The Exile of Satan from Heavy Metal Design

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By: Alan Rapp | October 29, 2009

Those “heavy metal” bands that debuted during that first palmy MTV generation sound like nontoxic pop compared to today’s vast offerings of subaltern metal genres, where intricate is the new heavy, and glacially slow is far more radical than hyperfast. Metal has evolved in such diverse directions—drawing from and crossing over with punk, math rock, noise, and avant-garde musical threads—that perhaps the real surprise is how audiences who never thought of themselves as metalheads are now exploring bands with names like Baroness, Gojira, Isis, and SUNN O))).

Detail from the 2009 Isis album Wavering Radiant
Detail from the 2009 Isis album Wavering Radiant

Heavy metal has evolved visually as well. Gone are the fantasy illustrations of radioactive zombies and band logos composed of overlapping swords. After a generation of sprouting subgenres, the heavy metal field is littered with a diversity of styles that even the most hardy metalhead will have trouble encompassing. As Ian Christe, author of Sound of the Beast: The Complete Headbanging History of Heavy Metal and publisher of the metal-oriented press Bazillion Points says, “Heavy metal design is not a monolithic form at all. You have everything from junior high school kids in Iowa drawing skulls and pentagrams and band logos to Norwegian design houses making skulls and pentagrams and band logos. There are all levels of sophistication and intention—and execution.”

Heavy metal design today comprises a vast field of images that no longer compulsively refer to adolescent power and provocation fantasies. The genre’s pervading preoccupation with the occult yields far less goat and pentagram iconography—which became self-conscious clichés almost instantly anyway—than more ambiguously dark imagery. A few designers, some of the key musicians of the scene in their own right, have emerged to torque graphic conventions, and use strategies to indicate that metal, as a visual genre, is more multivalent and eloquent than mainstream design aficionados probably ever imagined.

Cover for Sunn O))) 2009 album Monoliths and Dimensions

Cover for Sunn O))) 2009 album Monoliths and Dimensions, which uses a monoprint by Richard Serra.

In part through the growing success of his doom metal band SUNN O))), Stephen O’Malley is arguably the most visible of these designers. Like SUNN O))), which is named for a vintage amp brand (and pronounced, “sun”), O’Malley keeps a toe in classical metal tropes but contributes an aesthete’s sensibility. Having designed album covers and limited-edition packaging for his own projects and dozens of other bands, O’Malley literally put his mark on the scene through a simple yet radical reevaluation of that nexus of metal band identity—the logo. He abandoned hoary Blackletter-derived gothic ornamentalism and opted instead for a medium-weight sans serif for SUNN O)))’s logo, which he jokingly calls “Portland modernism.” The move signaled not just a departure from custom: He visually cues the sonic hallmarks of the band—mass, mood, and deceptive simplicity. For the logo for his now defunct band Khanate, O’Malley distilled and crashed the Helvetica ultralight letterforms to such an extreme that only a tangle of nonreferential geometry remains—”vector madness,” he calls it. “I see Stephen exploiting the very nature of [Adobe] Illustrator itself with that logo,” says Ian Christe, suggesting that even this level of sophistication retains a core of the heavy metal ethos: “I would say it’s a metal trait to not stop at the bounds of sensibility.”

The band logo has always been the nexus of identity for metal bands. Mike Essl, head of graphic design at Cooper Union and an avowed metalhead himself, sees it as parcel of attentive branding: “I think the thing we can take away from these metal logos is the craft involved in making them, the attention to form. If you look back at some of those ’80s logos, it looks like they inherited a little bit from the New York school of design, like Herb Lubalin fast-forwarded. That attention to detail, the custom drawing and interlocking of typefaces, is what I try to use in my work and what inspires me.”

Album cover for Stephen O’Malley’s band Khanate
Album cover for Stephen O’Malley’s band Khanate

The genre’s sense of restless invention saw the logo enter new territories, taking a notorious turn from neo-Lubalin to the perversely illegible with the arrival of European black metal. A Satanic and paganistic movement that solidified in the Scandinavian countries in the early ’90s, many black metal bands played lightning fast, howling and screeching their vocals. Band personae tended toward the extremely theatrical—donning spikes and robes, covering their faces with white corpse-paint—while album covers often used imagery of wintry northern forests. But it was the spindly, spiky, branching logos that defined this subgenre for years. A game of international runic one-upmanship ensued, in which the band with the least legible logo was the most authentic. Such extremes couldn’t last forever of course, and Christe observes that a knowing readability has crept back in. “If you trace generations of heavy metal through the band logo styles, the newest is this suburban death metal, with bands like Job for a Cowboy, whose logo looks like it’s made of stretched-out internal organs pinned to a lab dish—but it’s legible instantly. It has all the markings of being completely out of control, but you can read it at first glance, which is always a sign of commercial intent.”

It’s also impossible for metal graphics to ignore the design culture at large. O’Malley sees the resurgence of the “dirty” manual look as one of the more intriguing trends in contemporary graphics, citing the work of Justin Bartlett and Aaron Turner: “The move back to DIY hand-drawn illustration looks pretty cool and suits underground metal.” Turner is also a highly visible member of the metal graphics scene through his label Hydra Head, which he founded while still in college in 1993, and his band Isis is known for its heavily layered and complex songs. After studying painting and printmaking at Boston University, Turner, like O’Malley, taught himself Photoshop and Illustrator. “Once I understood the realm of possibility with digital apps, I explored them full-bore,” says Turner. “After two or three years of focusing on the computer, I wanted to take what I learned with that and integrate it with the more hand-drawn approach I had started out with.” Employing a distinctive line reminiscent of woodcuts, Turner’s abstract, sometimes vermiform designs grace all of the packaging for Isis, and more than half of all Hydra Head releases. “For me, generating stuff by hand is a more direct and connected approach to making work,” he continues. “It is more intimate and carries more of my personality than computer designs.”

Illustration for Isis, published in German magazine Visions, by Seldon Hunt
Illustration for Isis, publi
shed in German magazine Visions, by Seldon Hunt

Among the few designers Turner trusts to design for Hydra Head (including some Isis merch like posters and tees) are O’Malley and Brooklyn-based Australian Seldon Hunt, who deranges his work with a pointillist intensity of detail and mirror-imaging. His work treats ostensibly predictable metal tropes like skulls and desolate natural vistas yet eschews diabolism. He transfers an almost psychedelic power through dense information and rigorous symmetry. But he disavows the mantle of a metallized Fred Tomaselli: “I think the psychedelic nature of the work is there but I’ve never been influenced by psychedelic art, which I’ve always hated,” says Hunt. “I do want people to be hypnotized, and the arrangement and detail is part of that. I want my work to look impossible, for someone to look at it and find through the level of detail that the work has a life of its own. But I don’t think it’s ‘trippy.’ It’s colder than that.”

While O’Malley, Turner, and Hunt may plot three key points on the map of avant-garde metal design, their stylistic divergences support Christe’s claim that diversification is inherently part of the aesthetic. Hunt agrees, and he’s skeptical that metal’s newfound coolness presages mainstream attention: “There’s no one aesthetic really … we like to say there’s an aesthetic, but it’s really just the logo on the T-shirt that differentiates us from people in the fashion industry or architects or computer programmers—they all tend to wear black as well. It’s just that most of the stuff we make and wear tends to have something negative on it. I don’t think it’s got a huge capacity to be involved in mainstream society.”

Cover of Sunn O))) album ØØ Void
Cover of Sunn O))) album ØØ Void

The nature of heavy metal, based as it is in countless suspensions of disbelief—of imagination, or as O’Malley posits, even of “transcendence”—may reveal itself to be ultimately quixotic. But the music and its corresponding visual messages are far more refined today, if still abrasive to the mainstream, and its practitioners continue to evolve these themes out of restlessness. “Metal is interesting because it really encompasses so many different types of music,” says O’Malley. “It has a strong aesthetic teetering on taboo, but isn’t really taboo. It’s just a little bit outsider.”