Welcome to the second installment of the “Metallic Mirrors” series. Previously we examined artwork by Michael Whelan that had appeared on the covers of both fantasy books and heavy metal albums. This time around we’re featuring Ken Kelly, a titan in the field of fantasy illustration. He’s done original paintings for a few classic metal albums, such as Manowar’s Kings of Metal and Rainbow’s Rising, but a good deal more records feature his work, especially those depicting Conan and other Robert E. Howard characters.
Indianapolis doom metal band The Gates of Slumber used two Howard-related Kelly pieces. The reissue of their debut album …the Awakening uses the cover of the Conan collection People of the Black Circle, while their follow-up Suffer No Guilt features a piece entitled “Revenge of the Viking,” as did The Last Celt, Glenn Lord’s bio-bibliography of Howard. Kelly describes the concept as “A long-dead Viking paying justice to a grave-robbing hippie,” so it might be more appropriate for a heavy metal album than a book called The Last Celt.
Interestingly, Swedish viking metal band Thryfing also used “Revenge of the Viking” on their 1998 demo tape Hednaland, but not on the CD reissue.
Long-running New York band Jack Starr’s Burning Starr tapped Kelly for their two most recent full-lengths. Land of the Dead’s cover illustration, which features Conan, originally appeared on Karl Edward Wagner’s first Echoes of Valor anthology. The cover of the Howard collection Eons of the Night appears on Stand Your Ground.
Conan stormed his way onto another album cover in 2007 when he appeared on Alabama Thunderpussy’s final album, Open Fire. The art was originally used for The Hour of the Dragon, Howard’s only Conan novel.
Believe it or not, but Kelly did illustrate books that weren’t by Robert E. Howard. In the ‘70s and ‘80s he painted numerous covers for DAW Books. The art for Seg the Bowman by Alan Burt Akers and Dark Castle, White Horse by Tanith Lee were used by two obscure ‘80s bands from Europe, Asgard (for their only album In the Ancient Days) and Tyrant (for their final record Ruling the World) respectively.
Although the title of this series is “Metallic Mirrors,” in one case it’s more of a distorted funhouse mirror. Legendary German metal band Blind Guardian is known for their intricate, carefully-written fantasy lyrics, so it’s no surprise they looked to a respected artist like Ken Kelly for inspiration for the cover of their debut album, Battalions of Fear. But as for the book that illustration appeared on… let’s just say “respected” is not a word often used to describe John Norman. Fifty years ago he began writing his sword-and-planet-and-sex-slave series of Gor, and he’s still at it today! It’s somewhat bewildering to learn that the twentieth installment, Players of Gor, has a tenuous connection to one of the most important bands in metal history.
Blind Guardian has written songs about Lord of the Rings, Elric, Dune, King Arthur, and many other classics of fantasy and science fiction, but there’s nothing in their catalog about Gor… yet! Perhaps one day we’ll get a concept album based on Tarnsman of Gor or Slave Girl of Gor (or Houseplants of Gor). Their audience might not readily accept it, but I think Blind Guardian could make it work. As long as they get Ken Kelly to do the cover.