I mentioned before that I’m thrilled to get this feature back in motion and I can assure you there are some great entries on the schedule already. One such legend of the sleeve that inspired this series is Arik Roper. His sleeves are a high water mark for doom and metal and there are few today working in the field who muster the same kind of iconic connection between sleeve and album that Arik can. Like Roger Dean or Marcus Keef before him, his sleeves feel like the music contained within. Without even hearing a note, there’s a sense of how heavy, how dense and how life changing the music he’s designed for will be. In that regard, its great to have him sit down and catalog a few of the artists that helped him find his own vision.
Arik gives a little insight into his choices, before delving into the specifics. “This isn’t easy,” he says. “5 of my favorite album covers? Where do I start? As a working album artist myself I’ve spent a lot of time dwelling on and enjoying the fine art of musical packaging. Its importance is paramount to the body of music. It creates the visual identity of an album, it defines it, it can add greatly or subtract significantly from the holistic experience of an album. And from a strictly commercial viewpoint, it can sell an unknown album based on its appeal…at least that’s what I tell the labels when they claim there’s not much budget for the art.
What follows are just a few of my favorite illustrated covers. In compiling this short list I decided to leave some out the classic covers that I truly love by Hipgnosis, Roger Dean, Derek Riggs, and many more. These all fall into the Classic Rock (though not necessarily Radio Classic Rock) category. If I veered into the cover art of reggae, metal, or jazz then I’d be buried in even more options. Please enjoy!”
Hawkwind – In Search of Space (United Artists, 1971)
Barney Bubbles did much outstanding artwork for Hawkwind. I could include the band’s other peak albums like Doremi Faso Latedo and Space Ritual in this paragraph but I chose this one. His graphic design sense is in full form with a colorful lysergic logo boldly adorning the cover. Aside from the color palette, the use of shapes in this piece is what I love. At first glance there appear to be words within these forms. My mind searches for some graphic syntax but never lands on anything concrete. It’s a subtle playful game of design which he employed in other LP designs. But there’s more: The album cover folds outward from a die cut seam in the center to reveal more art and photos, all tastefully arranged in a symmetrical way that almost resembles American Southwest Native design. The album also included some striking inserts and sleeve art.
Help Yourself – Beware The Shadow (United Artists, 1972)
This obscure gem of a record wears a richly colorful jacket that sets the music in an unusual context. The combo of 1970s children’s book illustration crossed with the drugged sounds UK/West Coast style rock makes this one quite enchanting. The bucolic storybook vibe of the art has a darkness, a Shadow, looming on the horizon of the English countryside which is reflected in the music itself. The flowing flora and anthropomorphic animals have the magic and innocence of The Wind and the Willows and the small details of critters rolling joints and smoking pipes do not detract from this impression but warmly compliment it. For me this cover encapsulates that wonder, slightly tinged with melancholy and mystery, that permeated that era of my childhood. I recall reading somewhere that it was created by the guitarist Richard Treece’s girlfriend at the time.
Black Sabbath – Sabbath Bloody Sabbath (Warner Bros, 1974)
Much has been said about this one yet I decided to include it. While the band had multiple uniquely seminal album covers, this one is a real icon. One glance at and you know this is the Devil’s music. Beautifully illustrated by Drew Struzan, in his early days while working for Pacific Eye and Ear and before he defined Hollywood movie poster art with Star Wars, Raiders, and all the other stuff. We see a violent scene of what appears to be a man wrestling for the fate of his soul against malevolent forces. On the back we see the flip side of the situation- he’s passing away peacefully on a bed surrounded by friends in a contrastingly blue hue. There’s a story here. But what happened? Did he make a Faustian bargain during life? Did he sell his soul for Rock and Roll? Did he listen to too much Black Sabbath? And is this battle taking place within him at the same time that all appears well on the outside, or did he fight the demons and now gets to pass on serenely? All very deep questions and open to interpretation. Perhaps future generations will discuss it.
I talked Drew Struzan once about it. He told me it was one of his favorite works he’d ever created. I also remarked that it must’ve been pretty cool to be a major record studio album artist back then because of the big budgets and blah blah etc., he said “No, it sucked then too”.
Comus – First Utterance (Dawn, 1971)
This album makes the list for its sheer captivating strangeness. The LP art doesn’t impress me with the same sort of immediate visual appeal that some other favorites do, but it’s got a spirit that comes alive when you get to know the album contained within it. The gatefold cover opens and spans both sides to portray a twisted writhing figure rendered in black and white (more or less) by Roger Wootton of the band. I assume it’s a reference to Comus, the Greek god of revelry and chaos, by way of John Milton’s Masque by the same name. It’s a disturbing piece, and it gives no hint as to what type of music Comus makes, though one might guess something on the sinister end of the scale.
Cut to the inside gatefold art and we find quite an opposite vibe, a richly colorful psychedelic landscape that evokes something from the classic surrealists but in fact was done by another member of the band Glen Goring. It’s a weird scene with hidden faces and presumably a story taking place that you just can’t quite decode unless you’ve got some psilocybin in your system. As you may know Comus’ music not only lives up to, but outdoes this odd artwork by weaving some magically dark journeys of lysergic folk witchery that writhe in madness every bit a much as the poor character on the front, and pastoral otherworldly beauty that surpasses the vibrant splendor of the inside.
Grateful Dead – Blues for Allah (Grateful Dead Records, 1975)
This cover perfectly represents what one probably thinks the Grateful Dead sounds like before you’ve actually heard them. That’s how it was for me anyway. I remember this poster from the head shops and mall music stores when I was a young kid and thought “That band must be some heavy stuff.” Judging by the Skulls and Skeletons in their art, not to mention the look of the people who wore their shirts, I figured they were on par with Kiss or ACDC. But no… when I was bit older and knowingly heard the Grateful Dead it just sounded kinda like country music to me, then much later this album became one my favorites by them. I’ve always admired this image, it’s such an strong piece of work. Masterfully created by Phillip Garris it emanates an eerily alluring vibe that captures a darker and more mysterious side of the band’s universe. I prefer it to the dancing bears.
Arik Moonhawk Roper attended the School of Visual Arts in New York from 1991-1995 specializing in cartooning, illustration, and screen printing. He began his early career primarily working with bands creating album art for cds and records for which he developed a devoted following. He soon moved into storyboarding for commercial and ad agencies, then onward into animation design, book and magazine illustration, visual design for music industry artists, and art direction for creative groups and game companies. Clients include Penguin, Volcom, MTV Animation, Burton Snowboard, Vice, Mishka, Stumptown Coffee and others.