By This Axe, I Headbang!

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Barbarians have shown up on dozens of heavy metal album covers over the years. Oft times the barbarian is a reference to or variation on Robert E. Howard’s characters, especially Conan. Heavy metal is so often fantasy in various forms, and Conan is an appealing fantasy.

Conan is an outsider. He’s cunning. He’s tough. He represents freedom, self-determination, and control of one’s destiny. He’s a magnet for women. These are all qualities that inform heavy metal and themes that run through it. Heavy metal is so often seen by the mainstream as violent, crude, and barbaric. It’s outsider music for outsiders.

I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t want to possess Conan and co.’s ‘barbarian’ qualities in greater quantities myself. However, the barbarian’s appeal to heavy metal goes beyond thematic qualities. I always found Conan and his barbarian brethren more fun than the Lord of the Rings trilogy. If Conan had been in Lord of the Rings, it would have been 50 pages of Conan slaughtering his way across Middle-earth. He’d stop to boff Arwen, quaff a gigaliter of ale, and then he’d toss Frodo and the magic jewelry in the volcano.

Howard’s barbarian short stories were axes to the skull. These album covers show why barbarians are appealing to heavy metal. Most are tributes to Frank Frazetta. Each one tells a story. And each one’s an axe to the skull.

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Heavy Load – Death or Glory
Heavy Load are the OGs of barbarian album covers. Three of their four studio efforts depicted barbarians.


Manowar – Hail to England
Hail to England is the first Manowar album to feature a burly, shirtless, barbarian. I love how cartoonish he is. Like Lemmy and Babe Ruth, he probably subsists on beef, beer, and babes.

Barbarians were depicted on these three ’80s German thrash album covers, and I have no idea why. Thrash was barbaric, but it wasn’t about barbarians. Endless Pain is the best of the bunch by far. I’d love to have a poster of it.


Manilla Road – Crystal Logic
Glowing triangles! While it’s by no means great art, I love Crystal Logic for the story it tells. Either the barbarians are going home, or they have just found their next target. I prefer the latter. Summon the horde!


Manilla Road – Spiral Castle
Technically, this is better art than Crystal Logic’s cover, but it’s still second edition AD&D grade cheese. That doesn’t bother me. It looks like a scene from a video game I want to play, or the cover of an album I want to listen to.


Loudness – Disillusion
Loudness are Japanese, but this barbarian is a Howard style barbarian, equipped with Medieval European style weapons and armor. Is he climbing some kind of volcano? I’d like to know how Loudness encountered the barbarian character construct.


Tyrant – Mean Machine
Typically, Conan saves the damsel in distress. Therefore, this cover presents a conundrum. Is our Conan-clone swearing revenge for failing to save his lady friend? Or is he celebrating a foe’s demise? Either way, this one doesn’t quite fit the Conan stereotype.


Saxon – Crusader
I’d like to inject a moment of seriousness into this post by asking who the barbarian is in this picture. “If the barbarians are destroyed, who will we then be able to blame for the bad things?” – attributed to Angela Carter


Danzig – Thrall-Demonsweatlive
Typically, Conan saves the damsel in distress . . . when Matti Kärki hollered “Bitch!” he must’ve had this lady in mind.


Battlerage – True Metal Victory
Battlerage’s official mascot is a barbarian who always brandishes an enormous axe. Look at the hand-guard on that axe! This is pulp, but pulpier than Howard ever was. For some reason, the Battlerage barbarian has acquired a skeletal head on this cover.


Angus – Warrior of the World
The “most Conan” of the bunch. Perhaps it is the aftermath of the battle in The Frost Giant’s Daughter?


Ironsword – Overlords of Chaos
If barbarian metal is a microgenre, then Ironsword are one of the half-dozen or so bands that fall into it. This cover’s got it all: bare-chested blade-bearing barbarians, bare-chested busty babes, and a demon-looking thing that will soon have 4 feet of steel parked in its chest.

— Richard Street-Jammer

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