Metal Typographica

By Rachel Alexander

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Graphic design Opinion
Metal Typographica in the Metallica font.

On my very first day working for JUMP, I was told by Andy, our Head of Design, that we listen to heavy metal music. Brilliant! I thought, I can finally listen to my type of music without shame. I was somewhat disappointed to find this was not the case in the Design Studio (though it is a different story with the Developers). Since then I have subtly tried to add metal songs to the communal studio playlist with varying degrees of success. Ghost seem to hit the right notes, but Mastodon, not so much.

When you like both metal music and typography you start to notice a few things. Metal music (and all of its sub-categories) is one of the most consistently branded genres of music out there, with many of the logos sharing a ‘sharp’ aesthetic and the majority of logos remaining unchanged over the years. The jagged letters come in many forms, from the stiletto-thin Def Leppard to the heavier-weight Iron Maiden, with each logotype reflecting the music. Characterised by amplified distortion, screeching guitar solos, ardent drum beats and an aggressive performance style, metal bands need to look as heavy and intimidating as they sound.

Overview of metal band logos.

Even if you don’t recognise the bands listed, it is more than likely that you will have seen the style of logos before and can probably guess which genre they belong to. Not all the bands listed are strictly metal, however many have gone on to influence metal artists and share common themes musically and lyrically. There are however a few exceptions to the ‘sharp typography = metal’ rule.

Black Sabbath is considered to be one of the first heavy metal bands, emerging out of the steel factories of Birmingham in 1968. Guitarist, Tony Iommi, famously lost the tips of two of his fingers in an industrial accident, though that didn’t stop him playing.

Overview of the first five albums by Black Sabbath.

The band do not follow the trend of consistent branding, nor do they stick strictly to jagged fonts. Their self-titled debut album features the band’s name set in the typeface Eminence which is somewhat Art Deco inspired with its swirls and flourishes. The imagery however did set the tone for many bands that followed. Photographed on infrared film by Marcus Keef, the haunting figure dressed all in black gave off an eerie and unsettling vibe. Bassist, Geezer Butler, is quoted as saying: “I don't think you could pick up the album and think you were getting a collection of Christmas songs.” Moving through the band’s discography, it is their fifth album, 1973’s Sabbath Bloody Sabbath where we get our first taste of blackletter, a style trend that would go on to dominate the metal genre.

Cover for Black Sabbath's Sabbath Bloody Sabbath album.

A knowledge of typography and typefaces is an essential for any graphic designer and part of that knowledge includes the history of each face. Though not its sole use, blackletter has a long history associated with religion and Christianity in particular. Blackletter script was used throughout Western Europe from the 12th through 17th Centuries, from handwritten manuscripts to mass produced works printed on movable metal type presses.

Spread from the Guttenberg Bible.

Sometimes referred to as Gothic, Fraktur or Old English, blackletter typefaces are characterised by dramatic thick and thin strokes and decorated serifs. Notably, Johannes Gutenberg used blackletter for his printed bible. The Gutenberg Bible was one of the first books to be printed using mass-produced moveable metal type in Europe during the 1400s. It is difficult to understate the importance of the Gutenberg Press; it allowed people access to knowledge, ideas and religious texts unlike ever before.

Christianity is a common theme in metal music, often in the form of explicitly anti-Christian lyrics or, as is the case with Judas Priest, the band name itself. It is not surprising then that metal bands would adopt and distort the face that brought religious works to the masses to invalidate or otherwise subvert religion. It is a move designed to create friction with the establishment and provoke conservative society. Another connotation with blackletter lies with that of Nazi symbolism and the Third Reich.

Overview of Nazi propaganda featuring blackletter fonts.

In the 1920s, Germany was making waves in the design and influence of sans serif type [see Jan Tschichold’s The New Typography published in 1928]. However, with the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party, Modernist typography and design was deemed to be un-German. In an effort to try and unite (read: control) the German national identity, Modernism was rejected in favour of traditional German art and design. Fraktur was declared as the Volksschrift, or the people’s font, and was used extensively by the Nazis in propaganda from 1933 until 1941 when it was dropped in favour of more legible roman text, as it was thought to be a more appropriate means to communicate with occupied territories. To go back to Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, we can see an influence of the Nazis, with the S’s in the title being replaced with stylised Armanen runes as used by the SS. This album cover was not the only instance of German/Nazi influence in aesthetics of metal music type, just take a look at the logos for Slayer, KISS, Motörhead and Mötley Crüe. The baby boomer generation (whose parents lived through World War II) created the metal sound. Between the connotations with the Bible and the Nazi Party teamed with the anti-social noise, the look that metal created was deliberately designed to provoke (read: p*ss people off).

Over time, the metal aesthetic which was once so controversial has become fodder for the high street and high fashion alike. Stores like Topshop, H&M and Primark carry officially licensed t-shirts by the likes of Metallica and in some instances they have used the iconic typefaces of bands like Iron Maiden for their own messages. Consumer culture theory argues that people buy one brand over another because they feel it reflects their own personal identity, or one they wish to create.

Various fashion designers and celebrities wearing metal band t-shirts or t-shirts inspired by metal typography.

There is certainly a sense of camaraderie to be had when an army of music fans descend on the gig venue, identified by their uniform of band t-shirts. To see part of your identity used as a disposable fashion trend is somewhat insulting (and perhaps reminds us of when metal bands adopted and subverted existing styles for their own use in the first place…). A prime example of the backlash caused by metal bands being used as a fashion statement occurred in 2015 when Kendall Jenner was papped wearing a Slayer t-shirt. Though there is a possibility that Jenner is a fan of the thrash metal band, guitarist Gary Holt clearly didn’t feel the same way, donning a ‘Kill the Kardashians’ t-shirt (set neatly in Helvetica) on stage. The statement was such a success that the now trademarked design is being sold officially. Touché.

Kendall Jenner and Gary Holt wearing their respective t-shirts.

From the metal aesthetic becoming a fashion trend to the totally unapproachable and illegible, the logos of black metal bands don’t welcome outsiders. Sharing the same spiked serifs of blackletter, the custom logotypes of black metal bands go one step further to distancing themselves from the average listener. Being able to decrypt the text is part of being in the know, with the more indecipherable logos tending to belong to more extreme or underground sub-genres.

The illegible logos of Darkthrone, Embryonic Depravity and Finntroll.

Belgian designer Christophe Szpajdel has designed over 6,000 logos for bands from all over the world, getting his big break in 1994 when he designed the logo for Norwegian black metal band, Emperor. However, the extreme style of black metal logos gives way to parody, from memes of a pile of twigs to Szpajdel himself creating logos for some unconventional names.

Meme depicting a pile of sticks with the caption 'Was picking wood for fire. Accidentally made a logo for my band.'
Spoof logos for Emmerdale, One Direction and Coldplay, created by Christophe Szpajdel.

Parody continues with the likes of Dunfermline-based grindcore band Party Canon whose logo lifts the Toys R Us typeface. For a typically unwelcoming and somewhat serious genre of music, it’s nice to see that metal doesn’t always take itself too seriously.

Logo for Party Canon in the Toys R Us font.

Typefaces have associated meanings which stem from their inception and various uses over time. This meaning can change, as we’ve seen with blackletter going from holy begins to German fascism and beyond, but it remains important to have some knowledge of history to guide appropriate use. For now it seems as though the look of metal band typography is fairly set in its trajectory, but in the end does any of this really matter if you like the music?

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