The small but steady resurgence of the vinyl format testifies to how physical product remains important when it comes to experiencing music. Album covers are the original canvas of rock’n’roll art, and metal, like every other genre, has spawned classics for each generation, like the disheveled and blood-covered Ozzy Osbourne? on the cover of Diary of a Madman in 1981 or the photo of a man being brutally punched in the face on Pantera‘s 1992 opus Vulgar Display of Power.
Tampa, Fla.-based metal writer Ramon “Oscuro” Martos has long been passionate about metal artwork, and he’s taken his interest in it beyond merely hanging posters on his walls. He spent more than three years researching his new book … And Justice for Art: Stories About Heavy Metal Album Covers (Dark Canvas/Handshake Inc., April 2015), which explores the concepts behind and creation of more than 55 album covers. The four-color book contains hundreds of graphics and a forward by Morbid Angel singer/bassist David Vincent. Besides Diary of a Madman and Vulgar Display of Power, he explores the origins of such covers as Testament’s Dark Roots of Earth, Slayer’s Reign in Blood and Morbid Angel’s Blessed Are the Sick. His list of 100-plus interviewees includes musicians from Anthrax, At the Gates, Sigh and Amorphis, and such visual artists as Eliran Kantor, Joe Petagno, Travis Smith and Paul Raymond Gregory.
“I’ve been a passionate fan of metal music and visual arts for more than 20 years,” explains Martos, who writes for such outlets as PureGrainAudio.com (disclosure: This writer is also a contributor) and MetalUnderground.com. “So, it felt natural to unite both passions in order to create a unique concept, first online and then as a proper book.” The online component he refers to is his monthly PureGrainAudio column “… And Justice for Art,” which tells similar tales about metal album artwork. The column has also expanded to MetalUnderground and has an official blog and Facebook page.
Martos founded the online community because back when he was growing up in Cuba in the late ’80s, he only got to hear metal on third-generation cassette tapes, and it wasn’t until he moved from Cuba at the age of 19 that he finally got to see the album covers that went with the music. He eventually started writing about the topic because he was shocked by how little information was available regarding artwork.
“It became clear that a book was a viable and ideal medium to gather all these stories both chronologically and comprehensively for people to read about and keep record of,” he says. “That’s why the name of the book is … And Justice for Art, because this is a document to help rescue all these stories from potential oblivion and to recognize the work of those that created them.”
Metal listeners and creators alike rallied for the project. Martos funded the first edition through an Indiegogo campaign with a target goal of $8,310. (He received almost $20,000.) That first run of 300 copies quickly sold out, so Martos announced a second printing of another 300 copies. He lists band members of groups like Cynic, Eyehategod and Obituary among the many music-industry folks who helped with either promoting the book or donating merchandise for the Indiegogo fund-raiser. Gregory, who organizes the annual Bloodstock Open Air metal festival in the United Kingdom, has offered to include … And Justice for Art as part of the event’s rock and metal exhibit when it rolls into Derbyshire Aug. 6-9.
Katatonia? guitarist Anders Nystrom, who discusses the cover art of his band’s Dead End Kings album in … And Justice for Art, calls the book “a genius idea,” since Katatonia holds the visual aspect of its music in as much regard as the music itself. “We kind of like to make a statement with our art in the same way we make a statement with our songs and our music,” says Nystrom, “so I think that it’s important to make that as high-quality as possible, because it’s going to be around forever. An album is a timeless piece of art.”
While Martos acknowledges the wide-ranging impact that the digital revolution has had on “the supremacy of traditional formats like CDs and vinyl,” he also observes that “the faceless MP3 has also given bands, labels and designers the opportunity to expand the possibilities of artwork and packaging. That’s why nowadays special editions and box sets seem to be more popular and inventive than ever before, especially in heavy music.”
In … And Justice for Art, Martos strives to take readers on a journey from metal’s beginnings through 2014, incorporating both iconic and underground favorites. “Balance was important,” he explains. “It was also crucial that most of these artworks were aesthetically and stylistically different from each other in order to create visual variety and explore the creative methods used by each the artists.”
Martos’ essays also touch on album covers that have been considered controversial, like Metallica‘s Load, which features a splatter of bovine blood and semen. Martos notes that he doesn’t like the term “controversial” because “that depends on the viewer’s interpretation and how each piece of art is judged within a specific socio-cultural context … For example, I’m standing next to someone looking at the book and they see [Cattle Decapitation‘s Humanure album cover], which features a cow excreting human remains, and they get very upset. However, when they start reading about it, about the band’s aesthetics and the obvious social commentary going on in the art, those people usually change their attitude toward it. They start to understand that there’s a proper message that deserves attention and that it isn’t something gratuitously shocking.”
Martos hopes … And Justice for Art preserves such stories for generations to come. “This can only happen if each of us contributes to keep all this information alive, passing it along,” he says. “Metal fans are a unique breed of music fans, and together, we can make it happen.”