Even if you don’t know the name Eliran Kantor, you’ve probably seen his work. He has done more than 100 album covers (Testament, Soulfly, Green Death, Hatebreed, Iced Earth, among 90-some-odd more) and become one of the most respected and prolific visual artists in the heavy metal world. His greatest strength is presenting the right cover to fit the album. Be it the majestic cover of Testament’s Dark Roots of Earth, or the chiaroscuro of Kenn Nardi’s Dancing with the Past, Kantor has a knack for creating the perfect home for a collection of songs. Reaching beyond heavy metal album covers, Mr. Kantor possess a wide palette of abstract and surreal visions. We highly recommend perusing the Personal Works section of his website to gain a greater appreciation of his diversity as an artist.
The Void Report was delighted to interview Mr. Kantor to kick-off 2016. We discuss the unique nature of heavy metal album covers, how they impact our experience as listeners, and some aspects of his creative process.
THE VOID REPORT: If you’re searching through a discount bin of random CDs or LPs, metal albums are always the easiest to identify by their cover art alone. Metal albums always seem to have a provocative image or some majestic, often dystopian landscape on the cover. It also seems like a lot of metal album covers are paintings, where every other genres rely on photography.
Why do you think metal album art is so unique?
ELIRAN KANTOR: I guess there can be a few reasons:
Might be practical – when you sing about fantastic topics in most cases you can’t just pick up a camera and shoot your subject. So painting is a practical solution, and in the last couple of decades digital photo manipulation became a standard solution perhaps for the same reason.
Might also be tradition – compared to other genres metal touches often on ancient tales, mythology and history so traditional aesthetics makes sense. That’s why in most cases Industrial metal won’t have a painted cover but opt for something more modern or futuristic.
But it might also be fashion – before Iron Maiden set new standards in the early 80’s, photography was used much more frequently in 70’s metal, like Black Sabbath and Scorpions.
THE VOID REPORT: When I was young, Storm Thorgerson’s work for Pink Floyd always grabbed my attention. I still remember looking at my Father’s copy of Wish You Were Here in amazement. He had some Led Zeppelin and Sabbath, but my first association with the word “heavy metal” was one of the Iron Maiden album covers. Those were always striking images to me. Images that made me both afraid and really interested in hearing this “heavy metal” thing.
Do you have any favorite metal album covers that inspired you in one way or another?
ELIRAN KANTOR: First time I was taken by visuals accompanying music would have to be Pink Floyd’s The Wall. Before that no music video, album cover or live performance had the same impact as that film. I was 5 and it scared the shit out of me. As for covers that made an impact, my first metal records were Iron Maiden’s Killers, Metallica’s Master of Puppets and Megadeth’s Rust in Peace and I bought all 3 based on the cover alone. I knew the band names from Beavis and Butthead but had no idea which album should I get, but these 3 LOOKED like masterpieces, and indeed they are.
THE VOID REPORT: As metal has progressed over the years, certain staples of heavy metal album iconography have carried over to a lot of the covers we see today. Consequently, a lot of people run the risk of being drawn in by an incredible album cover when the music and song is only mediocre.
Have you ever been disappointed by the music on an album after first being drawn in by its artwork?
ELIRAN KANTOR: First minor disappointment would be Michael Jackson’s Dangerous with Mark Ryden’s amazing cover – a great record, but buying it meant passing on spending that money on Thriller or Bad which I liked better when heard at friends’ houses, and so I had to wait weeks and save up again so I can get those two.
THE VOID REPORT: Is album cover art something you became specifically interested in as a metal listener/fan? Or was it more of a consequential outlet for your own artistic expression?
ELIRAN KANTOR: Probably both – I always liked drawing and making pictures since I was a kid, but the emotional connection to other people’s visual art was the strongest when music was also involved. I read Voivod’s Away art book cover to cover, which I can’t say I did with classic art literature.
THE VOID REPORT: When I was younger, I thought I experienced synaethesia (specifically, seeing color associated with music), but over time I began to realize that it was mostly influenced by the albums cover art.
How do you think an albums cover art affects a listener’s experience?
ELIRAN KANTOR: Ride the Lighting will forever “sound blue” while Master of Puppets will “sound brown”, and that’s just color – the topics, style of execution, attitude and conviction – will all give a listener an impression of the musicians and will play a role in how we will perceive their music.
Any new info will do it, an interview with the band or a band photo will change your perception of their music too. Pantera’s home videos or Venom’s band photos had a massive impact on how people perceived and connected with them.
THE VOID REPORT: Have you ever done any work for albums you haven’t heard prior to doing the art?
ELIRAN KANTOR: Sometimes you begin working on the cover before the band entered the studio so yes, but never without listening to the band’s older works.
THE VOID REPORT: Most importantly, how does the music impact how you approach the art? I’ve read in previous interviews that you sometimes get lyrics and/or focus on the lyrics for ideas, but in non-lyrical ways, how does the music impact what you want to convey in the albums cover?
ELIRAN KANTOR: The music can give you a lot of info to base your artwork on – atmosphere, attitude, roughness, dynamics, density of details and spectrum of emotions etc.
THE VOID REPORT: Going off the previous question, I’m also interested in understanding how you create something fresh, instead of re-imagining previous metal-album clichés.
ELIRAN KANTOR: I try to think of an idea which sounds interesting even when said in a few words or roughly sketched, as otherwise you’ll rely on technique and details to make a pedestrian idea into something that might make people go “wow!/cool!/impressive!” but will have no lasting power because it’s been done before. I have a very good visual memory and I throw away ideas I’ve seen done to death before.
THE VOID REPORT: Do you ever feel any pressure to focus a piece on a bands established brand versus making something unique to the music? For example, what would you do if you were commissioned for an Iron Maiden cover? Or any band with some kind of established image/logo/icon or brand. (It was really cool how you incorporated the Soulfly logo into the angel wings for the Archangel cover).
ELIRAN KANTOR: If it’s a strong visual element like Maiden’s Eddie or Soulfly’s icon, you use that as an advantage to get MORE creative instead of seeing it as pressure to get less creative: Maiden’s Powerslave is a huge fan favorite all over the world while having absolutely nothing in common with previous Maiden art except for Eddie’s face, which takes up maybe 1% of the cover.
Having that tiny face made an instant connection with the band’s visual world, history, music and fans, and allowed Derek Riggs to take a huge departure with everything else on that cover resulting in something really exciting and fresh.
THE VOID REPORT: Your bio on graphic-noise.com says you quit a pretty cool job at a big-time advertising firm to do metal/rock album art full-time. That’s a gutsy move. Honestly, it’s probably my personal pipe-dream to quit my day job and do what I love full time. What made you decide to take the leap? To a certain degree, it must have been a risky move.
ELIRAN KANTOR: It was risky because I just signed a 1 year lease for a new flat and then quit my job before I was eligible for any compensation. But I knew that way I would have to make it work and turn my freelance art into a full-time job. But to be honest not a lot of planning went into it, I’m quite a bit childish and so it was less a vision and more of thinking I should be spending time doing what I like.
I was both unhappy with the commercial work I did but was also working on my artwork every day coming home from the office and really wanted to do more of that.
THE VOID REPORT: Finally, do you have any new work scheduled for release in 2016?
ELIRAN KANTOR: My upcoming schedule for 2016, as of right now, includes Incantation, Green Death, Izegrim, Artizan and a few others soon to be announced. I’m also negotiating appearances in a few metal festivals hosting an exhibition of my work.