1. Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Tarkus
Arguably the most infamous work of bad art in prog history, the cover of ELP's Tarkus is a bona fide brain-stopper. Rendered in what appears to be Magic Marker, the image of a monstrous tank/armadillo hybrid named Tarkus is just as cartoonishly bombastic as the music within. Open the gatefold cover, and the graphics get even crazier: In a sequence of wordless panels, Tarkus is born from a volcano and battles a host of equally weird critters before being resurrected as—wow—Aquatarkus. According to frontman Greg Lake, Tarkus was meant to be viewed as a symbol of the military-industrial complex. Or at least the military-industrial complex as envisioned by a disturbed middle-schooler.
2. Yes, Tormato
British design firm Hipgnosis was responsible for some of the most memorable sleeves in prog-rock history: They hooked up with Pink Floyd early on, helping to create indelible visuals. Designer Storm Thorgerson went on to do some of the best and worst in the field, and though he gets full credit for Dark Side Of The Moon, he's also responsible for unintentional hilarity like Yes' ninth studio album, Tormato. The story behind the cover—probably apocryphal, but still funny—is that the band's Rick Wakeman hated the cover photos so much that he threw a tomato at them. The glop was then worked into the design, and the album title adjusted. Both now recall a tornado mixed with a tomato, which is never a good thing.
3. King Crimson, In The Court Of The Crimson King
King Crimson's landmark debut album (sorry, "observation") might have a great cover—it just depends on how you define the word "great." If your definition is "incredibly creepy and hard to look at for fear of going insane," then In The Court Of The Crimson King has one of the greatest rock covers ever. It was the first and only painting by artist Barry Godber, who died of a heart attack at age 24, shortly after the album's release. Draw your own conclusions from that.
4. Rush, Hemispheres
The naked "golden god" figure walking across a giant brain on the cover of Hemispheres had appeared in Rush artwork prior to 1978, but never before had he been such an active participant in the scenario the picture creates. Here, he seems to choose some uptight citizen to follow him on a journey literally "into the mind"—an image so righteous that thousands of otherwise-macho hard-rock fans plastered it onto their bedroom walls, so they could drift off to sleep pondering a man's firm, bare ass.
5. Steely Dan, Can't Buy A Thrill
There's nothing slapdash about Steely Dan's immaculate progressive jazz-rock, which makes the cover of its otherwise terrific 1972 debut, Can't Buy A Thrill, all the more inappropriate. Picture a half-assed high-school art project—some big red lips here, a shirtless man and his man-boobs there, and some really far-out squiggly lines shooting to and fro. Sure, there are some hookers in there, too, an indication of the perversity lurking just underneath the Dan's shiny exterior. But a record so elegantly subversive demands more than a poorly conceived collage.
6. The Mars Volta, De-Loused In The Comatorium
De-Loused In The Comatorium is apparently a concept album about a man named Cerpin Taxt who overdoses on morphine and ends up in a weeklong coma, during which time he delves deep into the recesses of his troubled subconscious. But it's impossible to make heads or tails of Cedric Bixler-Zavala's lyrics on the actual record. The confusion carries over to the cover, which depicts a severed, gold-plated head on a plate, with a beam of light shooting out of its mouth. The head looks like a cross between Peter Gabriel and C-3PO, perhaps the perfect distillation of the typical prog-rock fan's obsessions.
7. Jethro Tull, The Broadsword And The Beast
Sure, there are dozens of Renaissance Faire-inspired covers that could go on this list, but the sheer simplicity of the album title—The Broadsword And The Beast—and its incredible cover art go so perfectly together. A painting depicts the beast, which appears to be part wizard, part elf, and part butterfly, with the tail of a lion, holding the titular sword while the sea rages behind him. Bandmembers' heads mark the four corners, all part of a grand picture frame. Oh, and quoth Wikipedia: "The runic symbols around the edge of the cover are from the Cirth rune system used by J.R.R. Tolkien in The Lord Of The Rings." Of course they are.
8. Fates Warning, Awaken The Guardian
Indie-metal band Fates Warning began to leave head-banging behind with its second album, The Spectre Within, and the journey toward the progressive continued on 1985's Awaken The Guardian, the cover of which is a black-light-ready monstrosity featuring what appears to be a star gate stationed on a rolling interplanetary landscape. Weirdly incongruous element: the graffiti-style font for the band's name, and the way it barely fits into the tiny niche it's been allotted. Perhaps the band didn't want the name to get in the way of that pretty picture.
9. Dream Theater, When Dream And Day Unite
The debut album by Boston prog-metal favorites Dream Theater offers the intentionally nightmarish image of a hunk about to be branded with the Dream Theater logo by some unseen malefactor. (The band's publicist, perhaps?) An unnecessary touch of realism: a narrow tuft of underarm hair, apparently there to let us know that this chiseled, well-coiffed dude is All Man.
10. Queensrÿche, Hear In The Now Frontier
Desert and mountains are there to indicate "frontier," but how will Queensrÿche manage to get across the clever here/hear pun? How about severed ears in old-fashioned jars? Perfect! (And thus ended Queensrÿche's run as a chart-topping rock god.)
11. Marillion, Script For A Jester's Tear
Marillion's 1983 debut, Script For A Jester's Tear, was almost single-handedly responsible for re-inflating progressive rock after punk lanced it—even though Cheap Trick was probably more responsible for that than The Clash. But while old-school acts like King Crimson and Genesis wisely commissioned tasteful, minimal album art in the '80s, Marillion opted for a throwback: The harlequin on Script's cover fiddles sadly in a typically overwrought, absurdly pretentious prog tableau. Artist Mark Wilkinson allegedly forgot one of the band's explicit requests—to include a rubber plant in the background of the painting. Yeah, that would've fixed it.
12. Genesis, Nursery Cryme
The three Genesis albums designed by artist Paul Whitehead—Trespass, Nursery Cryme, and Foxtrot—make for a pretty warped triptych. Even clumsier than the album's titular pun, the cover of Nursery Cryme depicts a proper young lady playing croquet with—gasp!—tiny, decapitated human heads. The ersatz surrealism is rendered even lamer by a maid wearing what look like hamster wheels on her shoes. And what's with progressive-rock albums and their obsession with vanishing points?
13. Camel, I Can See Your House From Here
The luridly painted covers of Camel's '70s albums were some of the decade's most typically awful—but when photorealism become de rigueur in the late '70s, the band followed suit with I Can See Your House From Here. Outside of Spinal Tap's "The Sun Never Sweats," few record covers have misused astronomical bodies so horribly: On it, planet Earth serves as the backdrop for a crucified astronaut. Of course, any attempt at profundity is flattened by the title's punchline. Whether you're stoned or not, though, that is pretty funny.
14. Van Der Graaf Generator, H To He, Who Am The Only One
H To He Who huh? Van Der Graaf Generator may be rightly respected as one of the most unique and intriguing of the original English prog bands, but the cover of its 1970 record is a dumbfounding hodgepodge of science fiction, neoclassicism, and some sort of clock. Or clam. Made out of testicles. The H To He portion of the title is a reference to subatomic physics, specifically "the fusion of hydrogen nuclei to form helium nuclei."
15. Captain Beyond, Sufficiently Breathless
Like the rejected cover of some Robert Anton Wilson book, the artwork from Captain Beyond's Sufficiently Breathless could pass as an ad for cheap acid and wingnut mysticism. Instead of cosmic, though, it's just plain comical. Granted, the ambulatory hand is a nice nod to Terry Gilliam's Monty Python animation, and the cross-sectioned dog predates Damien Hirst by a couple of decades. But a psychedelic cyber-clown with a corkscrew penis? "Breathless" doesn't quite cover it.
16. Kansas, Leftoverture
Captain Beyond was a minor exponent of American progressive rock, but Kansas was the king. Still, the band's dense prog didn't become truly radio-friendly until the hit "Carry On Wayward Son" from 1976's Leftoverture—the title of which remains one of pop music's worst portmanteaux. The cover is no better: A bearded composer sits frustrated at his desk, while planets and pianos and shit whirl around in the air behind him. Or is that supposed to be inside his head? Whoa, heavy.
17. Gentle Giant, Acquiring The Taste
Ah, the rock 'n' roll double entendre. Featuring a giant tongue dripping saliva into, um, some kind of flesh-colored crack, the cover and title of Gentle Giant's Acquiring The Taste are as idiotic as the band's music is sophisticated. Then again, the band did claim to draw inspiration from the French writer and libertine François Rabelais, one of the masters of dirty puns—and Rabelais himself no doubt would have gotten a cheap laugh out of the album's back cover, which reveals the fleshy object to be a piece of fruit.
18. Coheed And Cambria, Good Apollo, I'm Burning Star IV, Volume Two: No World For Tomorrow
As a high-school art-class final project, Good Apollo, I'm Burning Star IV, Volume Two: No World For Tomorrow gets solid marks for deep imagery, creativity, and muscle texture. As an album cover by a band making music in the aughts, it's nothing short of hilarious: A long-haired, ripped, shirtless dude stands on a planet that's cracking underneath him, revealing celestial bodies. His back to us, he stares at a futuristic city that's either being destroyed by or repelling meteors or possibly giant, rock-like sperm. Without even seeing his face, we know that he is strangely empowered by the whole scenario, for he is the only one who can read the cryptic sky-writing. Loosely translated: It's a phonetic alien spelling of "guffaw."
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