By Connor Glaze
The 13th of February marked the 46th anniversary of Black Sabbath’s self-titled debut album. Looking at the fast, feverish development of it all over past decades, it’s hard to believe that metal as we know it is almost half a century old! It’s been a long time since Sabbath were first picketed by swarms of outraged American mothers. Since then, the single, isolated style people used to call “heavy metal” has expanded into a rich and fascinating tree of different genres, more varied and immense than anyone in the seventies would have expected. We all have metal bands we love and despise for various reasons, although outside of my specific tastes, I’ve always been interested in following threads of influence through the years, and seeing how they change and manifest in different eras.
Death metal is one of the broader niches in terms of its artistic influence. Although the first death metal bands were before my time, they’ve always been impossible to ignore. I distinctly remember discovering how huge metal really was in my early adolescence, retching and cackling my way through lyrics from The Wretched Spawn. That was quite something for a kid who’d never heard anything heavier than Reign in Blood. In the late eighties, bands like Death and Obituary had suddenly emerged out of the darker end of thrash metal, influenced most notably by bands like Slayer and Venom. The distinctly violent themes and lyrical focus on the most sadistic acts imaginable, along with textbook references to Satanism, ruffled a few feathers in the US. We didn’t have a crusade quite like the one Tipper Gore spearheaded in 1985; I guess all those ignorant zealots got tired of fighting a losing battle.
One of the most prominent distinguishing traits of death metal has always been the album and merchandise artwork. Wherever you look, you won’t find a more striking concentration of gore and macabre imagery. When death metal artists aren’t showing you what happens when you hack and saw into a certain part of the body, they’re confronting you with various nightmarish truths about society. Visual, morbid fascination has been a trademark of metal from the very beginning. On the wall behind me, Eddie the Head is constantly stretching his rotting skin into a snarl and clutching a blood-stained sabre. Death metal, however, took it to whole other level. The art of this unique genre has been developed and tweaked with the influence of emerging deathcore bands, but the larger mien has stayed consistent. The potent, horrific images that preface some truly great albums will get under your skin, whether you like it or not.
When death metal was first gaining popularity, it had its most undiluted face. Most prominent albums had a cover depicting the stuff of horror movies: putrid, uncensored carnage the likes of which had never appeared on a record sleeve. Cannibal Corpse’s Butchered at Birth (1991) showed two skeletal ghouls hacking away at the decaying, bloody mess that had recently been an expectant mother, and preparing to hang her limp foetus up with a dozen others in the background. Death’s Leprosy (1988) had an image that was a little more tame, but haunting nonetheless. A festering leper stares out at you with his one good eye, removing part of his robe to show you two bulging buboes in his arm, and the gaping black holes which serve as a nose.
If one piece of art from that era has stuck with me it’s the alternative cover from Autopsy’s Severed Survival (1990). This is painted from the view of a conscious patient undergoing surgery. The surgeons, if you weren’t already aware, are living corpses. The first time I saw this cover I got a wonderfully blood-curdling chill. Kev Walker, the artist behind Severed Survival and the equally disturbed Mental Funeral (1991), did something very clever with this one. Suddenly you’re the victim in this horror scene, staring up helplessly at four pairs of frenzied, maniacal eyes as the rotting doctors mutilate you with whatever terrible instruments they want. The severed, dripping jugular vein poking out from one of the surgeon’s tunics is a particularly nice touch.
The covers from these early, influential bands provided template themes for many later artists to draw from. Most had a focus on extreme violence, which often verged on being comical in how darkly bizarre the concepts were. The first wave wasn’t all focussed on raw, bloody horror though. Deicide and Morbid Angel, both from Tampa, Florida, released album art focussed on heresy and the occult more than anything. Morbid Angel’s 1989 album Altars of Madness had a truly incredible cover created by Dan Seagrave, an exceptionally skilful man who has painted art for more metal albums than can be listed here. Seagrave modestly calls Altars “quite interesting” on his website, and describes the focal point of the painting as “a flat disk made of a fossil material, that has captured souls.” Deicide went with much more subtle, occult-related artwork for their self-titled debut and 1992’s Legion. I’d say their gem in terms of art is the eerie Once Upon the Cross (1995).
Through the history of the genre, some death metal bands have moved away from slasher movie themes and looked for more horrific inspiration in reality. At times this was just as evident in the lyrics as in the visual art. Compare Death’s first two album covers with the shocking and thought-provoking one from Spiritual Healing (1990). This painting perfectly illustrates the band’s shift away from gore-focussed songs, and on to themes such as spree killings, televangelism, and abortion. Death went on to explore more varied concepts, all the way up to the notably progressive The Sound of Perseverance (1998). The highly prominent Obituary had a short brush with political themes with their 1994 album World Demise: the cover makes a bleak statement about pollution. Dying Fetus, who rose to underground prominence through the nineties, spent a lot of their career on songs characterised by political themes. Most of their album covers, such as Destroy the Opposition (2000), are biting statements against American government. Strangely, it was only in 2012 that the band applied some distinctly classic art with Reign Supreme.
As the nineties drew to a close, death metal’s popularity decreased and the genre regressed into the underground, giving way to iconic groove and nu metal acts. The influence of early bands manifested in a distinct set of new subgenres which continue to pay homage to their roots. Recently, a few young deathcore bands with concentrated cult followings have come out with sounds and artwork which are something of a throwback to their first-wave predecessors.
Look at the grotesque covers of Oceano’s Contagion (2010), Acrania’s The Beginning of the End (2013) or A Trust Unclean’s Reality Relinquished (2015). There’s no denying that this artwork is firmly rooted in the primeval, tape-trading days of death metal.
If there’s one band that has stood out in this underground, it’s Australia’s Thy Art is Murder. These guys debuted in 2008 with their EP Infinite Death, which has a cover depicting some textbook cannibalism. This was followed in 2010 with The Adversary, which featured twisted religious iconography in its art and vicious, blasphemous lyrics. Their 2012 album Hate had a more fantastical, epic cover, but the hellish imagery revisits an unmistakably classic motif. With Holy War, which was released last June, Thy Art is Murder have evolved out of movie horror. Similar to Death’s change with Spiritual Healing, this album explored themes which are far more terrible than some of their previous material. The lyrics of Holy War focus on the grim, ancient relationship between war and religion, and the ongoing issues of animal and child abuse. The haunting uncensored cover shows you a child who can’t be much older than ten, pulling open a vibrant white robe to reveal a suicide belt.
Like their classic death metal ancestors, the band went with art that confronts you with the real, tangible horror of the world around us. Thy Art is Murder’s former frontman, CJ McMahon, left the band in December 2015, news which many devoted fans are still reeling from. A Facebook post from the band said “We would like to wish him all our best as he leaves the band and moves onward to start a family and new life with his loving fiancée […] The four of us are continuing forward into 2016 for some of the biggest and best tours of our lives. We won’t be slowing down or missing any shows.”
As I write, this family of deathcore bands are developing their sounds and laying the foundations for the artists of the next few decades. Although the tape-trading circles have been replaced by social media, the essence of the early death metal underground is very much alive. It seems that as long as metal exists, there will be bands that lean on the darker end of the spectrum, who look for the vilest things imaginable, and weave that inspiration into music and art which is potently and distinctly evil. Whether the whole niche evolves to my tastes or not, it’s going to be interesting to see where extreme metal goes from here.