In light of the recent Charlie Hebdo attacks, the ugly and often hypocritical ideas behind religious censorship have once again become a focal point within the public consciousness. With that in mind, BeatDust caught up with English artist Trevor Brown to discuss his seminal and controversial cover work on Deicide’s 1995 Once Upon the Cross release.
Cast as opponents throughout history, the relationship between freedom of speech and religion is one marinated in censorship throughout the western world. In the name of protecting religious sensibilities and more importantly their profits — major corporations are quick to censor anything they deem iconoclastic. With a name meaning “the act of killing a divine being” – Florida death metallers Deicide were always going to have a troublesome time in the Christian dominated nation of America.
Already one of the major players within death metal circles, the band’s 1992 sophomore release Legion was heralded as a classic within the genre; anti christian values mixed with a musical culmination of technical violence, sadistic proficiency and prominent cohesion. With anticipation building for their next and most important album, the band made the critical decision to reach out to an artist who could visually encapsulate their musical aesthetic – enter Trevor Brown.
Hailing from London and presently living in Japan, Brown’s work is entrenched in the macabre and taboo – often exploring subjects including pedophilia, fetish, violence and misogynistic themes. With such a cadaverous catalogue of work, Brown was quick to find himself on the radar of death metal godfathers Cannibal Corpse.
Detailing his entry into the realm of death metal, Brown informs BeatDust “prior to [the Deicide] commission, I had an encounter with Cannibal Corpse. Hamish [Halley] and myself met them in London at a venue pre-gig and I showed them my work. They asked if I could do a record cover painting for them for [their 1993 EP] Hammer Smashed Face. Which I did and they rejected. My interpretation too “realistic” for them, albeit in a very medical aesthetic way which was my artistic interest. They wanted something more gory and cartoonish (ie generic death metal album cover art)”. With the genre entrenched in a competitive ‘none more black’ ideology, musical rivals Deicide were quick to seek out the man too brutal for Cannibal Corpse.
Recounting how the Deicide connection was stuck, Brown explains “it could have been simply through the rejected Cannibal Corpse cover. Glen Benton [Deicide frontman] revelled in that, calling them wimps, and I guess cemented his decision about using me for the Deicide cover”. He continues “I don’t recall sending them samples of my work. My dealings were solely with Glen. I sensed some possible rivalry between the two bands? I was probably just the right man in the right place at the right time”. Asked if he was familiar with the band’s death metal ditties, Brown confesses “the band were huge so of course I was aware of them and their music, if not familiar with actual albums. I wasn’t a fan of their music myself! But didn’t hate it. Of course the virtues of being on a cd cover selling hundreds of thousands of copies would over-ride even that. Especially at that time when i was just a small unknown artist. At that point i’d only done a few cd covers for noise bands. I was still chiefly working freelance in advertising agencies in fact. It was a prestigious commission”.
When casting an eye over the album, it must be noted that the artwork displayed on the cover was in fact a reactionary response to the graphic concept piece inside the booklet that was initially earmarked for the front piece. “It was Glen’s idea totally, I shirk all responsibility, he is to blame!” explains Brown. He adds “we discussed it a bit on the phone. There was already the title Once Upon the Cross and the idea basically was [to be an] autopsy being performed on the body of Christ”. As a result, the painting is grotesque but clinical – Brown’s brushwork showcases an impeccable and frightening realism that would not feel out of place within the pages of a medical journal.
Sterile and cold, the absence of a background or setting creates an overbearing feeling isolation and emptiness within the artwork. “Originally, I wanted a medical green background with a grid pattern, as i’d used on a few paintings previously” explains Brown.”The printed version would have then looked a bit stronger, but Glen had requested a simple white background”.
While it originally planned to be an autopsy, there is enough evidence to suggest (even from Brown himself) that the painting it is in fact a depiction of Christ suffering the tortuous act of disembowelment – an idea that would coincide with the bands Satanic beliefs. “I did have some niggles about Deicide’s whole satanism thing” confesses Brown. “Proclaiming God does not exist but simultaneously advocating Lucifer, to me it’s two sides of the same coin. The devil is a Christian concept, you can’t say you believe in one and not the other. Despite that I had much admiration and respect for Glen, he came across as genuine and I could relate to his vision, [as] I’m probably completely atheist”. With the artwork steeped in such heretical values, it is no surprise that due to the political and cultural climate of the time – it received a repugnant response from Deicide’s label heads at Roadrunner Records upon its completion.
When New York artist Andres Serrano plunged a plastic crucifix into a glass of his own urine and photographed it in 1987 under the title Piss Christ – it set off a ripple effect throughout the media that would drastically alter the limitations of free speech within society. After Serrano and any gallery who exhibited the offending work received countless death threats and hate mail from fundamentalist groups across the globe, it was clear that with the recognition of the power that images can have within society – comes the desire to control and regulate those images. Serrano himself quoted “in a free society, ideas are not dangerous. The only danger lies in repressing them”. But with the Christian right holding enormous power within the United States business and media factions, Deicide’s recording label felt it was in its best interests to suppress the controversial material to avoid another Piss Christ situation.
Looking back, Brown explains to BeatDust “at first I believe the painting was not actually intended for the cover, they were going to use a logo already painted by another artist. But after seeing my painting Glen had other thoughts and did want to use it as cover art. Although, to save face, he would never actually admit this. His record label [Roadrunner] obviously were not keen about it because of the obvious controversy it would cause. Distributors would be refusing to touch it. So behind the scenes there was a big argument I suspect”. As a result of the tension between the band and the label, Roadrunner commissioned Brown to re-do the artwork to make it acceptable for commercial release.
The re-imagined artwork draws heavy influence from the Should of Turin – the piece of cloth alleged to have been the burial garment of Jesus Christ. The shroud is held up by believers as evidence not only of Christ’s existence but also of his divinity. But there is a striking frailty in Brown’s take on the Should concept – thick pools of blood seeping through the cloth flaunt the mortality and a stark reality to the aftermath of this so called transcendent man, making him appear weak or for lack of a better word – human. Looking back, Brown notes “the sheet covering the offending image was the compromise. Conceptually it’s a nice idea and for me another very welcome pay-cheque, but I think it a great pity they never used the ‘real’ cover art. Especially as my bloody sheet painting is rather poor and the controversy exploded anyway”.
Despite the differences between the two artworks, construction wise they were both fashioned in a similar style and medium. “They were done in airbrush on board, approximately 60cm squared” explains Brown. Time frame wise, Brown notes “[it took] less than a week. Three or four days was average for my old airbrush paintings. I was happy with the disemboweled Jesus painting but not the sheet one as mentioned already. It’s a shame it got reduced down to cd size as it became much weaker looking I feel. The originals went to Glen as part of the contract”.
Looking back in the rear view mirror on his time with Deicide, Brown informs BeatDust “nowadays as the course of my work has found it’s own unique direction, it seems like another Trevor Brown did it. Though it does still fit in perfectly with the overall Trevor Brown oeuvre. I’m still proud of it”. He continues, “today I might ask for slightly more money if I got approached with a similar proposal from a high profile band. I don’t know if it is good or bad that I never received a whole deluge of death metal bands requesting cover art following Once Upon the Cross. Not one! I guess no one has the conviction Deicide has and are content with their generic cartoon gore?!”
Hitting 20 years of age in 2015, Once Upon the Cross is still as brutal on the ears as it is on the eyes – achieving a timeless goal no doubt both Decide and Trevor Brown set out to achieve near a generation ago.