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For many of us growing up in the 80s and 90s with parents concerned about all the rap and metal music in the world, the most we learned of the metal scene as a kid was through the coolest metal album covers sitting in the record store. We would see these incredible images of demons and violence and darkness – or, alternatively, of bare-chested heroes holding swords and guitars aloft – or even just the band looking twisted and weird – and just create narratives in our heads as to what the music could be like, what forbidden wonders lied within those CD cases or vinyl sleeves.
For so many of us, before listening to metal, we stared at the covers. The coolest metal album covers are sometimes just as inspiring and incredible as the music contained within, and it is time to give these visual masterworks their due.
Mutter - Rammstein
Rammstein is known for its dark subject matter. Dead babies are right there pretty grim things to put on the cover of your international success album, but there you go.
The image of a child floating in what can only be some sort of preserving fluid is horrifying. Disturbing. And, in its own respect, incredibly cool. It's just the kind of unsettling perversion of beauty that leaves you aware that nothing is safe. It subverts expectations, which may be the core of metal personified: mainstream expectations – subverted. Birth – death. Joy – cold misery.
White Pony - Deftones
A lot of great metal covers are busy and complicated. Lots of violence, demonic imagery... and that's cool. I love it. But you have to agree that, sometimes, a lot less is a lot more.
This may be the best Deftones album out there. Much like the music, the cover knows how to incorporate softer, quieter elements in order to create something stark and unforgettable in the process. The contrast, in essence, isn't drastic. Just a white horse against a grey backdrop... but, it stands out.
Dopesmoker (2003 Cover) - Sleep
This album has been the subject of documentaries. It spelled the end for Sleep after they spent years trying to get the music perfect. It became the subject of legend.
So why not have an equally legendary cover?
Though there are two album covers for it, and both are pretty epic, I'm ultimately a sucker for mythological imagery. At first, I thought that this was Odin's horse on the screen, but... I'm less sure now. I know there's answer, but I'd rather imagine this rider plowing on along the music of this doom metal band's swan song.
Warp Riders - The Sword
Take a pulp science fiction story, and turn it into doom metal. You get The Sword, one of the coolest fans for the science fiction/metal head fans out there. I know I can't be the only one.
Anyway, Warp Riders features one of the coolest covers out there. It really captures the old-school pulp feel of old sci-fi serials, which, personally, makes me giddy as a school girl looking at it. Also, anyone else get flashbacks to old clam-shell VHS shells with that border and the centered image there? Just me?
Liquid - 35007
Heavily inspired by experimental metal like Pink Floyd, 35007 has a bit of a sci-fi edge to them with their sound-scape metal musical songs. The music really sends you places, with enveloping sound.
As for the cover, well, it's a lot like The Sword's Warp Riders. Sci-fi aesthetic (just look at that writing "Transmitted By...") mixed with trippy colors, it accomplishes what the band intended: introduces you to a new experience unlike any other.
The Fallen Kingdom - Black Tusk
This simultaneously grotesque and beautiful metal cover combines a plant-like quality to this visual of beauty being torn apart. Something animalistic and bestial is emerging from a vision of beauty. And it's... green. Very, very green.
Black Tusk is a fairly under-rated thrash metal band with some intense songs. And this, their debut album, proves they also have some sick covers.
Blackwater Park - Opeth
Arguably Opreth's greatest album, this progressive death metal band integrates light, softer sounds with heavy, dark ones in a way that really leaves you stunned and awed.
The album integrates dark and light in a measured, haunting measure. You feel as though you are peering into the darkness from your light world... while some dark shadows stare off at you from the other shore. The effect is unsettling and kinda creepy.
The Unforgiving - Within Temptation
This is one of Within Temptation's more imaginative albums. A concept album released alongside a comic and short films to create a cohesive story. While the album may be less orchestral than many of their later work, the album cover relays the full scope of The Unforgiving's narrative, which, for a concept album, is pretty important.
Overall, it draws to mind a lot of mass paper back novels – pulpy, over-the-top, but still a ton of fun.
The End Complete - Obituary
Ever watch Lucio Fulci's The Beyond? It's an Italian horror film where a gate to Hell opens up, filling the world with man-eating spiders and zombies. In the end, the main characters end up trapped on the other side.
I only bring it up because this high-selling metal album sports a cover that looks like Fulci's Hell. A dry, desolate world of horror and misery that you can't look away from.
Nightmare - Avenged Sevenfold
This is probably Avenge Sevenfold's best album, and album cover is... pretty damn cool. The image depicts a grim-reaper hovering over an innocent girl. Skull imagery is a reoccurring motif among much of Avenged Sevenfold's album covers, but what makes this particular metal CD far cooler than the rest is the element of fear.
This reminds me a ton of A Nightmare on Elm Street. There's the sense of innocence being prayed upon in their most vulnerable state that really speaks to the horror hound in me, which makes this one stand out a ton.
Initium - Samhain
After leaving the Misfits, Glenn Danzig started up the band Samhain. Obviously, you can tell Danzig has a bit of a horror movie thing, what with his very ghoulish aesthetic across multiple bands... but Initium really takes that macabre spirit into full gear.
Arguably Samhain's best album (especially before changing into Danzig), Initium's cover is a bloody vision of Hell, one that is kinda disturbing just to look at... even now...
Follow the Leader - Korn
Korn has had a lot of nightmarish covers over the years, but Follow the Leader may be their most iconic, and for good reason. Korn covers tend to invoke a sense of innocence corrupted or tarnished in some way, and this one takes hop-scotch... and leads a girl off a cliff.
The message here is pretty obvious: if you follow the path set out for you without question, you are throwing yourself to your doom. It starts when we're children. That's the pretty obvious message to this fairly famous cover.
Danzig - Danzig
When Samhain became Danzig, the band needed a self-titled album. What better subject for the cover than the now-infamous Danzig skull? This iconic rip-off – er, iconic skull that is in no way a copy of any Marvel Comics character – became popular among metal fans in the late 80s and early 90s for one damn good reason: the skull is awesome! The horns? The teeth? That ghoulish, morbid playfulness to it that still demanded a sense of authority and bad-assery? How could you not want that thing on your wall or on your t-shirt?
Also, the album is great. It's a great metal album... but people didn't buy it knowing that the guy from Misfits was behind it. They bought it because of that freaking cool metal album cover.
Iowa - Slipknot
Slipknot remains an odd band. In many ways, they are the "dark and edgy" band that kids listened to in high school to sound cool. On the other hand, their music was pretty cool. Their metal album Iowa is pretty good, but I'm not really reviewing their music.
Just metal album covers.
And this one is cool. It's just a goat, but that imagery relays a sense of darkness. Goats have often been linked to Satanic imagery, and that really is relayed here. Hints of darkness in natural, organic life. It's truly unsettling... but cool.
Hell Awaits - Slayer
Sometimes, it doesn't take a lot to make a cover cool. Take this Slayer album cover. Sure, a lot of demonic imagery incorporates busy, crazy images that riles you up, makes you excited...
But this metal album cover incorporates a lot of negative space. What makes this one of Slayer's coolest album covers is just the fire-brushstrokes. It invokes a sense of downward momentum, of tumbling downward through the circles of Hell. And all the free-falling demons and condemned helps, too. Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.
Akuma no Uta - Boris
Not all covers need to be busy or complicated. Experimental Japanese metal band Boris released their fifth album with a simple looking enough cover... but something has to be said for the slumped over appearance of guitarist Takeshi with his guitar like that. Simple, minimalistic, yet oddly haunting. It stands as a tribute to Nick Drake's Bryter Layter cover, only with Takeshi's double-necked guitar substituting Drake's acoustic one.
The band's post-punk and psychedelic style is matched by their equally unnerving cover.
From Mars to Sirius - Gojira
You take a whale, a planet, and lots of negative space together. What do you get? An awesome metal album cover. While some of this album is lighter fair than typical death metal, it gets there fast enough. It's a really good album...
But, on top of that, it's one of those immediately memorable album covers. It just inspires the imagination in a way that leaves you charged up and excited.
The Codex Necro - Anaal Nathrakh
I am a sucker for horrifying imagery. I love it. And nothing is more horrifying than the prospect of choking. This hellish image hurts just looking at. We see here a person being strangled by a bag over his face and a bind around his throat. The image makes one uncomfortable just looking at it.
It is like looking into Hell. A small glimpse of it. And I'd be damned if that doesn't make this one cool metal album cover...
World Painted Blood - Slayer
Slayer is one of those classic metal bands that seems to be ever popular. This album may not be their best, but it has a really cool concept. There were four variations of the cover that would be sold. If you assembled them all together, you created a far bigger image.
A world of bones. A sea of gore. A world painted with blood.
Oh, and even if this isn't the best Slayer album, it's still pretty badass.
Dopesick (Alternative Cover) - Eyehategod
Sludge metal band Eyehategod (subtle name) released the album Dopesick in the mid-90s under a different cover. That's mainly because the censers felt that the original cover of a woman gagged and bound looked too... rapey.
And they're right. It's really uncomfortable looking at this cover. In fact, it's bone chilling and disturbing. Feminists and women's rights groups have every reason to be disturbed.
But that's the intention. It's supposed to be disturbing and sick and twisted. And it accomplishes its goal wonderfully. It skeeves you out and makes you uncomfortable. Which is what the intention is. Mission accomplished.
Rated R - Queens of the Stone Age
The best metal covers don't need to be busy. Simple, in many cases, is better. Less is more. And this cover is essentially a repurposed stamp that came in front of every film in every drive-in back in the day.
Queens of the Stone Age is a great stoner metal band, and this album is one of their better works. Some may argue if they're metal or just hard rock. Personally, I don't think that matters as much because they're awesome.
Toxicity - System of a Down
I don't know why this album is on this list. The cover really shouldn't work. It's just a mock-up of the Hollywood sign with System of a Down's name replacing the original text.
Yet it is this simple image that makes the album cover the coolest. It takes the iconic visual of mainstream media, and subverts it. Simple covers work more often than people seem to believe, and rarely is it as cool as it is here.
Atavist - Otep
This is the album where Otep dropped their hip-hop elements, and descended purely into thrash and groove metal. The CD itself is pretty cool, but anyone who picks up this metal album will take a step back to stare at the insane cover art.
I have no idea if this means anything. The imagery here is so incredibly busy and intense. It's hard to decipher if there's a message on this cover, other than to make you uncomfortable. It's immediately memorable, and, more than that, immediately incredible.
Butchered at Birth - Cannibal Corpse
A band like Cannibal Corpse doesn't turn out sane album covers. Sure, metal has seen some crazy stuff, but this is... this is next level. This is not the kind of album you put on your shelf for your kids to look at. It was banned in multiple countries, and, upon its release in '91, sparked controversy among parents who feared their kids buying this "metal trash."
So yeah, maybe a bad move on the PR front...
But the coolest metal album covers aren't merely the kinds that look epic. They're the ones that stick to you – unlike the flesh pealed from that woman's bones. This sticks with your nightmares.
Ultra Beatdown - Dragonforce
Dragonforce may suck live, but their studio work remains unmatched in terms of sheer crazy, over-the-topness. But, despite their music, most of their album covers are surprisingly simple. Tame, even.
But Ultra Beatdown takes on this cyberpunk iconography that leaves you intrigued. Dragonforce has always been known for their fantasy-inspired lyrics, but his image is different. For this reason alone, it's pretty cool.
Oh, and that gun? That gun is every sci-fi nerd's dream.
Vol 4 - Black Sabbath
I'm always a fan of simplicity. While big, crazy covers can be impressive, there is something to be said for a monochromatic, simple cover, too. And this is one of those simple, great covers.
Vol 4 may not be bone chilling, bad-ass, or anything like that... but it captures the feel of 70s metal just right. It's a time capsule like that. A product of the time that works.
Oceanborn - Nightwish
How often is it that we see lots of water imagery in a metal album cover? More than that, how often is the imagery just so... inviting? Lovely? Welcoming?
Nightwish is one of my favorite Finnish bands, and certainly one of my favorite metal bands. They incorporate beautiful symphonic music with metal sounds, creating a melody that's... sort of beautiful. Operatic. And this cover is equally operatic. Grandiose, phantasmic, and gorgeous.
Release from Agony - Destruction
There is something truly memorable about eyes appearing on hands. Pan's Labyrinth did it, and maybe one of the reasons this image stands out to me is because, in some small way, this reminds me of that.
Doesn't change the fact that this German thrash metal band (one of the "Big Four" along with Kreator, Sodom, and Tankard of the German thrash metal scene) created one of the coolest metal album covers with some damn cool horror imagery.
Oh, and needles. What's up with those needles going all over the place? Not sure to be scared of this creature or scared for this creature...
Coma of Souls - Kreator
This classic thrash metal album cover incorporates everything great about 80s and early 90s metal art: the integration of old and new tech. You have a goblin or demon creature getting brain surgery. That's pretty metal right there, but, take a look inside its head, and... well, it's pretty hellish in there.
This German band helped pioneer the elements that would one day become death and black metal. The facts are that Kreator is one of the best metal bands to come out of Germany, and, by far, one of the most influential.
Traced in Air - Cynic
Cynic's comeback album may be more symphonic and harmonious than your typical metal affair, but... no, no but. Still an awesome album. The cover reflects the contents of the music by featuring what can only be described as transcendent imagery.
Metal can be more than just terror and demons. It can be downright transcendent with its imagery and iconography, which this album really relays and depicts. The cover truly sticks with you. It's beautiful. Again, transcendent of both the metal genre and the imagery associated with it.
Orgasmatron - Motorhead
Full disclosure: it only occurred to me now, while editing the rest of the article, to include Motorhead on this list. I feel like I should lose all credibility in compiling a list like this now.
Eiither way, a lot of Motorhead album covers incorporate similar imagery, but this one – Orgasmatron – rushes at you with some heavy metal. A heavy metal train with a demon snout! The sense of motion on this still album cover is the coolest, but arguably more is just how crazy cool an idea this is. A demonic train? How freaking cool is that!?
One (Single) - Metallica
Metallica needs no introduction, nor should the song "One," which, arguably, is one of the greatest songs they ever made (if not their best). The single album cover ranks among the best of metal album covers for its simplicity and its effectiveness.
Many probably know that the song "One" is based on the film Johnny Got His Gun, but what you might not realize is that the skeleton thing on the cover? It has no arms, legs, eyes, mouth, or ears... just like the soldier in that film. This should be obvious... but it is that grim parody of the song and film's subject matter that gives this album something of a cruel, morbid intensity to it.
Also, I really like this song.
Sun in the House of the Scorpion - Blood of Kingu
There's something ghastly about this metal album cover. I am reminded of a ghost story told around a camp fire, of hazy nightmares and strange phantasms.
This black metal band only churned out three albums. This middle album is both their best and most haunting to look at. In many respects, it captures all the haunting nightmares you have at night... all in one, beautiful image.
Killers - Iron Maiden
Can we all agree Iron Maiden is one of the most important metal bands to ever exist? From their logo to the classic character "Eddie," Iron Maiden reached the rank of iconic heavy metal band long before you even listened to their music (which, in case you were wondering, is also awesome).
The cover for Killers is the one that introduced audiences to this aesthetic of theirs. As their second album, it cemented the look that would reign supreme throughout the 80s music scene. Sure, the first album introduced "Eddie" and the logo... but Killers showed that these weren't ephemeral icons of the band, but something here to stay. And that makes it awesome.
In the Absence of Truth - Isis
One of the last albums by one of the coolest sludge metal bands out there, In the Absence of Truth may not be the best metal album out there... but it has one cool cover.
Subdued, minimalistic, yet oddly haunting all the same. What strikes me about this one in particular is contrast. Dull, wood-weaved background... flare of light in the middle. Unforgettable, and, on top of that, hard to overlook.
Ten Thousand Fists - Disturbed
Yes, it's a mainstream choice, but that's only because it's one hell of an album. Disturbed has always been a popular band, but this may be their most iconic album. It's certainly their most iconic album cover.
At a time of horror, it offered a sense of unity. A sense of together-ness in the anti-establishment. Disturbed's mascot, the Guy, would serve in the 2000s as the iconoclast. The rejection of society's rottenness... even if the means were sometimes a little extreme and hard-core. Tough love, one might say.
Funny, though, how sometimes scary imagery can conjure up joy.
Dopethrone - Electric Wizard
You take Satan and you give him a bong. I repeat: you give Satan... and give him... a bong.
This stoner metal band's cover has a very smoky quality to it, implementing a wispy aesthetic comprised of brush strokes that, while not the most complete or even clear image, gives the impression that all of this could be created from an exhale of second-hand smoke. It's a pretty cool visual, even if at times it's a little tricky to make-out in terms of the finer details.
Death is this Communion - High on Fire
Metal and hellish imagery come hand in hand, it seems. But rarely does the artwork truly relay a sense of evil, of decay, of corrosion... but this metal album cover? It has hat in spades.
There is a vegetative quality here, like the bark had pealed off the trunk, and solidified in the form of Hellspawn. Gotta love it.
Fear of the Night - Iron Maiden
Fear of the Night is not Iron Maiden's best metal album, but it remains one of their best covers. There's something so incredible about the impish monster sprouting out from a tree. As a horror fan, demonic trees rarely strike much fear outside the Evil Dead films, so the horrific imagery here, flesh and bark intertwined, really strikes me as cool.
And scary. And epic.
Also, all the cool colors really strikes a sense of darkness in the cover. A lot of demonic metal album covers incorporate blood red or black, but rarely cool shades of blue. It's sort of refreshing to see a mostly blue cover.
And the Circus Leaves Town - Kyuss
I don't know if this is a painting or a photographed picture, but this really gives me a sense of vertigo. It's that perfect surreal metal cover that, when you look at it, you think you know what you're looking at. And then you ask "Wait... is that snow fall? Or – holy shit there's no Earth!" And the more you look, the dimensions become impossible. And, yeah, you know it's art and you know it isn't real, but hell, it really messes with you.
That's good art.
Oh, and the music's pretty cool too, I guess.
Flight of the Behemoth - Sunn 0)))
The cover for this album – probably one of the best ones Sunn 0))) put out – invokes something of the old woodprints that used to be produced back in the Middle Ages. That primeval age of mysticism and dreams – captured in a dark, beautiful image.
I am biased, of course, as I enjoy this aesthetic. I am a bit of a fantasy and history nerd myself, so covers like this just jump out at me. I saw this in high school, and I really only listened to the CD because I really, really liked that cover. Sometimes, you really can judge a book by its awesome cover.
70s Rock Must Die - LARD
LARD's EP may not be the most memorable thing in the world in terms of the content of the music, but it has such a great cover it's hard not to talk about it. Simple at first, just a crotch shot in the 70s aesthetic with classic 70s-esque font... but then you read what it says.
It both embraces and destroys the 70s music and aesthetic scene in one awesome metal cover.
Leviathan - Mastodon
Mastodon has a track record for cool metal album covers, but this concept album adaptation of Herman Melville's Moby-Dick remains one of the coolest albums... ever. On top of the fact that they managed to make a boring book about whaling awesome (half of the book is just details about how to preserve whale blubber), they capture the essence of what people think the book is about in a beautiful, epic cover of man vs nature. The ultimate confrontation: distilled.
That, and... well, let's be honest. Look how cool that thing is!
Peace Sells... But Who's Buying? - Megadeth
Megadeth remains one of the most popular metal bands... ever. Part of that I feel has to do with their amazing cover art. This metal album cover possesses one cool, slick depiction of destruction and death. It captures 80s sleaze, combining it with Cold War paranoia.
The effect? An unforgettable metal cover from a classic metal band.
The Devil You Know - Heaven and Hell
Comprised of members from Black Sabbath's old line up, Heaven and Hell only released one metal album... but it was one hell of a release. The Devil You Know serves as the swan song to Ronnie James Dio, who, tragically, died the next year. For many reasons, there is a lot of sentimental and fan attachment to this album.
But enough of that. The cover is bad-ass.
Depicting a lot more of Hell than Heaven, this demonic looking cover features a demon that looks like he just sprang out of a later level of Doom, this heavy metal album is just... look at that! Look at the tongues, the eyeless face, the tendrils. It just oozes bad-assary. And the distant cross in the background, for me, always made it seem like you were in the Devil's domain, and no God can save you. Not from evil's wrath. Which really is a major theme of a lot of metal. How you can't wait for divine intervention. How we may very well be trapped with horror and monsters, and how the world really sits in our hands.
I'm reading way too into this.
Welcome to Hell - Venom
One of the earliest metal bands around, Venom's work left a huge mark on the metal genre as a hole. One of the groups that laid the foundation. But this isn't a list of the best metal bands. It's of the coolest metal album covers... and this cover is simple, but oh-so-great.
Hellish iconography, with the pentagram. Exaggerated lettering. Black background. While many of these would become par-the-course for metal albums, Venom did it first. The fact that so many people took this metal album, and tried to do it better is proof of its greatness.
Master of Puppets - Metallica
There's a reason people still remember this image. There's a reason its on a ton of shirts. Metallica's iconic album, Master of Puppets, isn't merely one of the best metal albums of the 80s. It's also just one of the coolest metal albums... period.
But the art on the cover is perhaps just as iconic, and for good reason. Simple design. Simple message. Death. Inevitability. Sooner or later, we will all die. And the contrast between the muted background and the white headstones makes that stand out – hard.
Melana Chasmata - Triptykon
This extreme metal band's sophomore metal album may not be as well-known as other entries on this list, nor is it very old, but its H.R. Giger imagery is just too twisted not to talk about.
Incorporating iconography from the xenomorph designer, this metal album cover integrates bio-mechanical and phallic imagery in a twisted subversion of existence. Sure, this is not imagery completely alien to us (thanks to the film Alien), but Giger imagery never fails to disturb.
Oh, and yes, for the curious, H.R. Giger DID make that image. For that reason alone, this is one of the coolest metal album covers.
Korn - Korn
I think this one image is one of the most terrifying images I have ever seen on a metal album cover before. Tons of albums throw buckets of blood on the cover and gore and all that, but Korn really distills pure horror into a single image.
Vulnerability. Innocence. Predators. There is something so evil about a shadow. What kind of person is it? We know it is invading this place of innocence, which makes us uncomfortable. But... what is it doing here?
Considering the album features songs talking about child abuse, it serves as a perfect introduction to the album's themes and concerns.
It's stuff like this that made metal something of a pariah in mainstream media back in the 90s. Whether you feel, however, that Korn incorporated this imagery just to be edgy or to make a horrific point... doesn't matter. It cuts deep.
Black Sabbath - Black Sabbath
This is it. The founding stone of metal. It is great, haunting... and damn if it isn't cool.
I adore haunting imagery. The ghostly, phantasms that stick with you. Try to go back to when this metal album first hit shelves. You had the Beatles. You had the beginning of rock – a simultaneously joyous and grandiose time...
And then you see this. This bone-chilling, haunting visual. It's like you're looking at something dead. It looks like something out of a haunted house. A little slice of Hell.
And that makes it unforgettable.