As metal's biggest band ever, Metallica are not only responsible for some of the genre's greatest music but also much of its most iconic imagery. The group's classic logo, originally scribbled on a napkin by frontman James Hetfield, is arguably heavy metal's most definitive, all points and sharp angles, endlessly ripped off by bands and brands alike. Their music videos — "One," "Enter Sandman," "Turn the Page," the list goes on — are burned into the minds of generations of fans.
As are their album covers. From 1983's Kill 'Em All to Metallica's recently announced 11th studio full-length, 72 Seasons, due out next year, we took a close, critical look back at the imagery that adorns the metal giants' discography. Here's how we rank them, from worst to best.
Heavy-music fans love to debate all things Metallica, but if there's one thing we should be able to agree on right now, it's that the cover of their new album, 72 Seasons, is a big, bright yellow eyesore. If the retina-searing color weren't enough, there's also the central burnt crib, an off-putting visual made all the more so by the bottom-heavy composition of scattered detritus around it. One of the major criteria for a great metal album cover is how badass it will look as a T-shirt and poster; by that standard, this is a swing and a miss.
Like the cover of its companion piece, 1996's Load, the cover of 1997's Reload was created by controversial "Piss Christ" artist Andres Serrano, this one from a mix of bovine blood and Serrano's own urine. James Hetfield famously hated both album covers: "There's art and then there's just sick motherfuckers," he once commented. In truth, maybe it should have been sicker: More abstract than Load, Reload's cover is oddly just kinda boring, resembling a dust storm or close-up of an eyeball ... or something.
Created by the design agency Turner Duckworth, which won a Grammy for "Best Recording Package," the cover of 2008's Death Magnetic is just a little too literal for its own good (a grave site — with a magnetic field!). According to some fans, it also looks too much like a hairy vagina. That said, the deluxe physical editions — including the original digipak featuring a layered die-cut of the coffin shape, with each page of the booklet representing another layer of dirt being thrown on the casket — were pretty damn cool.
A Serrano original titled "Semen and Blood III," the cover of Load is — you guessed it — bovine blood and the artist's semen, pressed together between two sheets of plexiglass. It's gross, especially once you know what it is, but also strangely beautiful, viscous and visceral, and pretty damn metal, when it comes down to it. Adding to the cover's cache, Metallica were reportedly introduced to Sarrano's work through Godflesh, after the artist directed the industrial-metal pioneers' "Crush My Soul" music video. Less cool, the band's then-new logo pales in comparison to the razor-edged original.
Made up of superimposed images of all four of the band members' faces, the screaming, morphing, contorting creature on the cover of Metallica's acclaimed 2016 album, Hardwired...To Self-Destruct, is undeniably badass. (The glitched-out band logo is pretty cool, too.) Creative agency Herring & Herring deserve all the credit for the striking image — though they also lose a few points for its resemblance to the cover of NOLA sludge titans Crowbar's 1998 LP, Odd Fellows Rest, which the agency's Dimitri Scheblanov has sworn is a total coincidence.
Considering how much Pushead's iconic artwork is associated with Metallica, it's downright bizarre that he's only created the cover of one of the band's albums. Maybe even more bizarre, that album is St. Anger. Metallica's 2003 offering is widely maligned for its shitty snare and lack of solos, among other missteps, but Pushead can do no wrong, and he didn't here. St. Anger's clenched fist is bold and graphic, expressive of the record's title but also open-ended enough for interpretation — so strong, in fact, that no band name or logo was even necessary.
The moody color scheme, the metallic-looking logo — the cover of Ride the Lightning is classic. But let's be real: It's also pretty dated, kinda cheesy and, like Death Magnetic's, too literal. The album takes its name from Stephen King's The Stand, which also inspired the title track, about a convicted murderer sentenced to die in the electric chair. So what did AD Artists paint for the cover? An electric chair oddly floating amid a dark blue sky, with bolts of lightning shooting from a glowing Metallica logo. Awesome. But also not awesome.
As the story goes, Lars Ulrich was browsing through a heavy-metal mag one day, when he noticed how the ads for various albums all looked the same, and he realized Metallica had to break the mold. "All these cartoon characters and all this steel and blood and guts," Ulrich remembered thinking. "It was like, 'Let's get as far away as possible from this.'" Different isn't always better, but in this case, it worked. Stark, striking and so strong that it re-named the band's 1991 self-titled album, the resulting all-black cover made a statement — one that Hetfield expressed succinctly as, "Here it is, black sleeve, black logo, fuck you."
Shot by photographer Gary L. Heard, with a crisp, powerful layout by designers Harold and Shari Risch, the cover of Metallica's 1983 debut is brutal and in your face — perfect for a brash, up-and-coming metal band. It looks great on a T-shirt, and it nods to OG bassist Cliff Burton, who both named the album and suggested the bloody hammer. Amazingly, it's positively understated compared to the original concept: Initially called Metal Up Your Ass, the album was meant to feature an image by artist Stephen Gorman portraying a hand poking a dagger up from a toilet bowl. Record distributors balked; the rest is history.
Ominous, poignant and cinematic, the cover of Metallica's 1986 opus is an all-timer, just like the album itself. Painted by Don Brautigam, who also created the art for Mötley Crüe's Dr. Feelgood and Anthrax's Persistence of Time, the piece was loosely based on a sketch by Hetfield, and according to Ulrich, the image encapsulates the idea of people — whether they are soldiers ("Disposable Heroes") or drug addicts (the title track) — being subconsciously manipulated, which is an overall theme of the record. In 2008, the original painting sold for $35,000 at Christie's Auction House — a small price for such a masterpiece.
It had to come down to Master and Justice, and we're picking the latter as No. 1. The cover art of Metallica's proggy 1988 breakthrough album is simply the more powerful of the two, portraying a statue of blind justice being toppled, scales and all. Ulrich had the concept, which was brought to life by Stephen Gorman, the same artist who had previously created the band's Metal Up Your Ass artwork. Having clearly sharpened his skills since then, the illustrator delivered a brilliant photo-realistic rendering full of sweeping movement and compelling details (the dollar bills on the scale, the one bare breast).
Add the album's title in gritty, graffiti-style type, and you have a potent image that speaks not only to Justice specifically, but also to Metallica's overarching sociopolitical themes and integral sense of outrage. Indeed, it's so powerful that it quickly became a central part of the band's live production, which has often featured a massive, real-life statue of Lady Justice that falls to pieces amid pyrotechnics to an always raucous crowd reaction. Simply epic.