The 10 scariest heavy metal album covers of all time

Artwork for albums by Iron Maiden, Black Sabbath and Ken Mode
(Image credit: EMI/Vertigo/Season Of Mist)

Since it started, metal has been using sonic intensity and unsettling lyrics to try and frighten the pants off the mainstream. That desire to freak out the uninitiated doesn’t start and stop at the songs, either: heavy music has a storied history of terrifying, ominous and gory album art, which also stretches back as far as the genre itself. Below, Metal Hammer’s listed the 10 most chilling covers in the heavy metal canon, with entries spanning from Black Sabbath’s debut album through to the present day.

Metal Hammer line break

Black Sabbath – Black Sabbath (1970)

The cover of Black Sabbath's debut album

(Image credit: Vertigo)

Black Sabbath set the mould for heavy metal, not just with its stacked riffs and occult themes, but also its disquieting imagery. That photo of a black-clad woman standing in the middle distance, staring at the camera, is hauntingly ambiguous. The fact that nobody knew the name of the model on the front for 50 years made this cover all the more enigmatic.

Iron Maiden – Fear Of The Dark (1992)

The cover of Fear Of The Dark by Iron Maiden

(Image credit: EMI)

Fear Of The Dark was Iron Maiden’s first record sleeve without Eddie’s creator, legendary painter Derek Riggs, doing the artwork. Fortunately, Melvyn Grant announced himself with bar-raising scariness, turning the band’s already-disturbing zombie mascot into a tree demon nestled deep in the uncanny valley. Fear… may not be the most consistent Maiden album musically, but you still see its artwork on countless t-shirts.

Slayer – South Of Heaven (1988)

The cover of South Of Heaven by Slayer

(Image credit: Def Jam)

With their 1986 magnum opus Reign In Blood, Slayer perfected both their music and imagery. Artist Lawrence Carroll painted a Hieronymous Bosch-like hellscape that the band’s covers had been building towards since their debut. South Of Heaven is arguably the freakier creation, though, flaunting a skull that’s been diagonally impaled on an upside-down cross in an anarchic underworld. Metal as fuck, that.

Avenged Sevenfold – Nightmare (2010)

The cover of Nightmare by Avenged Sevenfold

(Image credit: Warner Bros)

It was Avenged Sevenfold’s late drummer, Jimmy “The Rev” Sullivan, who wanted to call the band’s fifth album Nightmare, and the hard rock jocks honoured that wish with a terrifying cover. Painter Travis Smith tapped into basic childhood fears, reimagining the Deathbat as a boogeyman stalking a little girl. The artist also paid tribute to Avenged’s fallen brother using that “foREVer” gravestone.

Korn – Korn (1994)

The front cover of Korn's debut album

(Image credit: Immortal/Epic)

Often, it’s the things you don’t see that are the scariest. The album cover of Korn’s self-titled debut – a point-of-view shot depicting a tall, clawed man ominously leering down at a young girl on a swing – is evidence enough of that. It’s a setup that presents so many questions – and, frankly, we don’t want to think about any of the answers.

Cannibal Corpse – Butchered At Birth (1991)

The cover of Butchered At Birth by Cannibal Corpse

(Image credit: Metal Blade)

No list of fucked-up album art would be complete without Cannibal Corpse. The death metal brutes – and their resident artist, Vincent Locke – have been courting controversy with their covers for decades, but our pick for the scariest is Butchered At Birth. This piece depicts two emaciated zombies dicing up a dead mum and preparing to hang her newborn from butcher’s hooks. Grim. 

Acid Bath – When The Kite String Pops (1994)

The cover of When The Kite String Pops by Acid Bath

(Image credit: Acid Bath)

This one’s all in the context. The cover of Acid Bath’s revolutionary debut, When The Kite String Pops, isn’t inherently scary by itself: it’s just a painting of a clown, after all. However, this was a self-portrait that John Wayne Gacy made while on death row for murdering 33 people, and it depicts his children’s-party-hosting alter ego, Pogo The Clown.

Autopsy – Severed Survival (1989)

The cover of Severed Survival by Autopsy

(Image credit: Peaceville)

The debut album by death-doom pioneers Autopsy was originally a Hellraiser-esque nightmare of a man being ripped apart by chains. Yet, the censored version is somehow scarier. It’s painted as a POV shot of someone who’s regained consciousness during surgery, only to find themselves being worked on by ghastly zombies. Waking up mid-operation is a harrowing enough idea, let alone what’s happening here.

Bloodbath – The Arrow Of Satan Is Drawn (2018)

The cover When The Arrow Of Satan Is Drawn by Bloodbath

(Image credit: Peaceville)

Eliran Kantor is the king of disturbing art in the modern metal landscape, and The Arrow Of Satan Is Drawn may be his masterpiece. There’s no gore at all, but the implications are horrific, as hordes of flies surround a white crib while two parents sleep in the background. We don’t need to spell out what’s happened here, but it’s bleak.

Ken Mode – Loved (2018)

The cover of Loved by Ken Mode

(Image credit: Season Of Mist)

Loved is a masterclass in how to design a freaky-as-fuck face. The high contrast draws all the attention to those beady eyes and that evil grin, while the absence of any nose, hair and eyebrows embeds this figure even more firmly in our nightmares. Ken Mode have long been purveyors of unnerving noise rock and, thanks to Randy Ortiz, they finally got the perfect visuals.

Matt Mills
Contributing Editor, Metal Hammer

Louder’s resident Gojira obsessive was still at uni when he joined the team in 2017. Since then, Matt’s become a regular in Prog and Metal Hammer, at his happiest when interviewing the most forward-thinking artists heavy music can muster. He’s got bylines in The Guardian, The Telegraph, NME, Guitar and many others, too. When he’s not writing, you’ll probably find him skydiving, scuba diving or coasteering.