The Art and Noise of the West Midlands Metal Scene

Commissioned by Capsule (2007)

Spiral Architecture by edwin pouncey

The visual of the title for this essay comes from two sources, both of which have a connection with Birmingham’s most famous Heavy Metal export, Black Sabbath. The spiral initially refers to the logo of Vertigo Records that was created in the 60s by major label Philips. Originally intended as a direct competitor against EMI’s Harvest and Decca’s Deram progressive rock offshoots, one of Vertigo’s major selling points was its original label logo, an op-art spiral that, as the LP revolved, hypnotised the listener into believing that the record was a huge dark void into which they might easily tumble. While this illusion didn’t really work with the first releases such as jazz/rock band Colosseum, Manfred Mann and Rod Stewart, by the time Vertigo had released Black Sabbath’s eponymously titled debut LP the desired effect seemed almost tailor made for the band. As Black Sabbath rotated and the gathering storm rumbled ominously over the sombre tolling of the church bell – by way of introduction to the album’s opening track “Black Sabbath” – the Vertigo label took on the appearance of a black bottomless pit from hell (slowly revolving at 33rpm) which could open up at any moment and send one hurtling towards some unholy abyss, a fate which would make Black Sabbath the perfect Satanic soundtrack. It was not only the hallucinatory magic of the label design or Sabbath’s industrialised blues rock hammering that gave their first album its power, but that cover holds a special place in the heart of everybody who has ever added this record to their collection. Album cover photographer and designer Keef’s now iconic shot of a mysterious witchy looking woman haunting the grounds of Mapledurham Mill (near Reading) evokes memories of Barbara Steele (the actress who appeared in Italian director Mario Bava’s 60s cult horror film Black Sunday – the inspiration for the band’s name) and an image that could have been taken from a Pre-Raphaelite painting  (Birmingham being the proud owner of the country’s largest collection of Pre-Raphaelite art). Whatever it’s original source, the cover for Black Sabbath has since become an inspiration for other artists and musicians, Japanese guitatrist Kawabata Makoto and his Acid Mothers Temple’s Starless And Bible Black (2006) CD cover being one exquisitely rendered tribute to the original concept. My personal salute to the image was a collaged deconstruction/invocation, where an original Vertigo edition of the sleeve was altered to read Black Bath, then decorated with colour photographs of diseased cat’s eyes and finally mutilated with scissors and spray paint to create an object that amplified the occult threat and significance of  Black Sabbath. I was later encouraged to extend the idea across the band’s first four albums, applying the same principle of deconstruction and magical mutilation to Paranoid, Master Of Reality and Volume 4, all of which produced interesting, if not totally satisfying results. For me the most powerful of these remains Black Bath, both as a personal homage and as a piece of art that (I have been told) has an unsettling effect on the viewer that urges them (like the old Vertigo label) to fall under its spell.

My cover project drew in its horns after Volume 4, and although the temptation to carry it on through to the band’s 1973 hallucinogenic masterpiece Sabbath Bloody Sabbath was strong I managed to resist. It is the cover for this album, though, that drew me towards Black Sabbath in the first place, a psychedelic deathbed scene where a departed male figure wrestles with demons, a snake and a succubus as a death’s head hovers over him. Together with its gatefold photograph of the band superimposed over an interior shot of the supposedly haunted manor where they wrote the album, Sabbath Bloody Sabbath is visually rich and an equally engrossing musical experience. The stand out track on the album is “Spiral Architect”, a song that builds on the band’s past glories by introducing a string section to create an almost phantom like presence behind Ozzy Osbourne’s strained and searing vocal. As its title implies, “Spiral Architect” is a looping sonic construction that swirls into an inverted tornado of near prog Metal before bursting into a sound effect of  live audience applause that one could easily cynically dismiss as being self congratulatory. Although it was the title track and “Sabbra Cadabra” that got the most attention at the time (with such bands as Anthrax, Metallica and Austrian Black Metal band Belphegor covering “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath”) “Spiral Architect” sees Black Sabbath at their most inventive and avant garde. To many fans the inclusion of strings on the song sounded like the band’s death knell, the beginning of the end, while to those who were willing to take on board this new experimental approach “Spiral Architect” was a new beginning with endless possibilities in store. The front cover to the album promised eternal damnation, while the more sedate and spectral back cover suggested that salvation was at hand. It would, I feel, have been a crime to tamper with what was already perfect.

Another album sleeve that defies alteration because of its iconic status is Napalm Death’s Scum, where a rotting corpse figure unfolds filthy bat wings to embrace the assembled group of suited and booted businessmen who are grovelling around in the ruins of some nuclear blasted city. The image reminds one of the kind of Anarcho-punk graphics that Crass or the Dead Kennedys fitted around their recorded propaganda, except that Scum is more simply and effectively rendered in pen and ink in a style that comes across as a mix between the political cartoons of 18th Century caricaturist James Gilray and a crudely scrawled panel from some government banned horror comic of the 1950s. It’s the kind of cover that (like the band’s unrelenting Grindcore/Death Metal head charge) is hard to prise out of your skull once it has been taken in. The cover of Scum is hard, bleak, funny and perfectly in tune with the feel of the 80s Thatcher era that spawned it 20 years ago.

Both Napalm Death and Black Sabbath have infected hundreds of bands throughout the world such as Sleep (now Om), Earth (named after the first version of Sabbath) and Sunn O))) who previously included ex Napalm Death/Godflesh and now Jesu guitarist Justin Broadrick in their ranks for a live performance. The influence of Birmingham and its surrounding districts on both the art world and the global rock scene continues to spiral upward.