The evolution of corpsepaint is both bizarre and fascinating. What started as a way to turn heads by Kiss and Alice Cooper soon became a deadly serious display of satanic allegiance for fans of music that sounded like Dracula being killed with a chainsaw. Even stranger is that it quickly became one of extreme metal’s most recognized, examined, and loved traditions, fetishized by outsiders in a desperate attempt to connect with a musical subculture that feels genuine in its devotion.
These days, any hipster can go on YouTube and find instructions on how to look like a Scandinavian kvltist. But serious corpsepaint is still striking to behold, and those musicians who have practiced the tradition in earnest will stay immortal in the minds of their fans through their spectral scowls. Whether you appreciate them for their Halloween shock value or their pure satanic majesty, these corpsepaint designs will always be reminders of how visually powerful evil can be.
Here are the 10 corpsepaint designs that have us throwing the horns in the dark, every time…
10. Diego Do’Urden (Mystifier)
Brazilian proto-black metallers Mystifier always nailed the corpsepaint-without-white-facepaint look, and current frontman Diego Do’Urden does an exceptional job with it. His sprawling black eye make-up definitely gets across the war paint vibe without needing him to go full spookshow. One step further from similar designs by Celtic Frost and fellow countrymen Sarcofago, Diego’s corpsepaint feels like a modern take on the ultimate old-school black metal adornment. Viva Brasil!
9. Maria Franz (Heilung)
If you’re going to be the only non-metal artist on this list, your corpsepaint better look pretty fucking cool. But Maria Franz of Heilung is certainly up to the task, her bladed-eyes take on the art form adding a pagan wraith-like quality to her stage presence. One could argue that her design wouldn’t be the same without her antlered headdress — but then again, none of the musiciansd on this list have such terrifying visages without the gauntlets and shinguards backing up their painted faces. Death to false, ah, experimental Viking folk?
8. Seregor (Carach Angren)
Seregor of Dutch symphonic black metallers Carach Angren is one of the more contemporary musician on this list, but his corpsepaint firmly walks the line between modern and classic. On the one hand, the frontman’s skull pattern might feel a bit literal and Halloweeny for black metal purists. Then again, when he opens his mouth it looks like his whole head is splitting in half, making this design creepily effective.
7. Abbath (ex-Immortal)
For most people, Abbath as the most iconic design in the history of corpsepaint. The sharp contrast of his badger eyes has come to represent the art form at its simplest and most militant. At the same time, one could argue that Abbath’s design isn’t even exactly corpsepaint proper — it doesn’t have the same focus on deathlike attributes as others, and seems more about looking like a wrestler than some sort of ancient vampire. That’s why it only clocks in at #7 here, though to compile this list without it would be criminal.
6. King ov Hell (ex-Abbath, ex-Gorgoroth)
Abbath may have the most identifiable corpsepaint around, but former Gorgoroth bassist King ov Hell has the corpsepaint design that we all think of when picturing a black metal band. Flared eyes, cracked lips, inverted cross — these three pieces combine perfectly in King’s design, making him look like the Platonic ideal of a black metal warrior. That King’s career includes albums with Gorgoroth, Abbath, Audrey Horne, Sahg, God Seed, and his own Ov Hell might also make him one of the more prolific artist here — but first and foremost, his corpsepaint rules.
5. Ravn (1349)
Some corpsepaint designs look professional, some look slapdash — and some look like they were branded on their owner’s face when he first entered Hell. Ravn of Norwegian hostile force 1349 has always worn corpsepaint that looks both organic and being painstakingly tailored. With its pointed wolvish eyes and inverted trident mouth, this is the face of someone who probably only feels at home when they’re done up like a soldier in night’s legions. Proof that awesome corpsepaint designs reflect the sheer power of their creators, as few bands sound as utterly venomous to the ear as these guys.
4. Dead (Mayhem)
The face that launched a thousand scowls. Dead’s corpsepaint is in many ways larval and simplistic, a satanic tribute to both Celtic Frost and Kiss. But its place in black metal history also makes it the purest expression of what corpsepaint was about. Dead wanted to be dead — for much of his life, he wondered if he was some sort of walking corpse — and so his dripping eyes and white cheeks in Mayhem were meant to make him look like some sort of hellbound ghost. For that reason, his will always be one of the most memorable designs in the genre’s history, and the corpsepaint pattern to beat even today.
3. Nattefrost (Carpathian Forest)
You gotta give it to Nattefrost — he doesn’t get too precious about his corpsepaint. On the one hand, the frontman for Norwegian misanthropes Carpathian Forest has an iconically traditional take on corpsepaint with its flared eyes, downturned mouth, and occasional inverted cross. On the other, he’s also always down to add heaps of blood to the mix, and will wear his battle face in places that other black metal artists fear to be photographed — the bar, the bathroom, the bathroom floor surrounded by knives and puke. Proof that regal and warlike are strong, but repulsive and nihilistic are always stronger.
2. Frost (Satyricon, 1349)
Oslo’s Satyricon were one of the first black metal bands to shift from nonstop spikes to leather jackets and jeans, but back in their day they went hard in the motherfuckin’ corpsepaint. While frontman Satyr was certainly identifiable later on, it was drummer Frost — also percussionist of 1349, in which he’s pictured above — whose corpsepainted visage was the most terrifying. Simultaneously haphazard and regal, the design suggested that it had occurred naturally while still representing a high place of honor among Hell’s nobility (sort of like Darth Maul’s face tattoos). So much of Peter Beste’s True Norwegian Black Metal book rests on these blood-smeared shoulders.
1. King Diamond
At the end of the day, no one even comes close. One could argue that King Diamond invented corpsepaint with his satanic, blood-smeared perversion of Gene Simmons’ Demon make-up, and it’d be hard to argue with them. Whether it’s the bat-winged frame of his Mercyful Fate design or his cross-dripping current look, the King has the art of satanic metal facepaint down cold, to the point where all of the countless artists he’s inspired can barely hold a candle (or “The Candle” — thank you, thank you) to it. Behold the face of Satan at his most diabolical and fabulous.
Words by Chris Krovatin