Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Brittany Speared's Top Album Cover Picks

Hope everybody's been having a brutal holiday season - though whether it's been a good brutal or bad brutal is yours to decide. I'm Brittany Speared, a regular rotation DJ and occasional cover host of Vintage 80s.

Not even a lot of long-time callers know this, but I'm a graphic design major here at Seton Hall. I'm graduating this spring, and have been doing all sorts of internships to build my resume. Which is to say, my 2011 ran me ragged, and because of that, I am completely behind on listening to metal releases. So I don't have a best-of list of music for you guys. Instead, I'm going to write about something I do have the authority to speak on: ALBUM COVERS.

Marketing tools like album covers can absolutely have artistic value while still being effective, so I developed some loose criteria to evaluate them with. Does the art look TOTALLY AWESOME? If I was in a record store (hahaha), would it instantly grab my eye (through color and contrast)? Are the band logo and album title integrated into the artwork in a thoughtful way?

(Apologies for not including most of the album artists' names. I wish I could have. Unfortunately, because I'm behind on releases this year, I don't have the liner notes at my disposal.)

10. Primordial - Redemption at the Puritan's Hand
Lo-fi folk metal band from Ireland. Refreshingly, Primordial didn't rely on hokey forest imagery (their subgenre) or hokier shamrock imagery (every Celtic band ever). The high-contrast cover with a minimal number of colors definitely draws my eye. But the main reason I like it so much it that I did a package design project with similar elements this year (before I saw the album art, I promise you). It's a little simple, though, which is why it's at the bottom of my top 10.

9. Bosse de Nage - ii
Francophile, avant-garde black metal from the Bay Area totally spit in the eye of their subgenre's tradition of purposely-horrible covers and did something pretty interesting. The minimalistic cover shines in the haze of overdetailed and unreadable logos. The strange fins sticking out of the letters of "Bosse" bother me, though. The one on the B could stay, if its curve followed the path of the O better. I suppose it was a decision to add tension and movement to an otherwise heavy, static cover. It's still very cool, though! It reminds me of early Constructivist propaganda, which is one of my favorite artistic movements.

8. Hull - Beyond the Lightless Sky
I absolutely love Hull's logo, it's a gorgeous piece of typography. The subdued tan and black of the cover is an interesting and unique statement, as well. I can't work up much to say about it beyond that, though, which is why it scored fairly low (even though I would still hang it on my wall). While it's an awesome piece, I think it would be passed over in favor of something more eye-catching, like…

7. Protest the Hero - Scurrilous
Protest the Hero released my favorite album of 2011, so I feel a bad I didn't score them higher. But the painting, while cool and surrealistic, doesn't really excite me as a piece of design. The framing elements are cool, though, and elevate the cover beyond the exhausted "logo on a painting" cliché.

6. Arckanum - Helvítismyrk
Helvítismyrk is the most traditional of the album art on this list; that is to say, it's a painted rendering of something badass and evil going on. Unlike most other covers in the style, which are frequently… crummy, the art is well-rendered and has an interesting composition. It's not overdetailed. Having a flat black negative space lets your eye investigate the mysterious smoky figure without becoming overwhelmed. The more I look at it, the more I like it. Its final place is way higher than I thought I would give it.
Also, it's a haunted skull.

5. Cormorant - Dwellings
Dwellings is guilty of the typical "Step 1: Get a painting. Step 2: Put your logo on it." method of album art design, but the artist is clearly very skilled in both technique and composition (the arrangement of visual elements in a work, much like a camera angle of your mind!). It's an awesome painting.

4. Mastodon - The Hunter (Deluxe Edition)
And Mastodon makes it onto yet another year end list with their amazing cover based on the sculptural work of AJ Fosik. I found their regular version kind of dull, but for the deluxe edition, all elements are in conversation. The text is integrated into the piece, the totem stares you down. Look at the nasty beast. I would not want to mess with him, but Mastodon chopped his head off and hung it on a wall.

3. Black Tusk - Set the Dial
Like most sludge metal bands, Black Tusk once again had John Dyer Baizley, one of my favorite illustrators (and musicians) do their album art. This is not a bad thing. John Dyer Baizley should do everyone's album art.

2. Blut Aus Nord - 777 – The Desanctification
Another deranged, avant-garde black metal band, this time actually from France. Their album art subverts the usual stereotypes of the larger genre, and presents something well-rendered and interesting. Only a metal band could get away with a cover like this today. I would plow over small children (and anything else in my way) to get to this album art in my hands. I placed it higher than a John Dyer Baizley illustration! I credit that largely to the attention-grabbing, high contrast color scheme.

1. Ghost - Opus Eponymous
And the sickest artwork of the year goes to Ghost's debut album. The hand-rendered, destined-to-be-iconic logo, fantastic composition, and unique color scheme all immediately came to mind when I began working on this article. Opus Eponymous is undoubtedly the best and most designed. Ghost has had a lot of marketing support behind them, and it shows. It isn't just a logo slapped on top of a painting, it frames the band's mascot/singer. The latter's cloak becomes the sky as he looms over the building. Bats are flying, a bad moon's rising, the guy has a skullface. It's metal, and it's good design, definitively proving that they're not mutually exclusive.

BONUS ROUND: Most Stereotypically Metal Cover Art
Amon Amarth - Surtur Rising
I don't think anything needs to be explained here.

1 comment:

  1. This is Arthur von Nagel from Cormorant. Thank you for the nod on this list. The album art for Dwellings was commissioned and co-designed by the band and was NOT pre-existing artwork. The artist is Alice Duke, and the format is not a painting, but a hand-drawn piece filled in with digital coloring.

    You can read about it from the artist here: