Larry Carroll was living in New Jersey in 1986, doing political illustrations for The Village Voice, The Progressive, and The New York Times when got a call from producer Rick Rubin. The hirsute music guru had just signed budding SoCal thrash stars Slayer and was overseeing the production of Reign in Blood. Rubin was drawn to the dark, creepy quality of Carroll's work, and he asked the artist if he'd be interested in creating a cover for Slayer's soon-to-be classic. "Not many art directors were lining up to ask me to illustrate the next Aerosmith or Sting album," Carroll recalls. "I think they were afraid of what they would get. I was always told my work was too dark for most folks. So Slayer was a good fit for me."
Accepting the commission, Carroll delivered what he describes as "a pretty grotesque cover" — a mixed media collage festooned with corpses, severed heads, and at least two figures rocking visible, if silhouetted, erections. "You see the guy with the bishop's hat? Right by his hand is his dick. No one ever caught that," Carroll gloats. "Now look at the guy next to him — he's got one sticking out, too." Still, despite the piece's shock value, the members of Slayer were not immediately won over. "If I remember correctly, they didn't like the cover I did for Reign in Blood at first," Carroll says. "But then someone in the band showed it to their mother, and their mother thought it was disgusting, so they knew they were on to something."
It was the beginning of a beautiful relationship. Carroll created the covers for Slayer's next two albums, 1988's South of Heaven and 1990's Seasons in the Abyss. All the pieces were mixed-media works. "The materials I use are often acrylic, oil, and collaged photocopied drawings," Carroll explains. "I often make drawings and then photocopy them on a Xerox machine, something I have been doing since the mid '70s. I enlarge and multiply them if needed. Now they have Photoshop, [but] what I was doing was much more organic and physical. I still prefer this to the computer."
Though the three Slayer covers might seem chromatically or thematically linked, Carroll claims he made no effort to connect them. "Nothing was planned or deliberate," he insists. "They each had their own vibe. The input [was] the songs and lyrics — I would comb through them and see what they triggered."
Of the trilogy, Reign in Blood remains Carroll's favorite — if only because of its subversive positioning among his neighbors back in '86. "The kids who lived across the street from me loved Slayer," he explains. "They must've been 14, 15 years old, and they had posters of the album cover all over their room. So there's two big dicks on the cover, these kids had Slayer posters all over their room — and the best part is that their dad was a minister."
Considering Carroll's integral role in Slayer's defining trilogy, it made perfect sense for them to enlist the artist again to produce the cover art for their 2006 album, Christ Illusion — the record being the thrash masters' first with original drummer Dave Lombardo since Seasons in the Abyss. "I thought it put a cool spin on things, because the last time we worked with him was the last time we worked with Dave," Slayer guitarist Kerry King explains. "It was just a matter of finding him and seeing if he was still into it."
As luck would have it, Carroll was totally into it, despite being a bit surprised to hear from Slayer after 16 years. "The call came completely out of the blue," Carroll recalls. The band didn't have a title for the disc yet, but they sent Carroll the lyrics they had completed up to that point. The artist immediately came back with a mixed-media image — consisting of drawings, collage, and Xeroxes — of a Christ figure.
"We only redirected him once," King says. "In the first piece he did, the Christ figure looked like he was just chillin' in a pool of water. The figure kinda had his hand in his pocket and looked like he could've been jacking himself. The facial expression and the look in his eyes was like he was stoned. I wanted something more anguished, like Jesus had come back to earth and saw what it had become."
Carroll's second effort was considerably more gruesome, and it hit the mark. "It just started to become darker and darker as it went along," the artist says. "Then I had the idea of just chopping off the arms, and that seemed to give the image some heat."
Too much heat, as it turns out. Ads for Christ Illusion were removed from bus benches in Fullerton, California — and the album was banned altogether in India. "Guess we're never gonna play there," King says with a laugh. "You know, all it takes is for somebody to say, 'This offends me,' and if they talk to the right person, it'll get removed. If I was in charge, I'd say, 'If it offends you, don't look at it.' Everybody has the ability to turn away."
Turn away, however, and you just might miss the cover's ingenious details — like the "Reign in Blood" tattoo on Christ's right shoulder, as well as the bishop with the tall hat from Blood in one of the floating balloons. Quips Carroll, "It's like Where's Waldo?"
Still, Slayer offered a slip-sleeve cover to retailers who might get their corporate panties in a bunch over the image. "It's the original art, as seen through the Slayer logo," King says. "But I think the original represents the album well. It's dark, it's moody — it reeks of things that people feel are taboo."