Here at SPB we're big fans of pointing out poor cover art, but we're less good at highlighting the classics of the medium. In this new feature we're examining some of the greatest album artwork ever commited to record, and breaking it down by genre. First up: prog rock. Prepare yourselves.
Metallica -- ...And Justice for All
I bet that only a small portion of folks actually remember anything about Metallica before their self-titled release came out. Though it may be hard to believe, Metallica was once a powerhouse of progressive metal. In fact, arguably their greatest contribution to the metal scene was taking the traditional thrash metal formula and marrying it beautifully with progressive elements. This musical blending peaked on their fourth release, 1988's ...And Justice for All. For metal fans, this album is either an underrated classic or Metallica's biggest flop. Regardless of your opinion on the album, it's hard to argue against the enduring image of the album cover. No detail in Stephen Gorman's beautiful cover art has been spared. From the obvious details of the ropes pulling Lady Justice apart, the cracked marble, and spray-painted graffiti to the more subtle overflow of her scales with money and her exposed breast, every bit of this cover perfectly portrays a government ripe with corruption. Though some will argue about the endurance of Master of Puppets' cover or even (bafflingly) the cover of Metallica, ...And Justice for All is easily Metallica's most readily recognizable, not to mention artistically meritorious, contribution to music history.
Yes -- Yessongs
Few artists' work are as easily recognizable as that of Roger Dean. Don't know who I'm talking about? Go through your vinyl and pick out a Yes album at random. See what I mean? Everyone knows his style when they see it, even if they can only articulate it as 'I think I've heard that album before.' His work beautifully combines familiar, earth-like elements in forms and patterns that are recognizable, but distinctly alien in their Escher-esque construction. His work has become so associated with Yes' powerfully symphonic music that, to this day, his influences can be seen in modern art. Don't believe me? Just look at James Cameron's latest film, Avatar. The sprawling trees, spiraling plants and floating mountains all produce immediate and recognizable comparisons to Dean's work. Though Yessongs is the most archetypal and widely-recognized of his works, any other Yes album, like Fragile, Tales from Topographic Oceans, Union, or even Fly From Here, produce the exact same feeling of musical familiarity.
King Crimson -- In the Court of the Crimson King
It is extremely difficult to think of a more recognizable face in progressive music than King Crimson's schizoid man. Every detail about his face seems to have been purposefully constructed to portray a man stuck in a world of chaos. His eyes gaze at some unknown terror, wide with the realization that his world is exactly as fucked as he believes it to be. His mouth screams, to us, silently, with uncontrolled agony and confusion. Even his nostrils are flared and his skin old and wrinkled. The album cover was actually the only work ever done by computer programmer Barry Godber, who died shortly after the album's release. The painting was rescued from sun bleaching by guitarist Robert Fripp, and it has survived in our culture as a symbol of all that is complex and beautiful with rock music, springing involuntarily to mind alongside Ian Anderson's diverse woodwinds, Michael Giles' relentless percussion work, and Greg Lake's crooning vocals.
Emerson, Lake and Palmer -- Brain Salad Surgery
To its detractors, Emerson, Lake & Palmer's album Brain Salad Surgery embodied everything that was wrong with progressive music. The music was huge and self-indulgent to a fault, almost masturbatory in its obsession with its own mightiness. It was often obtuse, confusing, and even repellent with its own stylistic schizophrenia, switching from ballad, to classical, to aggressive rock without remorse. There is hardly an easily accessible moment to be found on this album. All of this and more is irrevocably tied to the haunting cover image by H. R. Giger. Even his cover art is seen to embody the negative aspects of rock music, subtly emphasizing the connotations of fellatio already apparent in the title. And yet, for every time some high-and-mighty musical purist sees this cover and uses it to attack all of progressive music, one more person sees it and goes away humming to themselves: "Welcome back my friends, to the show that never ends..."
Pink Floyd -- The Wall
In all honesty, I probably could've done this list entirely from Pink Floyd albums. Plenty of their other album covers, or elements of them, are immediately recognizable within popular culture--the burning handshake from Wish You Were Here, the prism on Dark Side of the Moon, the flying pig on Animals, even the psychedelic cover to The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. But the truth is, the cover of The Wall has had a far larger impact on the mass consciousness than any of these others. One of the few Floyd covers not done by Storm Thorgerson, this one was actually done by cartoonist Gerald Scarfe, who continued to work with Roger Waters on the theme up through the movie version of The Wall. All of the associated images with this album are still recognizable today, be it the marching hammers, or the scene of one flower raping another, or the beautifully stylized judge sentencing Pink to tear down his wall. Sure, you may see more t-shirts emblazoned with the prism artwork, but no other Pink Floyd image has as much symbolism or meaning to us today as The Wall.