Consensus around here is that it is prog metal March. I checked the calendar and it is indeed March, so I’ve decided to weigh in by compiling a list of the biggest cliches in prog album art design. Intensive research went into polling the 900 songs in my iTunes library with a genre label containing the word ‘progressive’. While these visual elements can be considered cliche because of how often they are used, I think that the quality of (most of) the artwork is still high. If anything, it’s a testament to how the same elements can be used multiple times and still look relatively fresh. The list is a in descending order of how often I think each cliche element is used.
5. Mathy things, equations, visual representation of mathematical concepts
Covers appearing from left to right are (1) Scale The Summit – The Collective, (2) Mouth of the Architect – Time & Withering (3) The Human Abstract – Nocturne
I don’t have a lot of examples of this, but I’m absolutely positive that more math inspired covers exist. The new Scale the Summit artwork is probably the most glaring example, it depicts a pattern most commonly associated with sunflower seeds and other flowers, as well as types of broccoli, cauliflower and other natural things. The pattern is a visual representation of the Fibonacci sequence and the golden mean. It is composed of two opposite spirals superimposed on top of each other. I was reading an interesting article about the occurrence of this in nature, but I can’t find it again, so if you would like further reading try here or here. The Mouth of the Architect cover is essentially the same pattern.
The cover for Nocturne has some Da Vinci-esque sketches on it and from what I understand, that dude was pretty mathematically inclined. I know, weak example, but it’s the best I could do on short notice.
I know there has to be more math-inspired covers out there but I’m drawing a blank as to what and where they are. It’s kind of a bummer, because I love art inspired by math and data visualization work in general. If anyone has any suggestions of album art or design work inspired by mathematical concepts I would love to check it out.
4. Concept character or idols
Covers from left to right are (1) Cynic – Traced In Air (2) Mastodon – Blood Mountain (3) Protest the Hero – Fortress (4) Zoroaster – Voice of Saturn (5) Baroness – The Blue Record (6) Nachtmystium – Addicts: Black Meddle Part II
One of the less standard cliches is the use of a character or idol of some sort, that represents the concept of the album. This is probably my favourite type of prog cover because it allows the artist the freedom to anthropomorphize an abstract idea. The shining winner in this category would be any Mastodon cover. My favourite is Blood Mountain because the character is original and beautifully illustrated. The Crack The Skye cover is a little too psychedelic for my tastes and I’m not a fan of the contrast between the photoshoppy background circle and the ‘hand-drawn’ characters. [Edit: I realized after I prepared the images that I forgot to include the Crack the Skye cover but that’s what Google is for]
From what I understand, the concept of Fortress is something about goddess worship (isn’t Arif an enlightened dude?) and hence there is a goddess on the cover. Also, that watercolour background is spectacular.
I can’t begin to imagine the complex symbolism involved in Jon Baisley’s covers for Baroness and other bands. I’m not a big fan of his nu-renaissance style of illustration but I respect him intensely for being able to pull it off so well.
3. Plants, trees, nature, etc.
Covers from left to right are (1) The Morningside – The Wind, The Trees And The Shadows Of The Past (2) The Morningside – Moving Crosscurrents of Time (3) Opeth – Blackwater Park (4) Scale The Summit – Carving Desert Canyons (5) Sikth – The Trees are Dead and Dried Out (6) Gojira – The Link (7) Agalloch – Marrow of the Spirit (8) Amorphis – Skyforger
There’s all kinds of examples of album covers based on things from nature. Trees are an especially prevalent theme and an easy one to use when one wants to represent growth, change, paganism, branching ideas, birth, death, decay, etc. Pretty much any concept can be represented by a tree. In design, 90% of a visual concept is being able to bullshit a reason behind it, and as everyone knows, bullshit helps trees grow. Also trees can look pretty evil.
2. Photo montage
Covers from left to right are (1) Three – The End Is Begun (2) Textures – Drawing Circles (3) Yakuza – Samsara (4) Dream Theater – Images and Words (5) Dream Theater – Black Clouds and Silver Linings (6) Dream Theater – Awake
Of all the styles commonly used for prog albums this is my least favourite. The main reason being that it is very hard to do photomontage well. Unfortunately it is also one of the easiest things to do when you know how to use the pen tool and masks in photoshop. It is also much cheaper than getting an illustration done. As a result, every two-bit prog rock wannabe out there has a cover with safari animals, clocks, children and scary castles on it — sometimes all at once. Dream Theater is far and above the worst offender, which is why so many of their album covers appear above. Also that Three cover is as atrocious as the second half of that album.
1. Space/the cosmos/nebulas/aliens etc.
Albums from left to right are (1) Jesu/Battle of Mice Split (2) Between the Buried and Me – The Great Misdirect (3) The Contortionist – Exoplanet (4) Devin Townsend – Ziltoid The Omniscient (5) The Faceless – Planetary Duality (6) Gojira – From Mars To Sirius (7) The Ocean – Heliocentric (8) Orbs – Asleep Next To Science (9) Atheist – Unquestionable Presence (10) Obscura – Omnivium (11) Yakuza – Of Seismic Consequence (12) Cephalic Carnage – Xenosapien
A long time ago in a galaxy far far away, there were a bunch of geeky musicians who liked to make weedily weedilies on their guitars. My extensive research has proven that space is the number one prog album cover cliche. I guess it’s because the cosmos are a very inspiring concept. The fact that so many metal heads are rather nerdy and interested in sci-fi, aliens and the great unknown doesn’t hurt either. It’s not a bad thing though; I love me a good image of a nebula, and Exoplanet is just such a cool word. The examples above are just a small selection of the multitude of space-themed covers that exist. I’m not in love with any of the covers I have included in my sample, but most are perfectly adequate. Heliocentric and Orbs are probably my favourites, and Obscura wins points for their most blatant use of sperm. Mr. Townsend of course doesn’t disappoint with his goofy Ziltoid imagery.
I’m sure that there are other prog album cover cliches out there. What can you guys think of and what shining examples did I miss in my categories? Runners up for me included albums with sixties style typography and images of the apocalypse.