Within heavy metal’s broad visual lexicon, band iconography and logos function as badges of identity for both music makers and the fans who vow allegiance to them one hand-stitched patch at a time. Charting a typographic history for a genre that emerged as anarchically and incrementally as metal isn’t as simple as going decade by decade, but zooming out on the genre at large, several patterns do emerge. Gothic elements and monochromatic symmetry recur and the ornamentation can verge on unreadable. At best, these visuals are meant to titillate a viewer’s dark side, if not, to simply antagonize. Either way, they’ve come to be legible tropes the genre.
Medieval blackletter text, also known as Old English or Gothic text has been borrowed by extreme metal bands as diverse as Black Sabbath and Behemoth, and across all of metal’s myriad subgenres. Considered by many to be the first metal band, Black Sabbath donned a variety of fonts over their career, starting out with psychedelic elements, but the lower-case phrasing found on the cover of their 1973 album Sabbath Bloody Sabbath ushered in a trend. Though the text is somewhat inconspicuous on an otherwise bold and bawdy cover, the logo is noteworthy for its seminal use of a blackletter typeface, each letter anchored on a sturdy razor sharp point that mimics the incisive lyrics and baroque musical stylings of the record. The album, in fact, was recorded in a Gothic medieval castle in Gloucestershire, so that may have had something to do with it.
Sabbath struck a chord and other bands like Motörhead, Dio, Bathory, and Possessed incorporated blackletter logos into their album art throughout the 1980s on some of the genre’s most seminal albums. Burzum called upon the Gothic uppercase for most of the ‘90s albums—though Varg Vikernes’ most recent release in 2014 was stamped in a regrettable Papyrus font that may have been an attempt to be anti-aesthetic altogether. “The name was the point; the font was and still is irrelevant,” he writes on his bigoted but comprehensive blog. Still, his use of gothic text is an important anchor of its association with metal. Throughout the years, metallers of every stripe have used blackletter, many in a nod to bands before them, further proliferating what is now an established visual trope within the genre.
As the first standardized printing typeface, blackletter made its inaugural appearance in the 15th century in Gutenberg’s Bible, coloquially known as "the first book ever." The pages of the Bible were so dense with ink that they appeared almost completely black, hence the name blackletter. In his essay, “Blackletter logotypes and metal music,” Metal scholar Dr. Vitus Vestergaard suggests it was a natural move for metal bands with Satanic leanings, or those seeking to invalidate or otherwise subvert religion, to call upon, expand, and distort the typeface that brought it to the masses.
Furthermore, Vestergaard cites blackletter’s relationship with “medieval-inspired fantasy literature,” a well-spring that dozens of metal bands have tapped for lyrics and for names—Burzum, Gogoroth and Amon Amarth belong to the world of J.R.R. Tolkien, for example—as a likely aesthetic influence as well. Finally, for a genre that has sought many times over to create an independent alternative more authentic than the mainstream, it makes sense to choose the typeface for its connotative powers of imparting “ye olde” authenticity.
None is perhaps more qualified to weigh in on metal aesthetics than Christophe Szpajdel, a Belgian logo artist who has hand-drawn and inked more than 7,000 mostly metal logos over his 30-odd year career. Anthologized in the master tome Lord of the Logos, Szpajdel’s artwork reveals a breadth of visual styles that draw from the angular decals of Art Deco and the naturalistic curves of Art Noveau. Many of his logos pay allegiance to metal’s major visual tropes: bilateral symmetry, monochromatics and thematic ornamental decorations.
For instance, Szpajdel’s emblematic design for Norwegian black metal band Emperor calls upon a fiercely balanced symmetry of unapproachable barbs. Bookended by larger first and last letters that fan out like bat wings, the white logo’s ornamental lines reference the ornate details of blackletter’s uppercase. It’s crisp and clean, like the cutting shrieks that perforate the machine gun drums and barbaric din of an Emperor track. Sometimes, the logo appears as a single letter—the middle “e” emblazoned on a shield–fitting for these warriors against Christianity, whose early members were associated with church burnings.
Metal is, however, alternately lauded and lampooned for its illegible logo examples, taking typography itself to the furthest brink of relevance. Responding to client requests for logos “black metal as fuck,” Szpajdel’s designs for DEEPRED and N.V.One are all but unreadable. Though he promises the letters are in there somewhere, these logos practically detach from letterforms altogether in an attempt to reflect music that does not welcome outsiders—the inaccessibility of this kind of logo is entirely deliberate. But, while metalheads might revere the symbolism, internet pranksters have taken to satirizing it, generating a subgenre of memes dedicated to illegible black metal logos.
Though it’s worth conceding that every prickly point herein has a diametric counter-example, these visual motifs form a foundational approach to fonts that rock, a hardcore semiotics of a subculture that goes beyond what some might consider juvenile, contrived chaos.
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