Throwback Thursday: The Artwork of Michael Whelan

michael_whelanThe recent resurgence in vinyl has brought one very important aspect of the album experience back to the forefront: Taking time to really examine the artwork and let your eyes wander over the small details that the respective artist spent so much time perfecting. I’ve always loved the relationship between the music and the artwork, and the works of Michael Whelan are a testament that an Old English logo and black and white pictures can only go so far. On today’s Retrospective, we’ll examine the trajectory of his work on album covers from all niches of heavy metal. 

obituary_causeofdeathObituary – Cause of Death

This was my first exposure to Whelan’s work. I first encountered Obituary in late high school, and even more than the stomping groove of their old-school death metal, I was smitten with Whelan’s surrealist art that adorned the cover. The image seen here is a detail of Lovecraft’s Nightmare B, painted in 1981. The amount of detail is fascinating, and it’s a far cry from some of the gore-splattered covers that most death metal would become known for later in the 90s. From the gnarled trees composed of trapped souls, the pile of skulls, — the looks of which still express agony from their grisly ends — the blood-soaked death pit, and the strangely serene starry night and crescent moon, to the web-snared body of the unfortunate dangling soul in the center of the frame, Whelan’s work for Obituary is a high-water mark for what art in heavy metal is capable of. It captures the nightmarish, horrific atmosphere of the music and still uses imagery that stokes the worst of human fears without stepping into blatantly nauseating territory.

sepultura_beneaththeremainsSepultura – Beneath the Remains  

At first glance, the stark contrast of black to red and orange in this piece, Nightmare in Red, makes viewers forego the band and album name entirely to look at the easily missed details on the skull. There is a moment of “That’s it? A skull?” on first viewing; Whelan, however, is not one to leave so much space unoccupied. Looking closely, the skull has a glassy set of dead, ebony eyes and even a few stringy hairs, as if the subject hasn’t been dead for that long. What’s more fascinating, though, is the contrast of objects carved into the skull itself: Fully-bloomed roses alongside a pile of tombstones, ridges of teeth and additional bones slightly left of center, and the hellish, red-eyed creature in the center of the cranium. Finally, the fracture in the skull from which belches forth a heinous gas is the icing on the cake. It may appear to be more sparse than Whelan’s other works, but it’s certainly not upon closer examination.

sepultura_ariseSepultura – Arise 

Arise is one of the few commissioned pieces specifically for the accompanying album. Whelan’s own insight into the creative process behind this piece is fascinating, and I highly recommend checking it out since I don’t have proper words myself to describe what’s happening here. On a general note, though, the combination of ancient relics (Stonehenge, Mayan and Inca art) with the mysterious, Lovecraftian horror vibes works wonderfully here. The gaping, fang-filled mouths, the spiky crustacean claws and the wide, ever-seeing eyes in the middle invoke a sort of esoteric but longstanding terror — a visual equivalent of stories about unseen, unnamed fears being passed down from one generation to the next. At the same time, the sepia tone is quite different from anything Whelan had done for album art to that point.

demolitionhammer_epidemicofviolenceDemolition Hammer – Epidemic of Violence 

While the music contained within is some of the most legendary thrash metal ever put to tape, Whelan’s artwork, a detail from Lovecraft’s Nightmare A, is perfectly expressive of the chaotic, mile-a-minute maelstrom while still standing as an excellent detail from the larger piece. The mangled skulls on poles, seemingly victims of the obscure black figure at the top of the winding staircase, are weathered by fierce winds, and the smoke of utter destruction rises in the background. This is one of the most barren illustrations that Whelan had ever completed, and it perfectly matches the material contained in the recordings, which at the time even outdoes Reign in Blood in terms of pure ferocity and wild-eyed fervor.

cirithungol_kingofthedeadCirith Ungol – King of the Dead 

To non-metal people, Whelan is more well-known as a prolific illustrator of book covers, particularly for works of sci-fi and fantasy, with some of his work adorning the covers of Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series. Heavy/doom metal legends Cirith Ungol utilized Whelan’s artwork on their debut Frost and Fire, but for their sophomore effort King of the Dead, they decided to use Whelan’s work which adorns the cover of Michael Moorcock’s The Bane of the Black Sword. For Tolkien nerds like me, when you see the combination of the band’s name with the album title and the artwork, your mind automatically leaps to Aragorn’s encounter with the King of the Dead and the Dead Men of Dunharrow. That’s as far as I can take that parallel, but Whelan’s work here is uncharacteristically bright and yet fitting for the retro-doom of Cirith Ungol.

GlassOnion1880, 3/16/09, 9:05 AM, 8C, 9000x12000 (0+0), 150%, low contrast 8, 1/40 s, R64.0, G57.0, B64.0

Evile – Infected Nations 

One of Whelan’s more recent works, the illustration adorning the cover of Infected Nations is one of the most post-apocalyptic works completed by Whelan in his extensive career. With a backdrop of bleak, industrial barrenness, the image of a mass pile of bodies with — some kind? — of spiky, tentacled creature at its epicenter, sucking the life from its victims, conjures the feeling of impending apocalypse, both personally and globally. The sepia tones from Arise are present here as well, and of all the works that Whelan has completed for albums, I dare say that Infected Nations is one of the more overtly political covers that Whelan has made, if nothing else for its implication of the drain that modern Westernized life puts on us.

There are plenty more covers that Whelan has done, but this column is meant as more of a general overview than a real in-depth analysis. I absolutely recommend perusing the entire gallery of work on his official website for the work that he has done outside of album covers, as it’s equally worthy of the accolades he has won over his extensive career.

– Dustin

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