Seeing as this week has been a particularly stressful episode in my surprisingly torturous life as a struggling artist, I decided to do a post that brought the two greatest passions of my life together, namely obscure, studded denim and leather clad British heavy rock from the early 80s, and perusal of the major milestones of the history of Western painting. So without further ado, it’s time to expose the delightful artistry that can be found in NWOBHM cover art. (Click on the images and flick between the two using the arrows to enlarge them click anywhere else on the screen to get rid of them again).
‘St Anthony Tormented by Demons’, 1520, Artist Unknown Blitzkrieg ‘A Time Of Changes’ 1985
The idea for this post formed while I was looking at this painting in Wallraf-Richartz Museum in Cologne. I remember admiring the simplicity of the almost cartoon-esque demon characters, the dreamlike contrasting colour scheme and the serene expression on the hermit’s face as he endures physical and psychological assaults from demons while retaining spiritual focus. Then my tranquillity was interrupted as I started thinking ‘this would have been a more effective album cover for Blitzkrieg’s A Time Of Changes, why didn’t the artist make more effort?’. In fact, this painting is a good metaphor for the intense grip the NWOBHM has on my poor weak mind. I think I can remember losing sleep over the lame quality of the cover art for Blitzkrieg’s 2013 comeback masterpiece ‘Back From Hell’, even the moth demon mascot who I complained at length about in this post looked worse than usual! If you’re ever meditating in a desert wilderness and tempted or tormented by the unholy sound of ‘A Time Of Changes’ I recommend just lying back while the demons violate you and try to enjoy it. The production is balls and the album versions of earlier singles are somewhat weak, but the rest of this record is great, especially the title track and the definitive version of the Satan (vocalist Brian Ross’ other band) song ‘Pull the Trigger’.
‘St Francis in Meditation’, 1635-9, Francisco de Zurbarán Dark Star ‘Dark Star’ 1981
As far as dodgy album covers go, this manages to go one step further by not even bothering to attempt designing a proper logo. Still, lets look at the artist’s motivations, was it inspired by this atmospheric scene of St Francis in religious ecstacy? In this piece, Spanish baroque master Zurbarán, whose distinctive style (influenced by the realism of Caravaggio and his followers) juxtaposes an almost confrontational directness with an intensely spiritual atmosphere.
Saints contemplating skulls are frequent in Spanish and Italian painting in the early 17th century, which is mirrored in the, uh, colourful, Dark Star cover. The artist has taken the main features of this masterpiece and composed them with the monk’s habit over the skull incorporating some menacing protruding teeth, perhaps in an attempt to reflect the religious exercise of meditation. I imagine this half assed skellington is contemplating not only on the ephemerality of life, but also having to sit through side A’s half-assed, out of place folky interlude ‘The Musician’ while waiting for the song Dark Star will always be remembered for ‘Lady of Mars’.
‘Napoleon Crossing the Alps’, 1801–1805, Jacques-Louis David Battleaxe ‘Burn This Town’ 1983
One of the few differences between these two very similar pictures is the mode of transport (and perhaps the quality of the painting). In commissioning the striking piece of propaganda that is the David piece, Napoleon wanted to be shown ‘calm on a fiery steed’ (despite having made the journey on a mule ((or perhaps a badass motorcycle with spikes coming out of it))). The Battleaxe masterpiece echoes this timeless image of dashing authority, considerably improving it by adding distant chimneys, a swamp highlighted with inexplicable fire effects and a fur collared leather coat. It’s hard not to love Battleaxe, and if you can excuse them for trying to update this glorious image for their 2013 High Roller reissue you should visit their website and befriend them on stalkbook.
The Rokeby Venus, 1647 -1651, Diego Velázquez Split Beaver ‘When Hell Won’t Have You’ 1982
First of all, can you believe that this painting was done by a female artist? Once you have digested that piece of information, take a closer look and see how she has delicately recomposed the most striking elements of a reknown treasure of the Spanish Golden Age , the Rokeby Venus. The iconic original is an extremely rare example of a Spanish seventeenth-century nude, as such works were forbidden by the Inquisition. See how the artist has taken the subtleties of this forbidden treasure and reframed it to celebrate the creative freedom of the early 80s by adding demon wings, kinky boots, a flamboyantly dyed perm and (the piece de resistance) a Flying V axe. Also notice the subtle reference to the flickers of light on the the Rokeby Venus’ flesh, playfully manifested in the stark, contemporary spotlighting effect on this joyful monstrosity, whose offensiveness to the eyes and intellect somehow manages to be more entertaining than the album. OK, I’m being mean, some of ‘When Hell Won’t Have you’ (such as opening track ‘Savage’ ((which was initially released as a single with other stand-out album track ‘Hounds of Hell’ on the B side))) kicks ass, whereas at least half of it treads water…
Oh and in case you were wondering, in the NWOBHM Encyclopedia Malc Macmillan insists that the name has ‘literary origins’. He doesn’t mention what literature they may have been referencing, so until someone spills the beans and tells us the deep and meaningful cultural significance of Split Beaver I’m just going to assume they were perverts.
‘Horsemen of the Apocalypse’, Albrecht Dürer c. 1497–98 Holocaust ‘The Nightcomers’ 1981
When northern renaissance master Dürer published the text of the Book of Revelation with 15 woodcut illustrations, he transformed the appearance of the illustrated printed book.
Since he was publishing the book himself, Dürer had to pay skilled block cutters to cut around his drawn lines. This was slow, difficult work and therefore expensive. However when the task was complete, the blocks provided him with a source of income for the rest of his life. If only the same could be said for Holocaust’s amazing debut album! I genuinely think all post renaissance interpretations of the four (or in this case five) horsemen of the apocalypse owe a debt to Dürer, but notice the white border, it looks like an inverse coloured reference to his woodcutting technique. OK, so it probably isn’t, but either way it’s a great image that sums up the more rabid side of the era.
Holocaust are pretty active these days, be sure to befriend them on stalkbook and get the new album ‘Expander’.
‘Rape of Europa’, 1559-62, Titian The Handsome Beasts ‘Bestiality’ 1981
In Titian’s mythological paintings, otherwise known as ‘picture poems’, the Venetian master uses painterly effects and a dynamic composition to convey the mythic import of the story. To be coerced by a god is no ordinary human experience of sexual violence. Rather, it is a terrifying but transformative experience of supernatural possession or ecstasy, which (in the myth) lead to a world changing outcome.
The Handsome Beasts used to delight in stories of social inadequacy and misanthropic behaviour inspired by their hometown Nuneaton. So the album’s title, along with the disturbing celebration of paedophilia that can be found in the album’s opener ‘Sweeties’ give us an idea of why the photographer chose to reference this painting. In this sensitive portrait of singer Gary Dallaway, the treatment of flesh on both characters is a wonder to behold. Although the role of beast and human have been reversed, I’m sure the intention is to show Gary as a metamorphosed god, whose close proximity to the pig beast implies aggressive bestial erotic fulfilment.
‘Et in Arcadia ego’, late 1630s, Nicolas Poussin Witchfinder General ‘Death Penalty’ 1982
Although ambiguous, one popular reading of the original is that this piece looks to the past of Greek and Roman culture, which gives us a sense of the transience of human life. The tombstone reminds the shepherds that even in the idyllic paradise of Arcadia, death is still present and will come to them all.
The photographer of ‘Death Penalty’s cover has successfully echoed the theatricality of Poussin, whose interpretation of classicism and repose, peacefulness and rationalism is echoed in the poses of the protagonists, Witchfinder General themselves, in their interrogation of a page three girl. The ambiguity of this altercation echoes the numerous equivocal interpretations of the original’s emotional impact. The tombstone serves as a memento-mori, you can dwell on nostalgia for this album all you want, but its quite possible that Zeeb Parks finds his dark past as Witchfinder Genral vocalist somewhat embarrassing these days, and is therefore unlikely to don his civil war outfit again. And if you’re expecting them to follow up their comeback CD with a tour you’ll be sorely disappointed!
‘Wanderer above the Sea of Fog’, 1818, Caspar David Friedrich Omega ‘The Prophet’ 1985
Wanderer above the Sea of Fog was composed in 1818 by the German Romantic artist Caspar David Friedrich. True to the romantic style, it could represent Kantian self-reflection, or a metaphor for an unknown future. The gloriously purple interpretation of the theme found on this album cover has been given an apocalyptic undertone by replacing the everyday wonderer with a 20th century soldier. This is genuinely my favourite NWOBHM album cover, like the music it manages to be ambitious and atmospheric on a two colour budget. ‘The Prophet’ is a great album and every home should own a copy, although I’m baffled that a new, weaker interpretation of this iconic design was knocked up for the 2012 High Roller reissue.
Check out this doom laden piece of progressive poetry then buy a copy, it will change your life (you’ll probably find yourself skipping the poorly judged Beatles cover, but there are enough extra tracks on the High Roller release to make this an album you’ll keep coming back to time and time again).
‘Perseus and Andromeda’, late 1570s-early 1580s, Paolo Veronese Preyer ‘Terminator’ 1986
There are countless depictions of gorgons attacking shackled virgins, a scene traditionally halted by the intervention of a brave young hero. In Veronese’s version of events, Perseus’ winged heels appear to allow him to hover over the salivating kraken. However, in the Preyer interpretation of the legend, the absence of quest-exhausted Perseus delivering the final blow hints towards the true hero of this scene, the undisputable rock supremacy of these traditional Welsh heavy metal power-heads. Reformed with the original lineup, be sure to show them some love and get yourself a signed copy of this overlooked classic at their official site or you’ll be chained to a rock and forced to listen to me talk about paintings referenced in NWOBHM album covers. When you’re fed to a giant monster it will probably feel like a massive relief…
‘Gabrielle d’Estrées and one of her sisters’ 1594 Unknown Artist Rage ‘Nice ‘N’ Dirty’ 1982
Although this painting’s bizarre composition is often interpreted as a symbolic announcement that Gabrielle (the lady on the right) is pregnant with the child of her lover, King Henry IV of France, a more popular reading is that of an erotic piece. Even in 1935 it was considered so directly sexual (and therefore obscene) that it was hidden from the curious gaze of the public by a green curtain. Many art critics and historians sometimes refuse to acknowledge the homoeroticism of the original image, and although this (cough) tasteful photograph acknowledges it fully, I have a suspicion the intention may have been aimed at a predominantly male audience… Adverse publicity for tacky sexism successfully drove away fans of both sexes and the band struggled on until their demise in 1984. Which is a shame, Rage (who were previously known as Nutz) were a Liverpudlian hard rock entity, who enjoyed a fair bit of success, releasing 4 pretty good albums (the first one is my favourite, full of prog leanings and successful experimentation, and yes, another misogynistic album cover!) before the dark days of the punk boom.
This interpretation of the mysterious and erotically beguiling original painting has also ignored its peculiar bias toward left-handedness. So not only does this interpretation of the original painting degrade women, but it subjugates leftys. Shameful behaviour!
In all seriousness, the first album as Rage, ‘Out Of Control’ is really good and devoid of 80s big hair soft-porn, so get hold of that if you like this sample… They definitely deserve a higher pedestal so google them and buy their albums. There’s a stalkbook page but I can’t tell if it’s official….