Ugly Sweater Material: Four Great 2020 Albums With Offbeat Artwork
Album art doesn't always need to be some beautiful work of art -- arguably, the most important part is delivering the message and concept of the album, while also existing in lockstep with the actual sound of the band. So no, nicking one of Goya's Black Paintings isn't always the best strategy. Sometimes, you have to get... unconventional. Art that's ugly, uncomfortable, or perhaps just a little wacky can sometimes be the final piece of the puzzle needed to make a good album great -- but certainly there's a risk of turning people off, since the first thing we know about an album is often what the cover looks like.
I suppose there's a fine line between madness and greatness, anyway, and exploring that boundary can yield great results. As our Christmas gift to you (if you celebrate, and if not, we hope you're enjoying the last few days of this accursed year regardless), here's four albums from 2020 with album art that made us stop and take notice of the fine tunes within.
Hexenbrett - Zweite Beschwörung: Ein Kind zu töten
May 22nd, 2020
So... dolls. Potentially scary, but not as much when they're unlikely to pick up a knife and go for your throat, right? But the delicate framing of the doll on velvet, elaborately bordered, shifts from just being weird to downright creepy as you look closer, taking stock of the strange illumination and contrast. That feeling only intensifies if you translate the album title: "Second Incantation: To Kill a Child." Suddenly, the dismemberment has another, more chilling meaning.
On Zweite Beschwörung: Ein Kind zu töten, classic black metal meets classic heavy metal with resounding success. A gothic, darkened atmosphere shrouds both the down-tempo bits and the blast beats, creating an image of a ritual conducted in shadowclad secrecy. I especially appreciated the choral elements and bizarre interludes that give it theatrical trappings as well, in the vein of King Diamond if a little less over-the-top. Song titles jump from language to language and structures vary wildly, but the end result is a cohesive vision of uncanny horror.
Undeath - Lesions of a Different Kind
October 23rd, 2020
Gore-obsessed death metal generally comes with album art revelling in giblet generation, so no surprise that this New York band's full-length debut features a decapitation at center stage. However, what makes me chuckle every time I see it is the circumstances behind the killing: in a cave inhabited by a hellish parasite amidst a verdant backdrop of nature, one man, seemingly controlled by the fiend, gets chop-happy with a man who appears to have walked out of a nearby shopping mall into this cave, completely unprepared for his imminent headlessness. A white T-shirt and jeans, with no backpack, no supplies? Buddy, you were going to die one way or another.
To be clear, I love this cover and it's beyond fitting for the gurgly, riff-packed death metal inside, but the surreal juxtaposition of a completely ordinary guy in a vibrant wilderness getting one-shot by a possessed freak of nature in a gory cave is hard to beat. Vocalist Alex Jones told us in an interview about the album art and how it came to be:
The artwork was done by our drummer Matt Browning, who does all of our cover artwork. The art is just an interpretation of a lot of the lyrics on the album and made into one painting that contains aspects of death, dying, and otherworldly phenomenon.
Houkago Grind Time - Bakyunsified (Moe to the Gore)
November 13th, 2020
This album art makes more sense if you're familiar with what it's parodying: a somewhat-famous picture of Morbid Angel guitarist Trey Azagthoth unashamedly displaying his Sailor Moon fandom. Nothing wrong with that, by the way, but it's still a classic example of how metal musicians aren't quite as sinister as they may appear on stage.
Okay, so that may help with the album art, but you may also be wondering about, well, everything else. To quickly sum it up, Houkago Grind Time is "anime goregrind," which means that it's goregrind but has a few anime samples thrown in. Lyrics? Not relevant. The important thing is that there's good riffs, hard-hitting production, and a suitably pingy snare to cut through the chaos. Though it seems like parody, and that's certainly an aspect of it, Bakyunsified (Moe to the Gore) is probably more legitimate than half of the "real" goregrind out there.
P.S. Make sure you check out founder Andrew Lee's (also of Ripped to Shreds) best of 2020 list.
Goratory - Sour Grapes
October 16th, 2020
As gross and weird as this art is, the best part about this record's aesthetic is the song titles. Chiefly, "I Shit Your Pants," which leaves so much room for gross interpretation. In keeping with the toilet vocals and brown-note-inducing death metal contained within, though, the album art is both surreal and sickening. It might be a turn-off at first, but dive in and the results are enlightening.
Imbuing metal with humor generally seems like a fruitless effort. Jokes in lyrics get old about two listens in, and puns are never as funny as the author thinks they are. Also, some genres will never be funny to me -- sorry, thrash metal. Sour Grapes, somehow, is an anomaly -- it's still amusing to me months later.