The cliche "don't judge a book by its cover" oftentimes doesn't apply to heavy-metal covers. Good album art can immediately convey to a potential listener the themes and contents of the music within. From complete violence and debauchery (Cannibal Corpse's Butchered at Birth) to lush and dreamy (Deafheaven's Sunbather), album art is not only an infinitely varied and ripe space for creativity — for many it's an inextricable part of the experience that helps color our impressions of a record early and entices us to press play.
The importance of album art has been on our minds lately with the recent passings of renowned Slayer album cover artist Larry Carroll, and Rosław Szaybo, the creative force behind more than 2,000 album covers including Judas Priest's iconic British Steel.
In that spirit, we turned to you, our readers, to see what heavy metal album cover you think has the greatest artwork ever. See what you picked in the ranked list below.
The cover of Metallica's Master of Puppets has become so synonymous with metal visuals that the shirts and patches bearing the work have long since stopped being an underground symbol of thrashing rebellion and gone on to be licensed everywhere from hipster haven Urban Outfitters to the stale T-shirt walls of Midwestern malls. Despite its oversaturation in the mainstream — it's still undeniably awesome. The cover image was conceptualized and designed by Metallica and their manager Peter Mensch, and its final painting — done by late artist Don Brautigam — was reportedly based on a crude sketch made by guitarist James Hetfield. "It leaves a warm feeling in my heart to see artwork that I did over 20 years ago plastered on T-shirts and posters all over the world," Brautigam told Revolver in 2007. "I hope it has something to do with the painting and not just the popularity of the band!"
Iron Maiden's album art for their 1984 album Powerslave does a really great job of both expressing the massive riffs and epic songs that are on the record ("Aces High," "2 Minutes to Midnight" to name just two), and the fact that by their fifth album the band had settled into their role as massive, larger-than-life figures in heavy metal. The artwork takes the group's mascot Eddie and gives him just a hint of backstory, or at least the idea that he's been looming for a long time, across wildly different cultures. Artist Derek Riggs' visual absolutely nailed how to expand the band's mythology — and he even threw in some crude jokes into the hieroglyphics for eagle-eyed fans to catch.
Slayer's Reign in Blood is one of the most concise statements of pure thrash extremity ever. Fine artist Larry Carroll not only managed to mirror the fury and chaos of the release with his brilliant mixed media collage — but he also elevated metal artwork to near classical levels with his visual feast of Boschian excess, which has perverted the minds of generations of young thrashers with its subtle hints of gory sexual glorification. "I was always told my work was too dark for most folks," Carroll told Revolver in 2010. "So Slayer was a good fit for me."
Pantera knew they were going to change the face of metal with Vulgar Display of Power, so what better metaphor than getting hit in the face really fucking hard? The striking cover image that they chose to represent their mission has become an icon of ultra-heaviness, perfectly capturing the intensity found on the album. "We had the fist move in slow motion and then [the model] Sean moved his head to get it to look right," photographer Brad Guice told us about how he created the iconic shot. "And then this rumor started about this guy having to get hit in the face over and over until we got the shot right. That's not true at all. It was a controlled situation. No one ever got hit."
Black Sabbath's highly influential eponymous debut is widely considered to be the first metal album ever, so it stands to reason the cover would be so deeply ingrained in the heart and mind of every 'head that it cast the mold for expectations to come within the genre. Depicting the Mapledurham Watermill on the River Thames in England, there is a mysterious and witchy figure clad in black looming just in the foreground of the lush, hallucinatory scene. To this day the identity of the woman is unknown, adding only more mystique to the legend of Black Sabbath's debut cover and weaving an inexorable lore into the fabric of heavy metal itself.