Album Cover Story #4: Cannibal Corpse's Unholy Alliance With Artist Vincent Locke


WARNING: The contents of this post are often highly disturbing and are not for the easily offended or those with a weak constitution. A warning that has never ever stopped anyone from reading on. Not even once.


While I will never be a fan of death metal, I am fascinated by the genre's existence. Who are these people that prefer to dwell in this sub-primal, ultra-violent, sarcastically vulgar, and often unforgivably offensive musical dungeon*? Perhaps the answer is in the question. My hope is that it's mainly about aggression-by-proxy in the same way as the many increasingly brutal slasher films and comically gruesome video games on the market, but secretly I fear this cult audience is sacrificing virgins in a remote cornfield somewhere at this very moment. Either way, there's no debating that death metal goes to extremes well beyond those of traditional heavy metal bands—and surely that's the main appeal. Our society is always looking for something more extreme and metal isn't any different; in fact, it makes sense that metal would lead the way. In this case, I'm talking blood, guts, necrophilia, rape, murder, torture, misogyny, and a little cannibalism if there's still time. It's a lot to wrap your mind around. Out of curiosity, I've actually tested out my fair share of death metal over the years and I've never been able to stand it for too long. My main issues are twofold. First, the genre dominance of unintelligible Cookie Monster-esque vocals is a problem. I've simply no time for people who are trying to personify Satanic demon dogs emerging from the seventh level of Dante's Inferno. Not my idea of a fun evening. Second, I find a lot of the lyrical content reprehensible. I can tolerate the musical version of a horror flick, but they often obliterate the line of acceptability in their song titles and lyrics. In no sane world should some of their songs exist. Which explains why they do. I'm not saying I want them banned, because I don't believe in censorship; all I'm saying is nobody should tolerate some of the shit that spews from their mouths. Thankfully, you can't understand much of it anyway. On the other hand, the ear-pummeling onslaught that often accompanies them I can live with, and almost delight in, at times. There's an ominous rumble to some of it that sounds like restless tectonic plates plotting a forthcoming earthquake. But I do not want that experience at the cost of my human dignity.


Predictably, death metal is also known for album art that horrifically advertises what to expect from the music within. If any genre will be indicted for false advertising, it ain't this one. If you buy an album featuring a zombie eating someone's intestines for dinner on the cover, you shouldn't be expecting yacht rock. Album artwork is as much a part of the genre's aesthetic as anything else. I've amused myself during record-shopping trips by flipping through albums in the death metal section, and I am never let down by the lengths to which some bands will go in order to shock the general public and lure in the morbidly disposed. I couldn't stomach making an attempt at a "Best Death Metal Album Covers" list, however. I just couldn't justify spending that much time trudging through thousands and thousands of disturbing album covers. Instead, I've decided to focus on the album art of legendary and controversial death metal legends, Cannibal Corpse, who have been banned more times in more countries than any other group. They've released fifteen studio albums since 1988 and, once and for all, here they are ranked not for musical content, but instead for their artistic merit, or lack thereof. In descending order for maximum offensiveness.


*Before you denounce me as some sort of prude, answer this question: Does a song titled, "Entrails Ripped from A Virgin's Cunt" not bother you? Answer: It fucking should! When asked in an interview about that song, some members of the band admitted that they initially balked at the title, wondering if they were going too far, even for them. An argument that will not go down in history along with the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858, but one I would've liked to witness nonetheless. When Cannibal Corpse is unsure if they've gone too far, it's a good bet that they've done just that. Thankfully, I guess, the overwhelming majority of Cannibal Corpse's songs are relatively harmless hardcore gore and, when taken in their entirety, are more comical than menacing, losing impact through merciless repetition. I mean, have you ever watched a zombie movie where you weren't also howling with laughter by the end? Read on, you sick fucks, read on.


#15 The Bleeding (1994)

Commentary

Cannibal Corpse might remorselessly rip out your genitals and eat them for lunch with a side order of plump eyeballs scooped out of your face with a melon baller, but they are loyal—I'll give them that. They've released every one of their fifteen studio albums since 1990 on Metal Blade Records and they've used a single artist for each and every one of their album covers to date. That person is Vincent Locke, a comic book artist and proud father of three from Michigan. He also gets much of the credit for producing some of thee most controversial and banned album covers in the history of album art. I imagine his Career Day speech at his son's elementary school will never be forgotten.


That said, not all of his work was created equal. The Bleeding was his fourth effort for the band and it is abstract to say the least, likely a blown-up swatch taken from a larger canvas. Is this a close-up of an open wound? A blood-splattered cadaver? Nobody knows. If you're a Cannibal Corpse fan, I imagine you prefer your gore front and center, served on a platter for a late night snack. You don't want to use your imagination; you want a cover to fuel your nightmares. Perhaps, after two straight frequently-banned covers, Locke felt the need to ease back on the gore throttle a little bit so record stores could stock the album without the fear of arrest and/or prosecution.* Any way you slice it, this is a disappointing start to our autopsy of the band's album art.


*In several countries (Germany, Australia, Russia, etc.), Corpse records were outright banned from sale, many songs were deemed illegal to perform live, and publications weren't allowed to display the cover. In most cases, lawmakers have since given up trying to regulate music in such a way, likely due to the fact that banning anything only makes it more interesting to impressionable youth. Plus, it's an administrative nightmare, I imagine.


Three "Best" Song Titles

"Force Fed Broken Glass"

"The Pick-Axe Murders"

"Staring Through the Eyes of the Dead"



#14 Kill (2006)

Commentary

This cover has that distinct horror movie flickering-film-strip vibe that we all apparently find terrifying (see American Horror Story or Seven title sequences for reference). The word "KILL" on its own carries with it a stark, ominous power, so I can understand why Vince opted to forgo a more graphic cover in favor of the word in huge demanding letters on the front cover (almost like it's a directive instead of a title). I'm sure he had countless shocking and controversial bloodbath scenarios festering inside of his sick mind at the time, so I appreciate his artistic restraint here. But one doesn't come to Cannibal Corpse for restraint. Hence, this seems like a missed opportunity.


Three "Best" Song Titles

"Five Nails Through the Neck"

"Brain Removal Device"

"Submerged in Boiling Flesh"



#13 A Skeletal Domain (2014)

Commentary

Locke goes the evil corn maze route on this late-era Corpse record and while it has a sinister Wicker Man aura, it's simply too dark for its own good. You can't really see anything that's going on. Compared to other covers, this one stands out for its unique (read, less bloody) subject matter and it rewards close examination (I used a magnifying glass no less) thanks to some sharply drawn details. Unfortunately, much of his hard work is lost under cover of darkness. Perhaps this would work better on a canvas larger than the standard 12"x12" LP offers.


Three "Best" Song Titles

"High Velocity Impact Splatter"

"Icepick Lobotomy"

"Bloodstained Cement"



#12 Gore Obsessed (2002)

Commentary

This is an attempt to be scary, but it comes off more as a poorly drawn comic book than something that will creep anyone out. It kinda looks like a Thanksgiving zombie football game gone terribly wrong (or terribly right, the more I think about it), with an unlucky uncle's enlarged kidney substituting for the football. And must we let grandpa score a touchdown every year before he takes his afternoon nap? He always hogs the pancreas and he's a really poor sport, too. I wish he would just die, or get eaten, already.


Three "Best" Song Titles

"Sanded Faceless"

"Compelled to Lacerate"

"Hatchet to the Head"



#11 Bloodthirst (1999)

Commentary

This is why Cannibal Corpse keeps Vincent Locke on the payroll. You want something fucked-up, you want something brutal, you want something bloody. Unfortunately, this is also one of Locke's least effective cover drawings. It's an absolute mess visually and conceptually. And while that's also kind of the point, the scene depicted just doesn't add up. Very little makes sense here, from the limbs not matching up to the disproportionately drawn arm and head to the large insect-like thing he's sitting on. What the fuck is that? Every high school in the country has one talented outcast drawing demented shit like this on the front cover of their three-ring binder. Throughout the day, either in study hall or at the lunch table, something new is added to the scene out of sheer boredom. By the time the final bell rings, things have gotten out of hand and you end up with an embryonic alien babyfish flopping around in a pool of blood from a giant severed arm that clearly doesn't belong to the corpse slumped against the wall. Incongruous and amateurish.


Three "Best" Song Titles

"Blowtorch Slaughter"

"Hacksaw Decapitation"

"Dead Human Collection"




#10 Gallery of Suicide (1998)

Commentary

Aside from the redundant Parental Advisory sticker (I would never have guessed), there's a lot to unpack on this cover. The main difference between this and the rest of the band's albums, which feature exaggerated depictions of gratuitous gore that can be easily dismissed as macabre fantasies, is that this cover contains references to tragic things that routinely happen in real life (junkie overdosing, man slumped with gun in hand, wrists slashed, etc.) and then sensationalizes them. Let's face it, there are sick fucks in this world that would probably visit such a gallery for morbid kicks.


All indictments of our decaying society aside, the artwork on this is hit or miss for me. For maximum impact, I suppose it was smart to include a "suicide in progress" for optimal shock value instead of just a bunch of dead people. However, the crude rendering of the woman cutting loose her lower intestines seems haphazardly drawn, with her underwear seemingly added after the fact. Also, Locke jams three hangings into a small area, which is literally overkill. Although the one in the archway could double as the gallery's sign to lure in potential patrons, so that one is practical at least. I do like that near the entrance there appears to be people coming in and out like visitors to a real gallery (or coming in to off themselves; perhaps both). A nice touch. But to make this concept truly come alive, Locke missed a golden opportunity to have a gallery visitor impassively viewing the carnage like the typical patron of a snobby art gallery. That would've driven home the point that we as a society have become desensitized to the personal tragedies of others. Perhaps too much subtlety to expect from a band with a song titled "Fucked With a Knife."


Three "Best" Song Titles

"Blood Drenched Execution"

"I Will Kill You"

"Stabbed in the Throat"



#09 Eaten Back to Life (1990)

Commentary

If he is eating himself back to life, how would that work exactly? If you eat your own intestines how will you digest them? Burning intestinal inconsistencies aside, this is the very first Cannibal Corpse album, which makes it Vince Locke's debut as their album cover artist as well. The OG (Original Gore), if you will—this is where the unholy alliance was birthed. There's no arguing that they were meant to be together, soulless mates until death do they part (and even then, there's the zombie thing), Artistically, Vince likes to work in watercolors and this initial cover didn't rely as much on fine details like his later work, instead opting for a more textured, blended approach which I almost prefer. It's predictable zombie/ graveyard stuff at its core, which isn't very original, but it still manages to be a little unnerving mainly due to the face, which is easily the hardest thing to get right on a zombie. I also appreciate the sausage casing font, which I believe is Intestine Sans Serif if I'm not mistaken.


Three "Best" Song Titles

"Edible Autopsy"

"Scattered Remains, Splattered Brains"

"Born in a Casket"



#08 Vile (1996)

Commentary

To paraphrase Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, "This is a particularly bad case of someone being cut in half." It appears this guy has a garden variety case of maggot brain, first brought to public attention by Dr. Funkenstein himself, George Clinton. But his real problem is a mindbogglingly intense case of severe (nowhere close to moderate) maggot cock. In fact, it looks like the person who cut this man in half took pains to keep his, lets just address the elephantitis in the room, prodigious pecker intact, gently positioning it right in front of this guy to, I assume, exacerbate his pain and humiliation. His mouth is even pried open, giving the appearance of someone downright enjoying the process. The picture lives up to the album title, but I docked the cover a little for its low visual impact and for introducing a dick to the proceedings, which seems like a cheap ploy for an artist as naturally demented as Vincent Locke.


Three "Best" Song Titles

"Mummified in Barbed Wire"

"Puncture Wound Massacre"

"Devoured by Vermin"



#07 Tomb of the Mutilated (1992)

Commentary

Does this turn you on? It shouldn't. This is the third Corpse record and clearly the band was embracing their reputation as the most shocking band in death metal. How else to explain a cannibalized corpse going down on a mutilated woman with an absolutely WNBA-worthy wingspan? But what a way to go, I guess. One thing is obvious from these covers and it is that Vince Locke doesn't give a rats ass if something makes sense or not. Who lit the candles? Why is there an extra skull present? Is this a skull-only cuckold arrangement? And what is the steak knife for? It doesn't matter really. All that matters is shock value. If that is the case, mission accomplished.


Three "Best" Song Titles

"Hammer Smashed Face"

"Post Mortal Ejaculation"

"I Cum Blood"



#06 Evisceration Plague (2009)

Commentary

I am more unnerved by movies that don't show everything than I am by those that do. That's where the viewer's imagination takes over. I think there are few things scarier than mob mentality; just ask the Capital Hill security staff. It incites people who don't have the courage to do something on their own to take part in evil doing, unleashing a long percolating sickness in the process. This scene, featuring a gang of enraged lunatics, is only made more ominous when considering the album's title. They appear to be cheering on the disembowelment of some unfortunate soul at their feet. It benefits from its black and red color palette, too. But it mostly benefits from a feel of something unimaginable happening just below the album cover's bottom edge.


Three "Best" Song Titles

"Evidence in the Furnace"

"Scalding Hail"

"Skewered from Eye to Ear"



#05 The Wretched Spawn (2004)

Commentary

Tip for future parents: do your research when picking a hospital to deliver your baby. I think we can agree that Locke outdoes himself this time. Is it pretty? No. Is it fit for purpose? Unfortunately, yes, and then some. This scene makes Rosemary's Baby look like an episode of My Little Pony. Considering this approach would've worked with a single naturally-delivered devil baby, the Aliens-inspired tummy-buster and the mouth pygmy are gravy, clearly delighting OBG Satan and his Ivan Albright-esque nursing staff. It's one of Locke's best-ever creations, but that doesn't make it any less gruesome and disturbing.


Three "Best" Song Titles

"Nothing Left to Mutilate"

"Frantic Disembowelment"

"Blunt Force Castration"



#04 Violence Unimagined (2021)

Commentary

I imagine when the charming fellas in Cannibal Corpse told Vince Locke that the title of their fifteenth, and most recent, record was going to be Violence Unimagined, his response had to be something like, "Are you fucking kidding me? Have you not been paying attention for the last fourteen albums!? Well, he rose to the challenge this time by going to the place most gore avoids—ripping an innocent baby to shreds with a mouthful of piranha-like fangs. Oh, and while he was at it, he made the deranged killer a naked female who is still hungry after eviscerating two dudes and beheading one of them. Sadly, this isn't the first time he's pushed into this area, as we will soon see. But, as far as gore goes, this is one of Locke's most conventional bloodbath scenes. A possessed girl with a taste for human entrails. Ho-hum. What else ya got? Personally, I would've put the album title on a beauty contestant sash instead of tucked in an unbloody corner of the frame. That would've been cool. In the end, it gets ranked higher because of the crispness of the image, which I can't believe I'm saying this, is a good thing.


Three "Best" Song Titles

"Surround, Kill, Devour"

"Slowly Sawn"

"Follow the Blood"



#03 Torture (2012)

Commentary

The scariest things in life have some connection with reality. Horror mixed with fantasy can be scary, but it is easy to dismiss as just that when it comes time to shut out the lights. Horror mixed with reality penetrates the psyche, leaving the viewer with an overwhelming feeling of, "What if this is happening for real to someone right fucking now?!" or worse yet, "What if this happened to me!" This cover features a diabolical serial killer harvesting and dismembering bodies using a tool belt full of stainless steel torture accessories. This looks like it could be a real sick fuck in a basement or warehouse somewhere, just like Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs, but worse. It almost looks like he's posing for a timed photograph on this cover, protecting his anonymity with a Halloween mask, but clearly reveling in his work nonetheless.


Three "Best" Song Titles

"As Deep as the Knife Will Go"

"Intestinal Crank"

"The Strangulation Chair"



#02 Red Before Black (2017)

Commentary

This is an intriguing cover because it shows an in-progress bloody murder from the perspective of the helpless victim. I appreciate the innovative approach after a frankly tiresome run of comically brutal yet somehow progressively less shocking album covers. After a while, if everything is shocking, nothing is. Jane's Addiction even titled an album Nothing's Shocking presumably to make that very point. There's a common fear tapped into here. Everyone can identify with the idea of stumbling into the wrong person at the wrong time in this life and this is what it might look like. Everything doesn't always happen to other people. Sometimes the darkness knocks on your door.


Three "Best" Song Titles

"Heads Shoveled Off"

"Remaimed"

"Scavenger Consuming Death"



#01 Butchered at Birth (1991)

Commentary

Butchered at Birth is the album that started it all for Cannibal Corpse, for better or worse. They had to know there was no going back after this record was released into the world. This is one of those album covers the band will have to answer for as long as people listen to death metal and perhaps beyond. A burden the band seems more than happy to carry as a badge of honor. Not surprisingly, it ranks with the most banned album covers ever produced and for good reason. It's pretty fucking gruesome. A rule of thumb in horror is "leave the kids out of it." It was only a matter of time before someone crossed that line, though. Maybe we can blame the Beatles for this cover, when you think about it. Remember the infamous "butcher cover" the Beatles slapped on their Yesterday and Today album in 1966? (See below.) Granted, that cover was about a thousand times less graphic than this one, but it did feature the Fab Four surrounded by a bunch of dismembered baby doll parts and randomly placed chunks of raw meat. So controversial was the record that it was immediately recalled by the label. Adjusted for inflation of tolerance levels, it's no surprise that 25-years later, we are looking at two zombies slowly removing the baby from the carcass of a cannibalized mother with the intent of hanging it in effigy like a sausage at a Polish delicatessen. These lunatics may look depraved, but they do meticulous work. They even save the mother's head for last to keep her beauty intact for as long as possible. They've done this work many times before clearly. I assume, if you're still with me at this point and maybe you shouldn't be, this cover won't be the one to bother you any more than several others discussed already. From a strictly artistic point of view, this is the best cover in Locke's extremely demented portfolio. It fills the page beautifully, making the most of its 12x12 canvas. It's red, white, and black palette is visually appealing. There's something haunting about the untouched face of the woman, too, almost like these zombie butchers have an appreciation for beauty buried somewhere inside of their bony frames. While you may be right to question Vincent Locke's mental stability—why does someone choose this as their line of work?—there's no denying the quality of the work. This is the unholy grail of death metal artwork.


Three "Best" Song Titles

"Vomit the Soul"

"Rancid Amputation"

"Butchered at Birth"


Would it make it easier to accept these album covers if they were incorporated into a quilt and sold on Etsy? There's only one way to find out...


Alright, everyone. That's all for our Halloween post this year. See you next October for another disturbing installment. Nobody was murdered or maimed during the creation of this post.


Cheers,


The Priest