Visual Violence: Ramon Martos Reveals the History Behind Some of Extreme Music's Most Iconic Album Covers

Decibel recently had the pleasure of chatting with Ramon Martos about his lush, edifying, fascinating, surprising tour de force history of extreme metal album covers, ...And Justice For Art. Check it out below:

What’s the first album cover you recall having some sort of real impact on you?

Since I was born in Cuba, I never had access to proper record stores, magazines or too much original material (CDs, LPs) during my early days as a Metal fan. My friends and I used to listen to third or fourth generation tapes that we got in the black market and sounded very bad. Most of these tapes never came with proper artworks… not even with song names!

Some of the few original artworks I was able to see -- mostly on cassette format -- were Metallica’s …And Justice For All, Skid Row’s Slave To The Grind, Iron Maiden’s Somewhere In Time and Judas Priest’s PainkillerSlave To The Grind and Somewhere… left a long-lasting impression on me, because of the level of detail, the epic scope and their many post-modern overtones. To this day, they’re two of my all time favorites. I was lucky enough to interview both Sebastian Bach -- his father painted the Slave… artwork -- and Derek Riggs for the book. I was able to include the story behind Slave… in the book but in the case of Iron Maiden, since I wasn’t granted permission to include the artwork, I didn’t include it.

Did metal album artwork have an effect on the way your tastes for extreme music developed? 

I think that in my particular case, my love for Heavy and Extreme Metal came from the music itself and was never influenced in any way by the genre’s visuals. As I mentioned, because I was living in Cuba, pretty much isolated from the rest of the world, I wasn’t regularly exposed to original LPs, CDs, magazines, etc. So initially, my interest for bands like Sepultura, Slayer, Death, Destruction, Metallica, etc, wasn’t influenced by the graphics.

Of course, as a fan of visual arts since my childhood -- especially Renaissance artists and the works of Evdard Much -- I always wanted to find out how all those artworks looked like and how they enhanced and complemented the music. So, once I left Cuba, I was able to see all those covers and make proper connections between the sonic and visual mediums. Believe or not, I never saw Slayer’s Reign in Blood or Sepultura’s Arise album covers -- as well as many others -- until I was in my early 20s. Crazy, eh!

When did you first realize this interest in album covers might actually warrant a book-length exploration?

For many years -- after moving to USA -- it surprised me that there was almost no information about the covers for most of the Metal albums out there. As a fan of Metal and visual arts, I wanted to know more about the cover concepts, the band/artist collaborations and many other details about the creative process. That’s why I first decided to create the PureGrainAudio.com’s online series “And Justice For Art” and the Facebook community, which provides first-hand information about Metal visual imagery and the artists behind it. In addition, this community also helps to make connections between the fans, the bands and the artists.

Eventually, I figured out that a book was a viable and ideal  media to gather all these stories both chronologically and comprehensively for people to enjoy, read about and keep record of. That’s why the name of the book is ...And Justice For Art because it aspires to become a document to keep for posterity the stories about all these iconic album covers. Otherwise, with every passing day, we’re more at risk of losing all this information.    

How did you pick which album covers to investigate?

The idea was to present a broad visual/musical spectrum so I chose artworks from the early days of Hard Rock/Metal up to 2014. The idea was to create a well-balanced journey that included visuals from most of Metal’s sub-genres and ages. From Black Sabbath’s debut to 2014 albums by At The Gates, Opeth, Cynic, etc…

For me it was also important that all the artworks  were different from each other, both aesthetically and stylistically. That gave me the opportunity to create visual variety, explore different creative methods and approach each story from a different angle. That’s why you can find in the book artworks as different as Death’s “Symbolic,” Napalm Death’s “Utopia Banished,” Paradise Lost’s “Draconian Times” or Eyehategod’s “Take As Needed For Pain,” among many others. It was really fascinating to discover how the artworks were created and the reasons why the bands chose artists and graphics for their albums. The best thing is that I did so much research about so many artworks that I still have enough material to do a second or third book!

What were some of the most interesting or unexpected stories you learned?

I think every artwork story featured in the book is equally fascinating for different reasons. For example, it stunned me that Baroness’ John Baizley, after finishing the artwork for their “Blue Record,” almost throws it in the trash can. That’s pretty crazy considering the high quality of that particular image! Also, did you know that the man that fired up the number 13s on the cover of Black Sabbath’s “13” was John Richardson, who was Visual Effects Director in movies like “Aliens,” “Harry Potter” and the “James Bond” series? There are many anecdotes like those ones featured in the book.

Another thing that really surprised me was that most bands and visual artists don’t like to talk much about what the images mean to them. They usually prefer to leave that to the viewer’s imagination and own interpretation. In some cases I have to put a lot of pressure to get some comments regarding the hidden meanings of an artworks and thing like that. I think they prefer that people form their own opinions, which is perfectly fine.

Why should people still care about album artwork in the digital MP3 age?

It should matter because first and foremost, the cover artwork is an integral part of the album experience. Believe me when I said this, I know how it is because when I finally had the opportunity of listen to the music while looking at the artworks, it was a complete different feeling. You’re able to make new connections with the music, the lyrics and it definitely gives the album itself a complete new aura. To paraphrase Dream Theater’s singer, James LaBrie, “the artwork makes the listening experience even more personal.”

The MP3 is a faceless type of media. If you’re lucky, the best you can get from an MP3 is a tiny artwork and that doesn’t help if you’re interested in the visual imagery. I think this format, as practical as it is, has brought a sort of disconnection between the listener and the music. The artwork adds depth and tangibility to the abstract world of music. It would be a shame if we lost that special kind of magic that only the artworks can bring to music. I hope it will never happen. 

Comment