Saturday, March 26, 2011

To judge an album by its cover

In the era of music piracy and digital distribution, where songs are becoming single servings separated from the greater context of an album, the art form of the album cover is endangered.  For many musicians, or at least the better ones, an album is not just a means to market a collection of unrelated material that could just as well stand on its own.  Through arrangement of songs around a central theme or themes an album can provide an experience beyond the sum of its parts.  Every part of the presentation of an album contributes to this holistic vision of it.  In this way, album art provides the musician not just with a means to grab a shopper's eye in a record shop, but can serve as a way to solidify or even extend an album's themes.  Some artists put such care into the presentation of their works that their albums and the associated artwork show a parallel progression over time.

Death - Scream Bloody Gore (1987)

Death's 1987 debut is arguably the first true death metal album.  On this primigenic incarnation of the genre, Death offers a primal celebration of violence and mortality.  The deceptively simple, thrashing instrumentation backs harsh, and usually unintelligible growls from vocalist and front man Schuldiner.  The lyrics describe grotesque scenes right out of a B-grade horror film: "Decapitated head licking your cunt / Sucking all the blood from your stump / Intestinal guts taking their hold / Leaving you dead, stiff and cold" opens the title track.  The music alludes to ritualized celebrations of death of the likes of the sacrificial cults of the ancient Aztecs or occult black magic.  The cover art serves perfectly to extend the musical themes of the album.  A ghastly skeletal figure adorned in occult robes oversees his supplicants from a lithic throne.  Just as these figures appear to remain animated through practice of ancient black magic, Death seeks to invoke a visceral response in the viewer through music that is primal in its brutality.  Take note of the band's logo on this release; the inverted cross foreshadowing the ecclesiastical themes of the band's subsequent releases.

Death - Leprosy (1988)
The band's sophomore effort saw a development on the primitive, thrash metal influenced style of their debut.  Musically, the the songs maintain a morbid aesthetic, but have become more structurally and stylistically complex to compliment the evolving musicianship of the band's members.  The lyrical content remains brutally violent, but instead of treating its themes with gory detail worthy of a slasher film, Schuldiner instead espouses more of a philosophical view of the inherently violent and unforgiving nature of the world.  On Forgotten Past, Schuldiner reminds the listener that he comes from a genealogy tainted by bloodshed: "Deep in your mind there is another side / A morbid truth one cannot hide / Unimaginable gore was your past time high / To hear people scream, to watch them die".  To hide from this truth is to deny one's true nature.  Here, Death contends that just as the leper of the album's cover is exiled from his desert village because of his outwardly grotesque appearance, so too does society attempt to cover up its undesirable roots by suppressing expressions of man's primitive nature.

Death - Spiritual Healing (1990)
Death's third album is the final statement by the band in a true death metal styling.  On the cover of the album, a moribund hospital patient is being consecrated by an animated priest.  It is unclear whether the priest is raising his free hand in an expression of a religious rite or to bring it down violently upon the patient's head.  Here, Death questions the ability of our inventions to save the fragments of our moribund society.  The hospital patient, stricken with a terminal illness, is as assured of a brutal death whether the priest is futilely seeking to heal his illness through prayer or to end his life quickly with a swift blow to the skull.  In our decadent modern society, can our morals and religions save us from a fate of certain death?  Death contends that only by abandoning these antiquated value systems can we begin to escape our harsh and brutal existences.  Genetic Reconstruction looks at eugenics as a possible solution to our biological woes, though not one without its own downsides: "Replacing what is real by using technology / Population control, selecting / those who will breed / A specific type of form chosen for the unborn / A mind without emotion / Progressive anatomy".  Is this race of "human machines" truly what we want?  Only through Death can man be freed of the chains of his existence.

Death - Human (1991)
On Human, Death begins to explore progressive metal styled instrumentation.  The heavily thrash-influenced playing of the first three albums is fused with the compositional techniques of progressive rock.  Here, Death confronts the limitations of our moribund fleshy vessels to comprehend objective truths.  The lyrics and instrumentation here take on a psychedelic quality, and this is reflected in the cover art.  We see on the cover images of man and his viscera in various states of disassembly and decay, dissolving or being absorbed by some sort of radiant energy.  The physical bodies of the subjects of the cover art are as dysfunctional and ephemeral as are our contemporary lives.  Death contends that we are too self-absorbed in trivial matters to begin to scratch the surface of reality.  In the end, we can only blame ourselves for the continuation of the cyclical nature of violence and retribution: "Reaching into the minds of those that created / The depression in which they / In which they drowned / their flesh and blood / Lies / So easy to blame the / Everlasting fear on a pathetic attempt / To justify the ending of life". Unless humanity can overcome this "everlasting fear", the fate of our world is to end as one of the Vacant Planets.  Here, the band's logo undergoes significant changes.  Gone is the inverted cross, indicating Schuldiner's attempts to disconnect the image band from any ties to organized religion.

Death - Individual Thought Patterns (1993)
On Individual Thought Patterns, Death sees a continued evolution of its stylistic foray into progressive metal.  The album's themes continue the critical examination of human cognition that was explored on Human.  Death questions the ability of socially sanctioned knowledge structures.  How can we trust what were are told if we do not even know ourselves?  Our blind acceptance of the word of The Philosopher cements our meaningless and moribund fates: "Do you feel what I feel, see what I see, hear what I hear / There is a line you must draw between your dream world and reality / Do you live my life or share the breath I breathe / Lies feed your judgement of others / Behold how the blind lead / each other / The philosopher / You know so much about nothing at all".  Through critical and personal examination of the world we can devise the atomic bomb that can destroy the false beliefs we are spoon fed from birth.

Death - Symbolic (1995)
On Symbolic, Death takes yet another step away from its death metal roots.  Structurally, this music on this album is more akin to progressive rock or NWOBHM.  Lyrically, Schuldiner continues a harsh and critical examination of the normative impulses of modern society.  On Perennial Quest, Schuldiner invites the viewer to join his spiritual quest for truth: "Won't you join me on the perennial quest  / Reaching into the dark, retrieving light / Search for answers on the perennial quest / Where dreams are followed, and time is a test".  Here, Death seems to have lost the structural and thematic direction of its earlier works.  Schuldiner no longer seems as sure in his nihilistic interpretation of society's invisible structures.  The instrumentation often seems campy its attempts to appear technically proficient.  We see here this disorganization in the band's thought in the album cover.  A collage of images from various sources creates a scene that does not seem to lend itself to one interpretation.  Perhaps as Schuldiner's Perennial Quest for truth has led him ultimately to philosophical disorientation, so to has the band's music wandered from its original path.

Death - The Sound of Perseverance (1998)
This album's title is certainly apposite; this is the sound of a band persistent in its desire to bury its musical roots.  This would be the final album from Death before Schuldiner's death from cancer in 2001.  Here, the musical disorganization of the band is even more evident than as seen on Symbolic.  The band seems to be grabbing into the dark for its ideas for riffs and lyrics, just as the figures on the album's cover blindly ascend through the fog towards a cave of unknown nature.  The listener can no longer be sure what is the band's Story to Tell.  As a final nail in the coffin of Death, the closing track on this album is not even an original work, the band instead choosing to cover Judas Priest's Painkiller. 



  1. Isn't it just a cop-out to turn any image into a death metal image by changing the figures into skeletons or skeletal faces? Or maybe that's what puts the "death" in "death metal."

  2. I don't quite understand your point, Andrew. Skeletons have long been used as visuals for motifs related to death. The "death" in death metal comes from the morbid aesthetic of the music. A good death metal riff will have an air of death to it. Death metal lyrics often, but not always, use death as a central theme. Certainly, if death is such a large part of the content of the music, it should take no smaller role in the work's presentation.

    Are you trying to imply that the use of skeletons on death metal album covers somehow makes the work sophomoric? If so, you had better apply that criticism to any other work of art that uses a skeleton to represent themes of death. Death metal bands (good ones at least) do not discuss death purely for its shock value or to create music to scare your parents. The music directly confronts human violence and mortality in ways that other art forms cannot. The primary axiom of death metal is that only death is real.

  3. Society is so obsessed with the prospect of death that they try to hide it from every aspect of our lives. The ironic thing is that eventual death is the one thing that we all have in common. Death metal takes the opposite extreme from society - it not only tackles the issue of death, but openly mocks it, and in doing so mocks society's pervasive paranoia.

    So, Andrew, while you may say it is a cop out to include skeletons in death metal album art, I would argue that it is a cop out for all other album art to keep death so far from sight and mind.


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