INTERVIEW: Ramon Oscuro Martos, Author of “…And Justice for Art: Stories About Heavy Metal Album Covers”

“Visuals add another dimension to sound and when done right can be an integral part of it.  A striking image can lure listeners in and make someone start a long journey into a record.”  Eliran Kantor (from the book …And Justice for Art)

The rise of the digital music format has marginalized our experience of album cover artwork. However, the growth in popularity of vinyl records has given new life to album cover art; hopefully, also renewing our appreciation. It’s worth noting that this is also a discussion we’ve had in the past. If you were a vinyl lover when compact discs emerged, your second complaint about the format was undoubtedly the smaller cover. Those of us who grew up buying CDs are now bemoaning the half inch by half inch square cover on our phones, tablets, and computers. Nevertheless, CD or vinyl, there are those among us who recall listening to an album while gazing at the cover and flipping through the pages of lyrics and liner notes. For as far back as I can remember, even the colors of an album cover would affect my perception and/or appreciation of the music.

…And Justice for Art: Stories About Heavy Metal Album Covers is a celebration of heavy metal cover art. Sixty album covers over 264 pages, this beautifully produced book gives you the story behind the album artwork from those who created it and/or the bands who used it. Whether you recognize heavy metal by the gold standards (Sabbath, Dio, Motorhead), the mainstream (Van Halen, Metallica), the extreme (Death, Morbid Angel, Napalm Death), or the obscure (Opeth, Baroness, Tiamet), there’s literally something in this book for everyone.

bigcarte copia (2)The book is organized chronologically, beginning with Sabbath’s 1970 debut album and ending with their 2013 swansong 13.  For each album cover featured, the author provides a large full-color image of the cover, the back story, technical details, trivia, and other related artwork (such as album singles or other albums by that artist for that particular band). The back story is derived from interviews with the artists behind the cover and/or members of the band. As much as possible, every gory detail of the albums artwork is discussed. If you’re a particular fan of any of the albums and/or their cover art within this book, I’m certain you’ll learn something new.

The book succeeds in two ways: 1) The large full color images of the featured albums are just as cool to just look at as it was years ago — or if you’ve actually never scene these album covers at this size, you’re in for a real treat. 2) The book is firmly focused and devoted to the artwork and the process of creating it – as told by those who created it. This fact opens the book up to an audience greater than metalheads. Anyone interested in art, design, photography, or just music in general can find much to appreciate in the pages herein. If you’re not a metal guy or gal, you can actually learn a lot about the history of the genre from flipping through the pages of this book.

As album cover art enthusiasts, amateur music historians, and metalheads, we consider ourselves lucky to have interviewed author Ramon Oscuro Martos to learn more about this book and some of the stories behind the art inside.

the void report: What was one of your favorite album covers as a young listener? Is it in the book?

RAMON OSCURO MARTOS: I grew up in Cuba without access to record stores and consuming music mostly via third generation tapes obtained in the black market, so it was difficult for me to see too many album covers. Some of the few I was able to see that have become my favorites were Metallica’s And Justice For All, Skid Row’s Slave To The Grind and Iron Maiden’s Somewhere In Time. For this book I had the opportunity to interview most of the artists that created these artworks. The only artist that I interviewed but wasn’t able to include was Derek Riggs and his work for Somewhere in Time. I faced restrictions from the band’s management. They denied the permission I needed to include the original artwork. However, I spoke lengthily with Derek about it and later on I wrote the story anyway and shared with many readers via email. That was awesome.

the void report: Was it hard not to sound like a fan boy? I imagine myself talking to Paul Elledge about Ministry’s Psalm 69 artwork and just responding with a “Coool” to everything he said.

RAMON OSCURO MARTOS: I’m almost 40 now, and to be honest, (and without wanting to sound pedantic) I’m not as impressionable as I was when I was a crazy teenage metal fan. Of course, it was cool interviewing and interacting with all those guys, but when you’re in the middle of an interview it’s rare to have the time to really know the person or talking much outside of the subject matter. You have to take advantage of the opportunity to get the information you need. However, it was definitely surreal to interview some of my Metal/art heroes, especially because I’m a guy that came from an isolated third world country like Cuba and I never imagined that things like that could be possible.

bigcarte copiathe void report: Your chronological layout makes the book a great way to look at the evolution of album artwork over time. However, it’s hard not to notice that, for example, Dio’s 2004 album Master of the Moon could have easily been the cover to any of his albums 20 years ago. It’s seems that over time, some metal album covers have retained much of the same imagery and iconography that was used decades ago. Is this something you’ve noticed?

RAMON OSCURO MARTOS: It’s curious that you mentioned the word “evolution.” It’s true that visually, the genre has evolved. However, many of the philosophical and aesthetic principles have (for the most part) stayed the same for decades. That’s why sometimes, you can notice that certain artworks (like the Dio example you mentioned) despite being modern, retains a timeless quality and speak to the viewer the same way other artworks did decades ago. However, the revolution is noticeable: Metal graphics have gone through all kinds of metamorphoses; and in many cases, the artworks have become exemplary pieces of art in styles as different as pop art, pointillism, traditional and digital painting methods, etc….

the void report: It’s also seems appropriate that the book would begin with Sabbath’s debut and end with their 2013 LP 13.  Other than all the gory details on the album artwork, broadly speaking, the book is a visual history of metal. As a fan of the music, do you feel a sense of obligation to preserve and honor this part of metal history?

RAMON OSCURO MARTOS: As a longtime fan of Metal and Arts, and as someone who makes a living from art, I felt I had an obligation. I wanted to give all these artworks another kind of historic dimension and preserve the stories behind them for future generations. As I see it, “And Justice For Art” is a sort of a history book. My main objective when I started to put the book together was to present the written and visual content in a context that could be accessible and interesting not only for Metal fans but for all kind of readers. I didn’t limit myself to analyze each artwork within the context of the album. I tried to go beyond that, and find connections between previous art movements/artists, and philosophical tendencies, etc… That was the only way to give these images a richer context beyond their album cover role. I think that for the most part, I succeeded.

the void report: Though it isn’t a featured cover, you do have a smaller shot of the cover of Cradle of Filth’s 1996 LP Dusk…And Her Embrace included in the larger discussion on the art to 1994’s The Principle of Evil Made Flesh. Concerning Dusk… it’s hard not to notice it’s derivative of Sabbath’s cover for Black Sabbath. This isn’t discussed in the book, did it come up in your interviews? Have you noticed any other examples of bands paying homage through their album covers?

Black Sabbath, 1970
Black Sabbath, 1970

RAMON OSCURO MARTOS: As Amorphis’ guitarist, Tomi Koivusaari told me once: “If you’re looking for similarities between images, you probably will find them.” I agree 100%. Even if you’re not looking, you could notice similarities between some covers, because I believe there’s nothing really new under the sun. One thing usually derivates from another and so on. A new creation (as original as it can be) didn’t come from nothing. It was probably influenced by something else that came before. In Metal, this happens not only in visual terms, but in music too. That’s unavoidable. And it’s easy to notice why Black Sabbath’s first album is so influential in so many aspects, including visuals. However, it’s good to notice that there’s a difference between conscious/unconscious influence, homage and ripping-off something just because. Sadly, that happens all the time.

the void report: You’re book also made me reconsider, or really – consider for the first time – Metallica’s Load. I was surprised when I saw it listed in the table of contents, as it’s easily their least popular work (musically speaking). Honestly, for my eyes, the cover was always kind of benign and un-affecting. Maybe I have questionable taste in art. I certainly appreciate it more now, as an adult, and probably thanks to your book. What made you decide to include it?

Cradle of Filth,
Cradle of Filth, “Dusk…and Her Embrace,” 1996

RAMON OSCURO MARTOS: Well, that’s an easy answer, but I can already feel a lot of metallic hate coming towards me: I REALLY LIKE LOAD!!! I always appreciated that album since it came out. I think it was exactly what Metallica needed to do at the time. Most people might not agree with me and that’s okay. For me, Load was a very nebulous album that came out at a very nebulous time for Metal and popular music, and I like it exactly for what it is. It was a controversial album that needed a cover equally controversial and Serrano’s image is exactly that. I was always fascinated by Serrano’s work and how it caused such inflammatory reactions—like Load did and still does. I included the cover, first because I think it’s a great piece of art that explores ideas about our most basic human nature. Second, I saw an opportunity to keep the conversations going about this particular album but from a different angle, from a visual/aesthetic angle that hasn’t been explored before. And, for the most part, I think most people got it, because so far, nobody has expressed discontent about it.

the void report: How in the world did you track down Carter Helm, the cover model of Van Halen’s 1984?

RAMON OSCURO MARTOS: That wasn’t that difficult. Margo Nahas, the creator of the original artwork, is a wonderful human being and we’ve been in touch for several years now. She was the one who suggested I should interview Carter and gave me his email. Margo and Carter’s mom are best friends and they stayed in touch. He was very helpful from the very beginning and I’m extremely grateful for that. The rest is history…

tomas (2)the void report: Did any of the covers included in the book have a particularly interesting story? Or something that surprised you in terms of how it was executed?

RAMON OSCURO MARTOS: I found equally fascinating every story behind every artwork. One that really fascinated me was, for example, the story behind the making of the artwork for Death’s Symbolic. The artist, Rene Miville, was a Vogue photographer (!) and used to paint with photographic chemicals under his house, next to the beach. The process took many days and he was never sure how the final artwork was going to look. It still fascinates me that he was able to create a piece of such undeniable abstract beauty under those conditions. That said, there are many other incredible stories in the book, some of them also related with photography, like the making of Ministry “Psalm 69”, Pantera “Vulgar Display Of Power” and more.

the void report: It seems like many people were quick to point out Iron Maiden’s absence from this book.  You’ve mentioned from the beginning that they didn’t grant permission for the use of their work. Were there any other covers you wanted for the book, but couldn’t land?

RAMON OSCURO MARTOS: Some people missed Iron Maiden, but they understand it was something beyond my control. Really, it’s not a big deal. Their absence actually gave another band the possibility of being featured in the book. There were other artworks I wasn’t able to secure from different reasons. But hopefully, some of them will appear on the second part of the book. I’m working on that right now.

the void report: What can you tell us about the second book? Do you have anything special planned? Or will it just be an extension of the current work?

RAMON OSCURO MARTOS: It’s basically a continuation of the first book. I don’t want to sound cocky, but I think that thanks to this second book more and more artwork stories will be saved from potential oblivion. That’s special enough! Of course, the first book was an important part of the learning curve and that will allow me to do some things better and to not commit some mistakes that happened during the making of the first book. As I usually say, if you have the opportunity to improve your work, take it! Take advantage from your previous experiences.

the void report: Where should I direct people who are interested in buying a copy?

RAMON OSCURO MARTOS: Since this is a self-published book, the only way to get it is through the official store at Big Cartel. Some people might find the shipping costs outside the USA a little high, but those were the cheapest rates available for a 3 pound book. Besides that, it’s a limited edition and once they’re gone, I don’t think I’ll be producing more in a long time. I want to focus on finishing the second book. So this might be the only opportunity to get a copy of this piece of Metal story. Sometimes, timing is everything, and this might be one of those cases. It’s now or never!


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