Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Close to the Edge: Albums for Science Fiction Fans [Guest Post]

By GW Thomas

I think the first sign that you're "getting old" is you start wishing everything was the way it "used to be." In most things, I can stop myself and ask, "Now is this really any worse?" You have to remember I survived disco. It helps you keep your perspective.

There are a few things from the past that I think younger people are missing out on though. One of these is fantasy album art. Beginning in the 1960s, with covers like Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, album art took off in directions that have become iconic.

Now that old square of cardboard (which housed a Long-Play album, or LP for you youngsters) could show photos of the singers or a moody landscape, but the best were the ones that featured science fiction, fantasy, and horror themes. These images in turn inspired the bands to produce music that was even more "far out." Certain artists found their fame painting those covers (and some came after they were famous). We all have our favorites, but here are my picks:

The king of them all, none better, is British artist, Roger Dean (1944-). Dean's covers for Yes and Asia are icons of those bands and their success. Roger Dean is the master of the fantastic landscape, with floating landforms and airbrushed colors that fade off into the horizon. For example, his cover for Yes's Relayer with its weird mushroomy landforms and two rattlesnakes is one of my favorite wallpapers on my computer. Other covers include Uriah Heap's Demons and Wizards (1972) and The Magician's Birthday (1972).

Another Brit I always enjoy is Patrick Woodruffe (1940-2014). His best known cover is Judas Priest's Sad Wings of Destiny (1975), but he also did covers for The Strawbs, Greenslade, and Budgie. Woodroffe is more colorful than Dean and goes for strange, surreal combinations of forms. He is like fantasy's Hieronymous Bosch.

Lying somewhere between Dean and Woodroffe is another Brit, Rodney Matthews, who combines strange landscape with bold, fluorescent colors and weird creatures. His work is often inspired by the novels of Tolkien, Edgar Rice Burroughs' Barsoom, or Michael Moorcock. His best covers were for Nazareth's No Mean City (1978) and Asia's Aqua (1991), as well as covers for Bo Hansen, Arena, and Archiva.

All through the 1960s and '70s the greatest vehicle a fan could own was a van with a version of Frank Frazetta's "Silver Warrior" airbrushed on the side. It was Frank's death dealers that brought sword-and-sorcery and heavy metal together, though oddly not on the covers of albums. Frank Frazetta (1928-2010) is the American grand-daddy of modern fantasy artists. Frank set all the records and has yet to be truly surpassed. He did not start off in album art, actually came to game late, but did recycle some book covers for albums for Molly Hatchet and also Nazareth's 1977 album, Expect No Mercy with its odd paradox of "how is he going to swing that sword down with those horns in the way?"

Frank's first successor was Boris Vallejo (1941-). Peruvian born, and skilled in figure painting, Boris did covers for Ted Nugent, Ozzy Osborne, and even a portrait of the band for Molly Hatchet. Boris (and later with his wife, Julie Bell) brought a sexuality to album covers that had not been there before.

Ken Kelly (1946-) was a student of Frank Frazetta (as well as his nephew) and had his first success on album covers. Kiss's Destroyer (1976) was a big album, but Ken Kelly's art can take part of the credit. He also painted the four musicians for Love Gun (1977).

HR Giger (1940-2014) became famous as the artist who designed the acid-for-blood creature in Alien (1979), but he also did some album artwork for Blondie's Debbie Harry and Emerson, Lake and Palmer's Brain Salad Surgery (1973), as well as for Danzig, Celtic Frost, and many others. Where the other artists mentioned have gone for images with a Tolkienian or Howardian feel, Giger is more often associated with the horror of HP Lovecraft.

Other album covers of note include, Hawkwind's Warrior on the Edge of Time (1975), Lenny White's The Adventures of the Astral Pirates (1978) with cover and illustrations by Mike Kaluta, Jethro Tull's Broadsword and the Beast (1982) by Iain McCaig, and the Canadian band Klaatu that featured a mouse hidden in all of their fantastic covers. Also of note was the 1978 rock opera, War of the Worlds by Jeff Wayne that featured Wells' killer Martians by Geoff Taylor, Mike Trim, and Peter Goodfellow.

All these artists had as much of an influence on the 1970s' love of the fantastic as did the musicians who wrote the songs. I can remember sitting in my tent in the backyard reading The Sword of Shannara (1977) with its Brothers Hildebrandt illos and listening to Yes, Jethro Tull, Klaatu, and Steeleye Span. Enjoying that all-too-short time between being a kid and becoming a working-slaving-tired adult, and thinking of elves and dragons and wizards to the sound of Steve Howe's guitar, the oddly enchanting voice of Maddy Pryor, and the jazzy, rocking flute of Ian Anderson. Days long fled, though I can still watch those images flash across my screen as I wander to the kitchen for another cup of coffee before I go to work.

GW Thomas has appeared in over 400 different books, magazines and ezines including The Writer, Writer's Digest, Black October Magazine and Contact. His website is He is editor of Dark Worlds magazine.

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