GardensTale’s Top Ten(ish) Album Art of 2021

It’s the most pretentious time of the year. GardensTale’s calling out all the best scrawlings while everyone jeers… 2021 was the year of the shitty band names1 and great album art alike. My first-pass pre-selection was stricter than the previous years, and yet I wound up with more nominees! So if you are missing some of your favorites below, chances are they were up for consideration as well, but they got edged out by the ones that did make the cut. This has often been true in the previous installments of my little private non-music soapbox, when the top of the game wasn’t this crowded. It’s a first-world problem, and I have no reason to complain. Quite the opposite, I am taking this trend as confirmation that bands are picking up on the importance of having great cover art, and that I am about as influential as Gandhi, or Salvador Dali. Don’t worry, peons, this won’t go to my head.

Of course, we gotta re-establish the sacred laws of the Album Art Top 10. Numbers show we get more readers each year, so there’s statistically going to be a significant number reading an album art top 10 for the first time. Not to mention, some ground rules prevent half the fights in the comments (leaving only World War 3, rather than add a 4th).

  • The album must have been reviewed on Angry Metal Guy. That includes TYMHM reviews. I’ve tried to include the Filter articles. None made the final cut. What a shame.
  • One entry per artist, lest we end up with 4 Kantors and a bunch of Burkes. Kantor specifically is a problem. He made me choose between Helloween and Archspire this year. That was not very nice of him.
  • If it’s in the public domain, it’s not up for consideration. We want to celebrate the new Mona Lisa of album art; we don’t want the Mona Lisa as album art.

And with that, let’s begin!


#(ish). 1000 Bone Cylinder Explosion // Bind — Yes, we’re doing an ish to a top 3 this year. The reason is that the album art for Bind is clearly bad on purpose. This took about 2 minutes to make, 1 minute of which was to find the yellow highlighter. It’s a tepid echo of a joke, and properly including it seemed like too much honor, while omitting it didn’t feel right either. So instead of a proper place in the top 3 worst album art of the year, it gets the lukewarm ish spot. Congratulations, you have shit art. Let’s move on.

#3. Zeahorse // Let’s Not and Say We Did — Ew. I know people often look at abstract art and say ‘my 3 year old could’ve done that,’ but I’m pretty sure most 3-year-olds realize that some colors should just not be put together. It’s instinctual, or psychological or something. This just gives my esophagus the heebie-jeebies. I suppose it’s unsettling, which was probably the point, but so was Alustrium’s album art and that was a cool damn cover. Just being unsettling clearly doesn’t mean it’s good.

#2. Dreamslain // Tales of Knights and Distant Worlds — Wow. Whoever did the art for this did literally everything wrong. This isn’t even a no-practice Photoshop attempt; this is a mixed medium collage between Microsoft Paint, first-pass sharpie design, and a bucket of discarded game textures from the Windows 95 era. The colors are somehow both dull and ugly, the logo is one of the worst I’ve seen this year, the typeface and layout of the title are shit as well… When a tiny distant silhouette of a castle is your best feature, please give up.

#1. Rat King // Omen — Well, it could always be worse. Omen is worse. The use of color is even worse than Zeahorse, someone sat or shat on the shitty three-legged muppet’s face while the paint was still drying, and all of the squigglies make it look like the thing is really smelly and also tripping on acid. It’s similar to Zeahorse in its reckless abandon of anything aesthetically pleasing, but it’s hardly unsettling; it is merely deeply, offensively ugly.2


#(ish). 1914 // Where Fear and Weapons Meet (artist: Vladimir “Smerdulak” Chebakov) — I appreciate how 1914 are using the classic grim reaper in their artwork. Where the figure walked among the soldiers unseen on the predecessor, this year’s edition features a ghastly scene with a beautiful layout, a soldier literally begging for death amidst the blood and muck. As an aside, I always appreciate showing thoughtfulness in the placement of the logo and album title. A lack of contrast in the lower half is the only real shortcoming for me, but it’s an otherwise beautiful, devastating picture.

#10. Aephanemer // A Dream of Wilderness (artist: Niklas Sundin) — Sundin has specialized himself in oddly organic-geometric styles that go against the grain of the common painted or illustrated artworks. His art for A Dream of Wilderness is no exception, and the blue-and-gold boar is absolutely gorgeous, reminiscent of Persian and Indian art. If the entire piece popped as much as the boar did, this would have definitely gained a few more spots; the flatness of the background is a little disappointing. An eye-catching piece nonetheless, and a good way to stand out in record stores.

#9. Signs of the Swarm // Absolvere (artist: Gabor Toth) — Another non-traditional piece, Toth uses the theme of gruesome metamorphosis to render something on the faultlines between sci-fi and horror. The stark red and black contrasts, the splashing around the face, the unnatural crane of the neck, it all makes for a very dynamic piece that feels like it’s moving. And say what you will, but I’ve never seen someone’s face turned into a book before. Nothing else quite like it has come round this year.

#8. Exodus // Persona Non Grata (artist: Pär Olofsson) — Olofsson had two pieces up for consideration this year, and as much as I love the role reversal of the Cutterred Flesh piece (and I really do; it pained me to remove it from the list), from a purely aesthetic standpoint, I have to give his piece for Exodus the edge. The classic, symmetrical layout, the beauty of the blood-stricken diaphenous wings, and the smart use of contrasting colors from top to bottom make the image pop immediately, yet hold up to more thorough viewing. It’s an artwork befitting a band of Exodus’ stature.

#7. Ghostly Aerie Coven // Bird of Prey (artist: IL SIL) — This year’s bird boys have the dubious honor of being the lowest scoring album on the list. It’s a rough job, but someone’s gotta do it. What they lack in musical ability, they made up for in hiring the right artist to ink the cover.3 Bird of Prey’s album art is unapologetically harsh and anti-christian, and it’s full of cool elements. The horned owl enshrining the band logo, the Pietà reference of the cradling talons, the gruesome grail of nails, it all adds up to an inspired image that deserved a better band.

#6. King Buffalo // The Burden of Restlessness (artist: Zdzisław Beksiński) — This might be one of the outright bleakest covers of the year. It’s fitting for an album that perfectly conveyed the hopelessness of isolation. The cold whites and blues, so dramatically contrasted with the red organic matter pouring from the eye sockets. It’s a fairly simple design, with an almost completely symmetric layout, but so very well executed. The only point of criticism I could levy is the rather uninspired band- and album name placement, but otherwise, it’s proof that a strong concept is half the battle.

#5. Vokonis // Odyssey (artist: Kyrre Bjurling) — Huck earmarked this one for me before he’d even listened to it, I believe. And can you blame him? The colors are absolutely gorgeous, using tones not common to the average metal album. The imagery is dream-like and otherworldly, with the dimension door dove the psychedelic, mind-bending centerpiece. But the floating islands, distant spires, and even the globes of water all add to the imaginative art. Using the roots for the artist and title is a cute touch as well. This could be one of the better cards in the board game Dixit, which is widely known in the board game community for its beautiful and psychedelic art.

#4. First Fragment // Gloire Éternelle (artist: Adam Burke) — Burke is another mainstay in this list and one of the most prolific and recognizable providers of otherworldly scenes the metal scene has on offer. His top piece this year adorned First Fragment’s neverending opus in classic Burke splendor. Everything from the subtle rays of light to the cosmic scenery behind the portal to the abandoned ruins in the foreground combine into something glorious and ominous. The spectacular splashes of color make even the lake feel like it has come pouring in from a different galaxy. This is high on the list of Burke’s best works, and that is saying something.

#3. Methadone Skies // Retrofuture Caveman (artist: Mihai Manescu aka Obsidian Nibs) — “Cool art! Reminds me of The Outer Worlds,” I remarked back in May, and I’ve not changed my mind. If anything, my appreciation has only grown. Fighting no one but possibly Aephanemer for the most original piece of the year, Manescu’s fine linework and beautiful, muted color palette make for an immediately striking style. The imagery of a kneeling man picking mushrooms across 4 different eras of human civilization divided by tear lines is mindblowing. Combining the two is a match made in heaven. The tasteful label finishes the picture in style. I’d buy the vinyl just to have this art on my wall.

#2. Trivium // In the Court of the Dragon (artist: Mathieu Nozieres) — Did anyone doubt this one was going to make the list? Hate or love Trivium, but a golden dragon in a Roman colosseum, rendered with all the skill and dynamics of renaissance-era master painters, is a fantastic choice, and Nozieres has done a brilliant job. From the authentic coloring choices to the lively layout that borders on chaotic, it’s the sort of imagery you can just keep looking at and appreciate for all its fine details in combining the historical with the fantastical. I do consider leaving the artist and album name off a bit of a cop-out, but it’s hard to hold that against art of this quality.

#1. Archspire // Bleed the Future (artist: Eliran Kantor) — It was only a matter of time before Kantor cracked #1. And I was almost certain the moment I saw the cover to Bleed the Future that this would be the year. It is already downright iconic, and it works in every way. The distinct shapes and sharp contrasts mean you can pick it out of a lineup of thumbnails within seconds. The execution of the body horror is excellent as well as thematically appropriate for the Archspire lore, and I can always appreciate a little originality in shape and placement of grotesque mutating heads and maws. And then there’s the gold blobs, harboring so many deformed human figures, colored so perfectly it seems like actual gold, which seem to somehow add to the horror as well as a trickle of beauty. It’s a stunning work of art, and more than deserves the top spot this year.

Best Black and White: Decline of the I // Johannes (artist: Dehn Sora) — As the top 10(ish) proper was nothing but color this year, I want to add a shout-out to the best black and white cover. It’s an art form unto itself, and not one I want to see dying out, even if color works dominate the market. Variety is the spice of life, after all. This year, the honor goes to Decline of the I’s cover for Johannes, an artwork so good I am willing to overlook the fact that the logo and title could technically disqualify it. Whereas many a metal band uses art of grim gruesomeness, few can capture scenes as unnerving as Sora’s work without a single fantastical element. The mindless, animalistic worship shown with nothing but a mass of hands, and the chilling glare of the sociopath in their midst, tell an entire story, and the white lines on black canvas make the style immediately distinct. A beautiful piece that only missed the proper list by a hair.

Show 3 footnotes

  1. Bloody Cumshot, Moanhand, Eastern High, Franklin Zoo, Hacktivist… The list goes on.
  2. It’s worth noting that certain members of the AMG staff found this art to be tasteful and well done. They have been sent to Art Appreciation Boot Camp. – Steel
  3. Though artist IL SIL is only mentioned as such on the album’s Encyclopediae Metallum page and I’ve not been able to trace the handle to an actual person.
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