I didn’t get to do this list last year — at least not that I can find — but especially as vinyl continues to grow as the dominant media for underground and/or heavy genres, it seems more and more necessary to highlight quality cover art as a focal point. This is, of course, not an exhaustive list. There were way more than 10 badass album covers, and I’m hoping you’ll add your favorites to the comments on this post, but these were some of the ones and some of the artists who most caught my eye. A few of the names are familiar — one artist also appeared on the 2013 list — and the work of some was new to me, but all made striking impressions one way or another in a range of styles, and I hope you’ll agree.
No need to delay. Let’s dive in:
Ordered alphabetically by artist
Ruby the Hatchet, Valley of the Snake
Cover by Adam Burke. Artist website here.
Formerly (or at least sort-of-formerly) of Fellwoods and currently also playing in Pushy, Adam Burke‘s style has become essential to the aesthetics of doom and heavy rock. His work for bands like Ice Dragon, Mystery Ship, Pastor, Mos Generator and a slew of others — including me — never fails to impress with its deep colors, natural tones and, in many cases, a sense of underlying threat. So it is with Ruby the Hatchet‘s Tee Pee Records label debut, Valley of the Snake (review here). Burke presents the title literally as a winding serpent in the sky becomes a river leading to a waterfall, the colors of a sun either rising or setting giving a glimpse of the otherworldly while the earth below is presented in darker browns and the jagged rocks in the foreground. There were a few candidates for Burke this year, but this one continues to stun.
Cover by Adrian Dexter. Artist website here.
A record that, for many, defines 2015 in a major way, Elder‘s Lore (review here) is not the first collaboration between the Massachusetts trio and artist Adrian Dexter, but the results this time around are particularly satisfying. And since we’re talking about vinyl, the creativity in the gatefold design and the other pieces Dexter contributed to the album proves no less impressive than the progressive turn Elder took in their songwriting — a fitting match in scope and execution. Released by Armageddon Shop and Stickman Records, Lore has pushed Elder into a different echelon entirely, and this will not be the final year-end-type list on which it appears around here, but Dexter‘s work, detail, subtlety and use of color for the cover simply had to be seen to be believed.
Kings Destroy, Kings Destroy
Cover by Josh Graham. Artist website here.
Though he’s perhaps best known for his work doing live visuals over a stretch of years for Neurosis, Brooklyn-based Josh Graham‘s list of cover art accomplishments also include Soundgarden, KENmode, Vattnet Viskar and his own projects, A Storm of Light, Battle of Mice and Red Sparowes. With the cover for the self-titled third album from fellow New Yorkers Kings Destroy (review here), he seemed to encapsulate everything the War Crime Recordings release was driving toward with its urban crunch, aggression, and the feeling that all of this is a part of something larger and barely understood. Is it a bowl? Part of some ritual offering? Is it a drain? The expertly manipulated photography takes landmarks from the city and turns them into something as beautiful as it is malevolent, and Kings Destroy lived up to that standard on the album itself.
Cover by Seldon Hunt. Artist website here.
Every bit worthy of the frame it has. Going back to pieces for Neurosis, Isis, Made out of Babies and more, Seldon Hunt‘s work is always widely varied, covering a range of styles and media. His piece for Feral (review here), a pivotal fourth album by West Coast heavy psych rockers Snail (released by Small Stone), seems to play off the single-word title in portraying a threatening vision of nature. At the bottom, we see human skulls as giant snails, weird glowing dogs and a deer with yellow eyes and snakes entwined in its antlers survey the landscape of huge mushrooms and sparse grass. Behind, two tangled trees add to the sense of foreboding, and a sky that runs from black to red speaks to a night that doesn’t look like it’s about to end anytime soon. Is this Hunt‘s vision of nature’s revenge? Either way, it’s engrossing in its three-dimensionality.
Cover by Jeremy Hush. Artist website here.
Valkyrie‘s third full-length, first for Relapse Records and first in seven years, Shadows (review here), was a classic guitar rock fan’s dream come true. Brothers Jake and Pete Adams led the band through cascading solos, memorable songs and unpretentious vibes. The cover art by Jeremy Hush stood out to me particularly for the violence of its depiction. We see smaller blackbirds using spears or arrows to attack a hawk, and three on one is hardly a fair fight, even with a bird of prey, as a skull looks on from nearby grass. What I don’t know, ultimately, is whose side we’re on — ravens are hardly a traditional harbinger of good fortune — but somehow not knowing that only makes the piece more evocative, and from the detail and use of empty space in its parchment-style background to the struggle it portrays, Hush‘s work certainly grabbed attention.
Ahab, The Boats of the Glen Carrig
Cover by Sebastian Jerke. Artist website here.
A Germany-based painter who’s done art for Desertfest Berlin, Colour Haze, as well as the Freak Valley and Keep it Low festivals, Sebastian Jerke contributed several artworks to Napalm Records this year. He’ll continue that thread in 2016 with Greenleaf likely among others, but in 2015, his pieces for My Sleeping Karma and Ahab especially stood out, and the latter most of all. The funeral doomers don’t to anything on a scale less than grand, and Jerke‘s cover for The Boats of the Glen Carrig (review here) offered scope to match. Its sea monsters have breathtaking color and detail, and are familiar and alien at the same time, the central figure’s human-esque hand drawing a crowd either awed or looking to feast. This was one you could stare at over and over again and still always find something new.
Acid King, Middle of Nowhere, Center of Everywhere
Cover by Tim Lehi. Artist website here.
I actually saw when Acid King unveiled the cover for their first album in a decade, Middle of Nowhere, Center of Everywhere (review here), that there were some people giving them shit for the artwork out front. Don’t get me wrong, everyone’s entitled to their opinion, and if you ever wanted to find a bunch of conflicting ones look no further than the internet, but excuse me — it’s a wizard (Hell, that might be Gandalf), riding a tiger, in outer space. If there’s any part of that that isn’t frickin’ awesome, I’m not sure what it might be. What directive tattoo artist Tim Lehi was given going into the project, which would eventually surface on Svart Records, I don’t know, but it’s hard for me to listen to the far-no-farther out riffs of “Center of Everywhere” and not at very least want to be that wizard. Riding that tiger. In outer space. I’ll defend this one all day if necessary.
Serial Hawk, Searching for Light
If I had gotten to do this list in 2014, Samantha Muljat could have easily appeared on it for her manipulated landscape that adorned Earth‘s Primitive and Deadly. For Serial Hawk‘s debut album, Searching for Light (review here), she’s partnered with Sara Winkle, whose work ranges from commercial design and album covers to animation and more. What the two offer in their work for Serial Hawk is a blend of the real and the unreal. We don’t see the face of the photographed subject, but she leads our eye toward the white circle, which, on a horizon could be the sun, but here seems to have descended to the field, landed there toward some unknown purpose. The tall grasses seem to fade into a wash of lighter green, but note the angle of the arm on the right side and the legs toward the center is nearly identical and seems to be working opposite the windblown direction of the field surrounding. Like the piece as a whole, it’s as much natural as unnatural.
Various Artists, Electric Ladyland [Redux]
Cover by David Paul Seymour. Artist website here.
My notes for this list contain no fewer than three separate entries for Minneapolis artist David Paul Seymour. There’s one for Chiefs‘ Tomorrow’s Over (review here), and one for Wo Fat‘s Live Juju (review here), but when it came time to pick just one, nothing stood out like Magnetic Eye Records‘ Electric Ladyland [Redux] (review here). The full-gatefold spread is my favorite album cover of the year — and a good deal of this year’s covers were by Seymour, who has become nigh on ubiquitous in heavy and psychedelic rock — and for Jimi Hendrix, who’s been portrayed so many times it would be impossible to count, to show up in an original way in an original setting, it showed creativity on a scale fitting to the logistics of the compilation itself, which pulled together groups from around the world in due homage to Hendrix‘s 70th birthday. Its colors, its shading, its strange mercurial pool and waterfall — it’s just perfect for what it was intended to do.
Kind, Rocket Science
Cover by Alexander von Wieding. Artist website here.
He’s split his time these last several years with his one-man band incarnation Larman Clamor, but Hamburg’s Alexander von Wieding continues to find time for copious design work for the likes of Brant Bjork, Karma to Burn, Enos and more. This year, in addition to a logo for a forthcoming The Obelisk t-shirt, he also did a cover for a split between Larman Clamor and Blackwolfgoat, whose Darryl Shepard also plays guitar in Kind, so to have him also illustrate that project’s Ripple debut, Rocket Science (review here), only seems fair. I’ll make no pretense of being anything other than a fan of von Wieding‘s work, and he’s in his element with Rocket Science, line drawing a spacescape with a crashed ship manned by what appears to be a frustrated chicken and rabbit (“Rabbit Astronaut” is one of the song titles). A lizard looks on and sticks a forked tongue out at the scene, and as mountains and planets loom behind, von Wieding reinforces a charm in his work that has drawn bands and labels his way for the better part of the last decade.
Like I said at the outset, there were far too many covers for me to call this list comprehensive — right off the top of my head: Sunder, Groan, Mos Generator/Stubb, Monolord (that solo figure walking into the lake continues to haunt), Baroness, High on Fire, Graveyard, Monster Magnet, The Machine, Eggnogg/Borracho, Ecstatic Vision, Uncle Acid, on and on — but these were just some that particularly resonated with me. If you feel like something was criminally ignored — maybe I missed it — please let me know in the comments.
And thanks for reading.