Metallic Mirrors Part One: Michael Whelan

The subject matter of heavy metal lyrics often mirrors that of sword and sorcery fiction. Elements such as vengeful warriors struggling against nefarious demons and wizards occur in each. (In fact, these similarities were the inspiration for the Swords of Steel series). Sometimes the mirror is more than metaphorical, when bands show their dedication to their fantasy concepts by using album artwork identical to images that have appeared on the covers of novels and anthologies.

The first instance of this phenomenon occurred in 1972, when the band Dust used Frank Frazetta’s artwork for Conan of Cimmeria on the cover of their second album, Hard Attack. Deuce Richardson featured this and more of Frazetta’s work in the most recent installment of his “Painting Metal” series, so check that out for more images.

The most prominently-featured artist on metal album covers has to be Michael Whelan. Legions of metalheads are familiar with his work, even though some of them might not know the source. The first album cover to be graced by Whelan’s art was Cirith Ungol’s debut album, Frost and Fire (1981). The band selected Whelan’s depiction of Elric from the cover of Stormbringer by Michael Moorcock, one of the all-time great sword-and-sorcery novels. Although no songs with lyrics about Elric are included on the album, a reference to a Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser story appears in the title track. Later albums featured songs with Moorcock-influenced lyrics, such as “Nadsokor” and “Master of the Pit.” The band would continue to use Whelan’s covers from the Elric series on all of their albums before breaking up in the early ‘90s.

In 2015 the band reunited, and a new single, “Witch’s Game,” was recently released featuring brand-new artwork by Whelan. If Ungol ever records a new full-length, it would be a shame if they don’t use the cover for The Weird of the White Wolf for it.

Cirith Ungol - Witch's Game.jpg

Cirith Ungol wasn’t the only ‘80s metal band to extensively work with Whelan. Hawaiian act Sacred Rite used two of his covers for anthologies from DAW Books for their records The Ritual and Is Nothing Sacred. When they reissued their self-titled debut album in 2014, the band opted to replace the original album cover with another Whelan piece, originally a cover for a C.J. Cherryh novel.

On the cosmic horror side of things, Whelan created a diptych entitled “Lovecraft’s Nightmare,” pieces of which were used for various collections by H.P. Lovecraft. (The full work appears on The Best of H.P. Lovecraft: Bloodcurdling Tales of Horror and the Macabre.) Not one but two bands used it for their covers, the left portion appearing on Obituary’s Cause of Death, while Demolition Hammer took the right for Epidemic of Violence.

H.P. Lovecraft - The Best of H.P. Lovecraft.jpg

The band that originally wanted the artwork that ended up on the cover of Cause of Death was Sepultura. Their label, Roadrunner Records, felt that it wasn’t the right fit for the band, and instead used a different Whelan piece for Beneath the Remains. It had originally appeared on Charles L. Grant’s collection Tales from the Nightside, published by Arkham House. Sepultura commissioned Whelan to do originals for their next three album covers.

Charles L. Grant - Tales From the Nightside.jpg
Sepultura - Beneath the Remains.jpg

Whelan’s art continues to appear on albums to this day, most recently on the debut full-length from Smoulder. It’s so recent, the album isn’t even out yet! Times of Obscene Evil and Wild Daring, which will be released in April, sports a cover originally used for one of the books in C.J. Cherryh’s Morgaine series.

C.J. Cherryh - Well of Shiuan.jpg
Smoulder – Times of Obscene Evil and Wild Daring.jpg

That just about covers (ha ha) all of Whelan’s work in this category. Next time we’ll look at another great heroic fantasy artist, Ken Kelly.