I was a scrawny kid in the 80’s but I had the neck of a linebacker from all the headbanging I did.
And though my tastes have certainly evolved in metal since the 80’s- (as they have in art), there are certain album covers that are seared in my retina. We are talking B.S. people- ‘Before Spotify’. You couldn’t listen to an album before you bought so you would have to go to the store and literally judge it by the cover. Did it ‘look’ metal enough melt your brain and offend your parents? That was the question.
There are so many albums I may have forgotten the music from, but I will never forget their covers. These days we are lucky to see album art as a 1-inch square on your streaming service of choice. So I am glad vinyl has had a resurgence- not for the music quality mind you, I am talking about the return of big album cover art!
I can honestly say if wasn’t for my intoxicating cocoon of heavy-metal, Jolt Cola, and heaps of Dungeons and Dragons- at the impressionable age of 14, I don’t know if I would be making art today. I spent countless hours, headphones on, reading lyrics, drawing and staring at these covers. I was so consumed, at one point I got extra credit in English class for drawing the teacher as a decomposing zombie. (He must’ve been a metal-head.)
So put on your nostalgia hat, throw a fist in the air and bang your head to Scott’s 10 favorite metal album covers form the 80’s.
Molly Hatchet- Flirting with Disaster
OK so this first one is 1979 and not really metal technically. But I was like 8 years old. I had no idea who Frazetta even was. This was my first exposure to him! I couldn’t hum a tune on this album today, but I tell you this record is ground zero for me. It would inform the rest of my life.
Fast forward 4 or 5 years, after a detour into New Wave music, and we find our self on an air force base in the middle of the Phillippines. A stranger in a strange land. I met the older neighbor kid who hands me these. Game changer.
Jusas Priest- Defenders of the Faith and Screaming for Vengence
I just loved how clean the design work was on these covers by artist Doug Johnson. Remember we are WAAAY before photoshop. The only way to get this look was with an actual airbrush. To this day I dig that the designs are not literal ‘natural’ looking illustrations. The are almost sculpture. And in some ways remind me of current covers by Mastadon.
Iron Maiden: Killers and Number of the Beast
Within a week of finding the Judas Priest albums, I decide to stop cutting my hair and instead venture on a quest for more distortion and acrobatic vocals. That leads me to an artist that very much detoured any notion of becoming a Doctor or a Lawyer. We are talking about Derek Riggs and his work on, arguably, the most memorable metal album covers (and metal mascot) of all time, Iron Maiden with ‘Eddie’ the zombified time-traveling anti-hero. What a roll model! (And as an aside it was Derek’s influence that had me drawing my teachers as zombies.) It seems silly looking back, but this was dangerous stuff in the 80’s. After all, my first exposure to them has the classic lyric, “666, the number of the Beast”. I had friends who’s parents would not let them have these albums in the house at all.
Dio- Holy Diver:
Speaking of going to hell. You really had to hide this album cover in the 80’s. Though Dio’s Ronnie James Dio, once said ‘How do you know it’s not a priest drowning a monster?’ A champion of illustration for covers according to Revolver magazine, Dio also said, “I’ve always preferred illustrations,” he says. “…most of the albums I’ve done have used illustrations. That’s because I think you should give people value for money, and I don’t think value for money is a picture of guys with puffed-up hair on an album cover. But I guess it depends on your ego.”
This exceptional cover is by the artist Randy Berrett. And sad to say, as far as I can find, it is the only album cover he did. The other awesome thing about this cover is the ‘Dio’ logo, which legend had it spells ‘Devil’ when turned upside down. (Though Dio himself said it was a coincidence. You be the judge!)
Ozzy Ozbourn- The Ultimate Sin
Can you imagine for just a second. A pimple faced teen listening to this album over and over till the cover was worn out. Staring at it between blistering guitar riffs, trying to figure out how an artist could be this awesome. And if you could tell this teen, “Hey man, someday, not only will you teach along side this artist, but he will be a dear friend.” Wow I tear up a bit thinking about it. Not very metal of me I will grant you, but it is the truth. The artist of course is Boris Vallejo.
My tastes got a little heavier, and the gateway drug for heavy music at the time was Metallica and Megadeath. And though there are no shortage of debates on who’s music was more ground breaking, for me there is no debate as to who had the best album cover of the rivelry.
Megadeath- Peace sells… but who’s buying?
Another iconic band mascot, Vic Rattlehead, makes an apperance. Painted this time by an artist with a pedigree for heavy metal album covers, Edward Repka. No really, Repka may have painted more Metal album covers than anyone on the planet. For some big metal bands of the era like Vio-lence, Possessed, Nuclear Assault, Sanctuary, and Death. But also for bands so obscure, I haven’t even heard of some of them- and I am pretty well versed in the subject. Take a second and go here. http://agoraphobic-news.com/articles_view.php?url=ed_repka_s_best_50_album_covers
This Megadeath cover is fantastic. Great color, drawing, and a deep subject. Though it may have been interesting to see Dave Mustain’s first idea for the cover which was ‘metal doves “crapping” bombs on the U.N’. Instead we have a bombed out UN building with the coolest real estate agent ever.
Celtic Frost- To Mega Therion
H.R. Giger did the cover for this album. Yup, that Giger who influenced a generation of dark art and created worlds for movies like ‘Alien’. Need I say more? Actually his work is on many album covers.
KingHorse- Self Titled Album
Here is an obscure one that stuck with me. Cresting into the 90’s and being a old school skater I was immediately drawn to this cover by Brian Schroeder aka. ‘Pushead’. Pushead was already legend at this point, and in addition to doing work for Metallica , Misfits, and vetran bands like Septic Death, he was also was a main artist behind Zorlac skateboards. (Skateboards would be another awesome list to comprise.) I worked at a record shop at the time, and though I could appreciate the band, this was an album I totally picked up, and remember, for the cover art. To this day no one draws skulls better IMHO. This is one of the few times where we see more art on the cassette than the record/CD, though to be fair CD’s at the time shipped in ‘longboxes’ with way more art. Too bad you had to cut the box to get the CD out.
Alright I know I said 10, but just one more. I can’t help but throw in another by Repka. Remember that band ‘Pitiful Reign’? Nope me either, but this cover is pure awsomeness. Check out the VHS tapes! Though the signature date says it was painted in 2007, oh my my my does it get any more ironically 80’s metal than this! As a side note I had to go listen to the band because of this cover, just like it was 1989, and I am happy to report they are really good! Def some old school thrash in there with a tinge of Vio-lence. Check out their future classic ‘Human Coleslaw’.
Oh and wait, I know I was gonna stop with Pitiful Reign, cause how can I top that, but I have to include one last thing because it comprises everything I love about this time in my young life. It is a tribute mash-up of Iron Maiden’s ‘Killers’ album cover, and the Fiend Folio cover for Dungeons and Dragons. My formative years summed up in one tee-shirt! Painted, for the love of it, by the awesome Ryan Lesser. http://www.ryanlesser.com/
Horns way up Ryan!