I’ve been a fan of heavy metal music since I was old enough to watch MTV. I was an imaginative kid who loved Star Wars, comic books, and swords-and-sorcery, so it was only natural that I would be attracted to the visual style of the early 1980’s heavy metal videos. Metal clips like Motley Crue’s Looks That Kill, The Scorpions’ Rock You Like A Hurricane, and Def Leppard’s Rock of Ages were chock full of swords, spikes, lasers, explosions, skulls, dragons, and to help push along those developing hormones, plenty of scantily clad metal babes. These bands weren’t just four or five guys standing around a studio playing their instruments, they were larger-than-life super heroes using the powers of rock to battle demons or escape from giant glowy triangles (I’m talkin’ to you, Joe Elliot!).
Later, when I was old enough to start buying the actual albums from the bands I saw on MTV, I was stunned by the colorful, eye-catching artwork that adorned their covers . Heavy metal album covers definitely stood out from the pack with their epic, beautifully-painted depictions of horrific creature mascots or demon-filled hellscapes. Heavy metal album covers also featured some incredible design work that remains classic and timeless to this day. So, for all you metal fans out there, boxcar astronaut is proud to present the top ten greatest heavy metal album covers of all-time. (Remember, if you disagree with my selections, you are wrong!)
Click on images for larger, hi-rez versions.
9.) Megadeth-Peace Sells, But Who’s Buying? (1986) Ahhh…Vic Rattlehead, The second most popular metal band mascot of all-time. Ol’ Vic here is the Pepsi to Iron Maiden’s mascot Eddie’s Coke. Vic’s metal and bone visage is meant to represent the old proverb “hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil” with metal clamps bolted to the skull’s jaw, eye sockets, and ear area. It’s one of the more striking designs in all of heavy metal and Dave Mustaine was wise to use a mascot like Vic to gain commercial appeal for the band as well as a way to separate themselves from Metallica. A great political painting that conveys Mustaine’s disdain for the policies of the United Nations in the 1980’s.
8.) Judas Priest-Screaming For Vengeance (1982) It was difficult to choose between this or the Defenders of the Faith cover, as both were designed by the same artist and feature awesome-looking heavy metal creatures out to kick ass and take names. In the end, I think the Vengeance cover is a little more well-known, not to mention the fact that the design somehow managed to make bright yellow an acceptable color for a heavy metal album cover.
7.) Slayer-South of Heaven (1988) Scott Ian of the band Anthrax once said that if you went to Hell, the only music you’d hear would be Slayer. Take one look at any of Slayer’s album covers, and you would believe him. It doesn’t get much more evil and Satanic than the Reign in Blood cover, with it’s full checklist of horrific imagery. Skull? Check. Inverted Crucifix? Check. Lake of fire? Check. Demons? Check. Pentagram? Check. Shocked and terrified parents? Check!
6.) Metallica-Master of Puppets (1986) Choosing a Metallica cover for this list was incredibly difficult. It’s like asking a Mother to pick their favorite child…it’s just not fair. They’re all different, but you love all of them equally. I picked Master of Puppets though, simply because it’s the first image that pops in my head when I hear the band’s name. Featuring an endless row of white crosses marking nameless graves under an ominous dark sky, and a pair of disembodied hands controlling puppet strings, the Master cover warns the listener of the horrors of war and drug addiction.
5.) Dio-Holy Diver (1983) When it comes to album covers featuring demons, dragons, and other swords-and-sorcery elements, nobody comes close to the master, Ronnie James Dio. In this painting by Randy Berrett, we have the classic DIO demon mascot standing atop a sinister mountain, flashing the metal horns with his hand and twirling some badass chain around as he watches a shackled priest sink into the ocean. Now if that doesn’t scream Metal, I don’t know what does!
4.) KISS-Destroyer (1976) It would be unthinkable to compile a list like this and not include KISS, the undisputed champions of comic-book style, mass-marketable record artwork. Destroyer is far and away the most memorable and coolest of the KISS album covers, immortalized forever on T-shirts, buttons and posters hung on many a teenager’s wall in the 1970’s. Paul, Ace, Peter, and Gene strike classic poses and appear as larger-than-life rock Gods destroying everything in their path.
3.) Guns N’ Roses-Appetite for Destruction (1987) Here we have all the essential ingredients of a classic metal album cover: a gothic cross, skeletonized versions of the band, and mighty banners displaying the band’s logo. It’s amazing to think that this timeless album cover was actually a last-minute substitution for the original album artwork, a painting by Robert Williams of a robotic rapist about to attacked by a strange creature with swords for teeth (this painting does actually appear in the liner notes). Read the story about the artwork controversy at Wikipedia. Both of these pieces of artwork just scream rock-n-roll sleaze, and are crucial parts of one of the greatest albums ever recorded.
2.) Iron Maiden-Killers (1981) Eddie is the absolute King and ruler over all heavy metal mascots. I could sit here and compile a top-ten list of just Iron Maiden album covers with ease. It’s utterly impossible to imagine heavy metal music without the stunning Derek Riggs’ paintings of this crazy zombie-thing in all of his many incarnations. Over the years Eddie has been depicted as a Pharoah, a cyborg, a solider, the grim reaper, a mental patient, an English King, and countless other identities. To me, Killers has always shown the true “essence” of Eddie, giving us the blueprint for all future variations of the character. It’s certainly the most gruesome Iron Maiden cover, with Eddie holding a bloody axe and flashing his trademark psychotic grin as a recently butchered victim clings to Eddie’s shirt. You don’t even need to listen to the music to know that this is the cover to an evil, loud heavy metal album. That’s power, and that’s why the Eddie artwork is so brilliant.
1.) Pantera-Vulgar Display of Power (1992) This is the greatest heavy metal album cover of all-time simply because the image conveys the effects of the sounds contained within. When you listen to this record, it will feel like you’ve been punched in the face. Hard.