Wednesday, May 04, 2011

The Occult Roots Of Metal Iconography


Sometimes I'll do just about anything to avoid washing dishes, fixing the towel rack in the bathroom, mowing the lawn, going to work or otherwise behaving like a boring fucking adult. Fortunately for you, dear reader, these episodes of liberated clarity frequently result in me diving headfirst into the thankless abyss that is this blog (can we please just call it an "online fanzine"?). So today we draw back the veil of time and dust to reveal the esoteric roots and unexpected lineage of some of the most cherished album covers of all time (and a few that no one cares about). Don't think for one moment that this is some smug post-ironic deconstruction meant to undermine the artists or bands depicted. Nothing could be farther from the truth. If you're like me, you initially gravitated toward heavy metal because it granted you access to areas and ideas otherwise impenetrable and strictly forbidden. Is that not the compelling allure of the occult? Seek, pilgrims! Evil has no boundaries...


We shall start out with a specimen you should all be familiar with by now. The first Bathory LP boasted one of the most striking and memorable graphics of the decade but it was only in recent years that the true creator of the infamous yellow goat was finally celebrated. Quorthon's official website describes the history of the image as follows:

"Next up was the album cover artwork. It had already been decided that the main color for the album was going to be black. Not wanting to feature the classic Baphomet illustration on the front as first intended, a single monstrous goat like face was glued together from a collage of eyes, a nose and a mouth cut out from several horror comic magazines. Liberal amounts of tipex and black ink was used for masking and adding a few details such as the torso, fur, elongated ears and horns...[the] working title for the debut album was Pentagrammaton, but this working title was discarded when several people read it out as Pentagon. The pentagram was moved to the back of the album cover and replaced with a monster face made up from several bits cut out from various horror comics."

Well, we all know by now that it was no horror comic collage at all but, in fact, the original creation of American illustrator Joseph Smith, who teaches art and design at the acclaimed Pratt Institute to this very day. The illustration in question was swiped from page 81 in Erica Jong's beloved coffee table book Witches, published in 1981. Behold:

Metal journalist Todd DePalma contacted Black Mark Records in 2008 in an effort to clear up this misunderstanding once and for all. The response he received after several inquiries is as follows:

The Bathory site was made by Bathory/Quorthon, he constructed the site, he updated the site he wrote the site. He did have full controll over it and full reponse for it, it was his site and his souvereignty over it. We are a label without any permission to enter other artists site for changes! Nevermind if they`re living or not living any longer. You guys have to accept that the constructer of the site is dead and the site comes to be for all time as the artist Quorthon left it. As said we`re a label, Quorthon Bathory surely was the greatest artist we had but we did not own him for that and his artistical freedom was his own only. Please respect that. Please feel free to update other sides or your own side if you think the credits you are missing are such important for todays heavy metal world and their listeners.
All the best wishes,

Now the world knows the truth.
(Part II)

Ok, I'll be perfectly honest. I've never heard this CD or even seen it in real life. But it's too good to pass up for our purposes. Pretty great rendering of Lucifer either rising or falling from/to hell. At first glance the colors and textures resemble the Nifelheim LP Devil's Force (which was itself something of an homage to Iron Maiden's Number Of The Beast single) but upon closer examination it is clear that the roots of this painting lay in Frank Frazetta's unforgettable image known as Against The Gods! The only thing more remarkable than this painting is the fact that Frazetta probably completed it in one casual evening while humming Frank Sinatra and playing with his camera collection. HAIL THE KING!


I've always adored this fantastically complex and luminescent masterpiece by Kristian "Necrolord" Wahlin. If the nonchalant observer was asked to paint a picture of "heavy metal" they would most likely attempt something along these lines: an icy realm inhabited by armed trolls, pointy medieval strongholds, frosty bridges, brooding clouds, malevolent nordic trees and of course...DEATH ON A PALE HORSE! In fact, that's the unofficial title of the classic engraving by suave as fuck French master (Paul) Gustave Doré from which these ghost riders in the sky were lifted. I'm not saying Necrolord didn't do this justice. He did. But at some point the band gave up and simply released this record with Doré's art photoshopped onto a pitch black background. Boring. Doré himself died relatively young and left a handsome corpse in 1883 but not before unleashing Lucifer and his legions upon the world in the form of hundreds of exquisitely detailed chiaroscuro engravings. The world will be playing catch-up for at least another century.


Don't worry, hellions. We'll get to the other Slayer momentarily. This, however, is Slayer from San Antonio, Texas' moment. I've never been entirely sure what's going on here. The only logical conclusion I can draw is that the classic EP cover pictured above is the band's photographic reproduction of "homage" to yet another Joseph Smith painting, this one also originally featured in Witches, first as the frontispiece inviting readers to push open that oaken door of mystery and again on page 65. One might wonder why Joe's work was so unabashedly stolen back then, but if you've ever had the pleasure of poring over his fantastic art it is almost more perplexing why even more bands haven't raided his creative legacy. He's just so damn good! Credit is finally given where credit is very clearly due:


This one is no secret but I'm still amazed and a bit bummed that this sacred icon of my youth came from such a profane source. Ok, most of my sacred icons came from profane sources but...CRYSTAR the Crystal Warrior???? I hope comic artist Michael Golden received some royalties. This grossly uncredited appropriation first appeared on Samhain's November Coming Fire but is most popularly remembered for its appearance on the debut Danzig gatefold LP. I can't believe I don't have this tattooed on my cock...


"Join us...Join Us...JOIN US!!!!" Say what you want about Slayer (or, better yet, please just stop saying, "SLAYER!") but Hell Awaits still rules. The chainsaw riffs shred your corpus callosum leaving you clapping like a one-handed conundrum, the brilliant poetry barely makes sense but somehow still pisses off your parents and Dave Lombardo sounds like he's hammering his way out of a coffin filled with wet skulls. The cover art is simply fucking awesome. So primitive and strange and absolutely at war with the rules of composition, negative space and God.

Where on Earth did cover artist Albert Cuellar come up with such an insane vision of hell? Do you really want to know? Can you accept the truth?

Whoa. It was lifted without much creative embellishment from the July 1977 issue of Heavy Metal magazine and the original artist was none other than French comix visionary Jean Giraud, otherwise known as Moebius. Let's take another look:


What about that other demon that's tearing that dude's face up with his savage fucking claw?

Oh. Well, have you ever wondered what else those demons did to that hapless captor of sin?

Now you know.

(Part II)

Another great record from Slayer's best period. This vinyl picture disc still hangs on my wall, right above my drawing desk, and never fails to inspire and amuse. Somehow you felt like you already knew this precise scene from the moment you saw it staring back at you from the record store wall. Hmm. Perhaps that feeling of deja vu was not so mystical after all...

Artist Albert Cuellar very conservatively referenced the central image from this very early panel by the master of macabre himself, Berni Wrightson! This drawing originally appeared in an EC horror spoof called Ghastly Horror Comix in 1969 but it was reprinted and made more widely available in the 1980 Wrightson collection The Mutants. You can hardly blame Cuellar for ripping this off. It's a perfectly archetypal zombie and, in the spirit of fair play, Wrightson himself was aping the great comic artist Graham "Ghastly" Ingels when he drew this for an underground fanzine in the late 60's.

What about ol' Dave Lombardo back there shaking his drumsticks at the moon? Lifted from another Wrightson sketch circa 1970. This one was also reprinted in The Mutants, which is most likely where Cuellar discovered it since this drawing appears exactly opposite the above mentioned one-page strip. You can still score this book very cheap at decent used book stores and it's exciting to see Wrightson's evolution from an immensely talented young Frazetta disciple to a genuine icon in his own right just a few years later. While we're on the subject of Frazetta again...


My kids think this one is a bit of a stretch. Their argument- and they supported it with a pretty convincing google image search- is that this painting is just a by the numbers viking-at-the-helm-of-a-longship rendering. Generic but not strictly derivative. But I'm sticking to my guns. The palette and composition are just too close for coincidence. C'mon. Take a look at Frank Frazetta's gorgeous painting Cane on the Golden Sea and draw your own conclusion. Either way, my kids are still grounded.


First of all, don't give me any snide commentary about how Amebix isn't "metal". Amebix is one of the few bands that masterfully transcends all narrow genres and limitations and if you can't accept that, fuck off and die! Now that we've cleared that up, I hope this image is no mystery to you, dear reader. It is not only one of the most instantly recognizable and bootlegged underground images of the past several decades but it is also the only image in our collection here that truly boasts occult genealogy. Amebix singer/bassist/blacksmith Rob Miller drew the early draft featured above back in the 80's and it soon became the unofficial mascot of the band. However, the original design was the creation of black magician and "automatic" art visionary Austin Osman Spare. My first encounter with this absolutely haunting painting was on the cover of Man, Myth & Magic- the illustrated encyclopedia of the supernatural- first released as slim pulp magazines and eventually assembled into a 24 volume hardbound set. A few years ago I had the opportunity to ask Rob Miller where he first discovered this image himself and what it meant to the band. He had this to say:

"We originally saw that in a fanzine in the late 70's and then came across it in the Witchcraft Museum at Bocastle. It is a powerful image that speaks to the unconscious. Austin Osman Spare had an interest in the Atavistic, which is very much where Amebix were coming from too."

The Power Remains.


You didn't seriously think I was gonna let myself off the hook, did you? I drew this mess back in 1997 at the ripe age of 25 for my pals in Engorged. It turned out to be the lyric sheet art for their debut CD Death Metal Attack. I'm not ashamed of my roots, my references or my occasional blatant thievery. We've all gotta start somewhere...

These images are blurry because they were photographed through the glass frame but I still get a laugh out of this drawing. In case you were wondering- YES!- this clusterfuck of pop culture references is an intentional homage to Sean Taggart's interior art for the debut Carnivore LP. I spin Carnivore almost every time I DJ and will go to my grave singing their barbaric praises. Pay close attention to the drum set. Apparently nothing is sacred:

Mocking black metal dudes in 1997 was the equivalent of beating up hippies back in 1985 (see Sean Taggart's drawing above). Hence this character who finds himself cursing God whilst caught in a mosh with his medieval weaponry. More importantly, pay attention to that fetishistically rendered Doc Marten boot. Total Taggart worship!



The Metal Lounge said...

Great Job! Very Informative, I especially enjoyed the Hell Awaits bit.

Jorge A. Trejos I. said...

Awesome post dennis!!! and yes am agreed with you (online fanzine"?)

You are the boss!

cal said...

fuckin awesome! that was so fun to look at and know now! So Killer!!!

Ryan S. said...

Great article!
That Engorged art should have been their album cover. Idiots.

Ryan S. said...

Sorry for the double post, but I also want to add... the more S.A. Slayer the merrier! They never drug their name through the jockrock mud like some other Slayer's we know... for shame Ca Slayer!

Lucio H. said...

VERY, very killer, Herr Dread. I actually had Danzig sign that CRYSTAR cover for me at the San Diego Comic Con a few years back. He had a GREAT sense of humor about it. When I put the comic in front of him, he said with a knowing smirk, "Yeah, I have to find that guy who stole this from me ..." I love that he DUG that image so much, he copied it and finished the missing pieces.

Michael Bukowski said...

Hey man, I love the blog, but this post especially! I also came across the Austin Spare/Amebix connection through Man, Myth and Magic and it was like that moment when you see a movie and recognize a sample one of your favorite bands used.

I also got a chance to see that Frazetta painting in real life at the Frazetta museum (before his son drove a tractor through the wall!, and before Frazetta died) and I think I side with you on this debate.

Keep up the good work!

Ryan.N said...

hm I will always have this memory, I was about 7 or 8 years old and my family were going through crap in the garage to sell for our yard sale and we came across a box of records, one of them was slayer hell awaits, although I didn't know the title at the time, I only remembered the cover and it scared the shit out of me! it was only when I got into metal music that I saw that album cover again and put two and two together that that old album I saw was a famous slayer album.

the weird thing was we never found out who they belonged to. my mom said they were my dads. I asked my dad about it and he said he wasn't sure but he might have them and he might have gotten them at some point but he wasn't sure how.

anyway I have no other significant discoveries or revelations like the ones you always talk about on your blog. I only got into this shit from the itnernet and I think having all the metal and underground comix information at your fingertips via internet spoils you and dulls your senses in a way.

Town Manager said...

Great article! Totally agree that this just gives us more to celebrate. I recently learned about the Hell Awaits/Moebius connection but the Live Undead/Wrightson artwork is perhaps an even more mind-blowing catch. Hope there's more installments yet to come!

Unknown said...

This is one of the best blog posts I've ever read, hands down. A few I know about, but most I had no idea. Love how you included your own work as well.

CatetheGreat said...

Amazing article!

Deserts said...

little correction here: Every reissue of "In the Nightside Eclipse" has featured Necrolord's painting. It's the reissue of "Wrath of the Tyrant/ Emperor" that has the basic Dore rip on the cover. In fact, the "Emperor" EP was released before "Nightside...," and I believe that it had that image on its cover from the beginning, which may have been what prompted Necrolord to include it in his painting.

Dennis Dread said...

Deserts: Duly noted. Thanks for the important correction!

Patrick M Duggan said...

great stuff. very interesting.

Militant Cyclist said...

Holy hell this is great.

Anonymous said...

holy shit man, u really did some research here, hell awaits and live undead and the bathory st really amazed me, THIS SHIT IS DEEPER THAN ANYONE IMAGINED, thank you for posting this, the only thing i could add but havent researched is that the demon on beastial dvastation is from an artist named boris, maybe you will find more on it

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed this alot, thanks for the info!

Anonymous said...

danzig was an artist, he had the skull drawing stolen by the comic book company

barbara said...

This should turn into a Master's art history thesis!

Unknown said...

Awesome post!! Thanks for writing it!! ...the original artist for Hell Awaits is not Jean Giraud though!! His name is Phillippe Druillet his art is similar to Giraud´s but way trippier, look him up!!!

Dennis Dread said...

Hey, El Monstruo,
The Heavy Metal magazine from July 1977 that the Slayer artwork was swiped from credits Cruillet as the writer and Giraud as the artist for this one. Did they miscredit the original comic? I'll fix it if that's the case.
Thanks, man!