in a Brighton pub. He had had a great idea for the next CD's artwork. This was it: a single tree, teeming with creatures. Its branches and roots and the lifeforms living on it represent evolution. Past, present and future, living and dying according to no plan.The recycling of barbarism via civilisation.

"The centrepiece figures are Adam and Eve arisen from a bitten apple. Adam has become a skeleton yet Eve still clings to his form. Like a maggot, a Serpent pokes his way out of the apple whilst flicking the seeds to the ground. It's all going to start over."]

Patchett's website: www.davepatchett.com.

Drudkh - _Blood in Our Wells_ (Supernal Music)

Although Drudkh have been known to base their lyrics around the work of poet and master painter Taras Shevchenko (1814-1861), _Blood in Our Wells_ gives us no such confirmation, and this writer lacks the knowledge to even hazard a guess at the hand behind the cover's powerfully expressive scene. Cutting a path through the harsh ice and snow, a poor family has made the slow and arduous journey home on a mule-carried sleigh, now standing at the summit of a hill. A rooftop peeks in the near horizon, and the family dog is there to greet and urge them forward. What concerns us most, however, is the composition: one parent, driving the sleigh; and two children, both huddled in the back and clutching an oblong box where resides, undoubtedly, the last member of the household.

Heresi - _Psalm II - Infusco Ignis_ (Total Holocaust Records)

Having brooded over the cover of _A Silhouette in Splinters_ several times last year, I instantly recognized the nightmarish portrait smearing the cover of this album as belonging to Leviathan's Wrest. Heresi is actually the solo endeavor of Skamfer, formerly of Ondskapt, and here the two seem to be perfectly in tune regarding atmosphere and objective. Like a glimpse of something you were never meant to see, disjointed limbs sprout from the pitch black canvas, seem to wave and falter back to the darkness below. Teeth are bared from foul cavities, the pangs of birth, a hideous becoming.

Lair of the Minotaur - _The Ultimate Destroyer_ (Southern Lord Records)

Tom Denney, editor of the video magazine Doomed Nation, stamps his signature on the latest album by Chicago's Lair of the Minotaur. Denney, who experiments in a number of different mediums, has rightly chosen to leave an old-school impression to match the husky, overdriven anatomy of the band's sound. This picture is something like a griffin exploding from the inside out. See the horned skull plucking a harp made of stretched tendons? Looks right to me.

Tom Denney's website can be visited here.

Negura Bunget - _Om_ (Code666)

The concept of Negura Bunget's latest is a little difficult to grasp through the language barrier, but we do know from various interviews that it involves, loosely, a conflation of Pagan spiritualism embodied through the noun Om ("man" in their native Romanian -- phonetically linked to the four states of waking / dream consciousness in Buddhist / Hindu philosophy, Aum), which involves also the seasons, elements and the centrality of being. This ambience is impressively carried through Dan Florin Spataru's striking simulacra, inspiring images of ancient figures beneath the snow and rocks embroidered with complex grids -- a map that leads where?

You can visit the artist's website at www.encoil.ro.

Sunn O))) / Boris - _Altar_ (Southern Lord Records)

Bringing together the unique talents of Sunn's Stephen O'Malley, Boris' Atsuo, Skateboard artist / painter Aaron Horkey and photgraphs by Bastard Noise's W.T. Nelson, this disc may have faltered on the sonic end of things, but provides some stunning packaging to match Horkey's surrealist gathering on the cover: a monstrous tree whose roots stretch out to an assembled mass of cloaked figures encircled in the night. The trunk has split open to reveal the luminous treasure inside; a holy artifact for the cult of amplifier worship.

Links: SOMA and Horkey.

Sunn O))) - _La Mort Noir dans Esch / Alzette_ (Southern Lord Records)

A limited tour EP to commemorate the group's performance in Luxembourg, February 2006. The illustration is by Justin Bartlett, who has previously supplied art for Aura Noir, Intronaut, Cadaver and the American zine Oaken Throne, where he recently completed a totally deranged yet seemingly accurate portrait of Wolves in the Throne Room and their bohemian campfire antics. Here, he offers a renewal of life through the disintegration of female form. The body itself is pocked by skulls and golden spores. Nature gathers it all back and replenishes with an added bonus...

Website here.

(article submitted 9/1/2007)


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