State of the Art: Are Album Covers Important?

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You’ve heard me say it before, and you’ll probably hear me say it again. “Never judge a book by its cover” is some of the worst advice that’s ever been offered to me, second only to the staggering number of times I’ve been advised to “jump off a bridge/cliff/building/etc.”

Do these people expect me to walk into a book store (do those exist?) and buy the book closest to the door? Select any book at random? A shitty suggestion. The cover of a book is more than the bread of a boring text sandwich for nerds — it’s there to make a statement about the content. Allow me explain with some shiny pictures.

Bad

Should I reserve judgement on these thrilling novels based on their covers? Should I purchase them with my hard-earned money and take them home with me? What are the chances that there is even one fucking dragon or laser gun between the three of them? Sure, these men on the cover are well put together and, yeah, their muscles glisten impressively in the light, but — despite the constant allegations — those are not my interests.

good

See, this is more like it. Armored beastrider — check. Space dragon — check. Sandworm — check. The probability that at least one of these books will speak to my interests is substantially higher than that of Sweaty Man with Exposed Chest by Mrs. Menopause, wouldn’t you agree? There. Judging books by their covers isn’t such a bad idea after all. So never say that shit.

The same applies (to a certain degree) to us in the realm of metal. I can’t stand the notion that album art is of little significance to the consumer. Ultimately it’s the quality of the music that really counts — this is something I’m sure we can all agree on — but to assert that the art that accompanies it serves no purpose makes very little sense to me. At the very least it provides a rather reliable way to sift through piles and piles of music in a way similar to choosing the right book. At this point in metal’s history, most subgenres have developed their own distinctive norms in respects to art style. These constructs are so prevalent that I’m sure someone even marginally versed in metal would have no trouble completing one of these:

Quiz

It’s obviously not an exhaustive list, but you get the point. Rarely does a band stray far from the model that has been established within their respective subgenre. If you know what genres you typically enjoy, I’d bet that you’re capable of discerning these models and that the presence or lack of them in an album cover influences your decision to listen or not. You’d better believe that if a die-hard War Metal fan happens across an album that has Satan molesting a nun or something on the cover, they’re going to give it a chance. These recycled themes in album art are perpetuated because they work. They allow the supplier to reach their target demographic (i.e., fans of the genre who are willing to pay money for it) by enabling the consumer to identify the product at first glance, which then leads to listening, which then leads to buying. We’re all a part of this. Admittedly a shallow analysis of the industry, but true nonetheless.

Which is why I find it ridiculous to hear people spouting off that the album cover is a “dying art form” and blah, blah, blah “internet” and blah, blah, blah “audio files.” It’s here to stay because it’s an effective market strategy. And even if it weren’t, how exactly is the album cover becoming less vital? I fail to see a significant difference between discovering Judas Priest in ’84 because Defenders of the Faith caught your eye in a record store and discovering Cormorant this year because you came across the excellent art for Earth Diver online. You hardly ever see music presented online without it being accompanied by the artwork, do you?

Defenders-Earth Diver

To me seems to be more relevant than ever. Metal as a genre is a hell of a lot more oversaturated than it was in 1984. Genre themes aside, there’s just a whole lot to choose from. In a seemingly endless sea of new music with more showing up every day, I’ll admit I’m less inclined to check out a new album from a band I’ve never heard of if the art is bad. If you don’t have time to hear it all, why not pick the ones that will look the prettiest in your collection?

Do you think that’s weird? Well, I don’t. I think album covers have more to do with how an album is received than some of us suspect. Picture in your mind some albums that are generally accepted as classics. Take your time. Overall, pretty solid album covers, right? Now picture similar albums that haven’t quite reached the same level of acclaim, even with music of equal or better quality. I’m guessing more than a few of those have some horrible art attached. I’m not drawing any conclusions here, and maybe it’s just me, but it sure seems like a trend. Here’s an example — Exodus’ Bonded by Blood:

Bonded by Blood

This abomination offends me thoroughly. I feel like it gets worse every time I see it. You’ve got your basic infant conjoined twins attached at the ass, only one of them has goblin ears, dentures, black fingernail extensions, fully developed pectoral muscles, and apparently a fucking armadillo shell for an abdomen. This looks like someone brought their failed scientific experiment to a Sears photo shoot. Why is he ripping that? It took me a long time to get into this album because I couldn’t bring myself to spend my money on something so ugly without actually throwing up. Maybe I’m not alone in that. Maybe Exodus‘ opus would have received more attention if the cover looked more like, gee, I don’t know, ANY OF THESE:

123

Again, I’m not making any definitive statements, but what if that cover was the difference between The Big Four and The Big Five? WHAT IF? They certainly deserved it more than Anthrax ever did.

Even if they had no effect on the industry, album covers can have a direct influence on how the actual music is interpreted by the listener, especially in a genre so concerned with making you feel rather than just hear. The right album art can set the mood. It can light the metaphorical candles, spin the metaphorical smooth jazz grooves, or cover your metaphorical chest in metaphorical whipped cream before your sensual metal experience. Let’s talk about Tobias Möckl, a Swiss musician who channels his talent through two distinctly different black metal projects. Darkspace is his outlet for spacey, cosmic-themed aggression and Paysage d’Hiver (“Landscape of Winter” in French) is his black-metal-obligatory winter worship. Both are excellent and expressive representations of their respective motifs. Now, for the sake of discussion, let’s play make-believe and pretend that both Darkspace and Paysage d’Hiver were released under the moniker of Tobias Möckl to remove any aesthetic association with the subject matter apart from their album covers.

DSPdH

They’re near-perfect portrayals of the music and two of my favorite covers. Darkspace’s is simplistic but but appropriately dark and spacey, and the blizzardborne landscape on Paysage d’Hiver’s is just the sort of reverie that the music so fluently conjures up. That said, here is my question. Would Darkspace take you to space if you hadn’t first been primed to go there by the album cover? Would you still have the same experience without having seen it first? Would everybody? Might some envision a journey to the subterranean depths of the earth or the bottom of the ocean instead? A nameless, faceless Darkspace would rely much more on subjective interpretation. The same goes for Paysage. Would Möckl be as capable of taking you to the intended place without the cover as a reference, or might that realm of icy forest become somewhere else altogether? Someone might even inversely think “space” when listening to Paysage d’Hiver and “winter” when listening to Darkspace, might they not? It’s something to think about.

I’d like to add that  the opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of ToH or make any sense at all. Can you think of any album covers that may have altered your listening experience, or are they completely separate and irrelevant to the music? Do you bemoan your silly and unfounded vision of a cold, dark future of artless albums? Which albums have you checked out recently based on album art alone? Let’s hear those opinions!

Lastly, here’s something relevant that you art-lovers might be interested in. Veteran music journalist Ramon Martos has finished a book called …And Justice for Art: Stories About Heavy Metal Album Covers, featuring tons of images, stories, interviews from metal legends, etc. Here’s the promotional video. It looks rad.

David Vincent (Morbid Angel) has this to say about it: “…AND JUSTICE FOR ART is a historical document about the importance of Metal album covers.”

Travis Ryan’s (Cattle Decapitation) two cents: “This is EXACTLY what the music world needs to remind us how important album covers have been.”

Apparently it’s all ready to go, he just needs some funds to get it all printed. If you want it on your coffee table, pitch in via the Indiegogo campaign.

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