Heavy Metal painter meets Heavy Metal palaeontologist: The conception of an unusual portrayal of the past

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Mats E Eriksson (Sweden)

Sometimes, the stars just seem to align perfectly and make you appreciate life more than at other times. You know those ephemeral moments when, all of a sudden, you find yourself in the midst of something that you would not have dared dream about. All your favourite aspects of life are suddenly combined into a giant melting pot and once the metaphoric molten steel hardens, you are left with the most stunning and unexpected new kind of precious metal. For me, this happens when music, arts and palaeontology unorthodoxly merge (Eriksson, 2016); and more specifically in this case, when exceptionally preserved, miniscule Cambrian arthropods had their first encounter with, and ‘sat for a portrait’ for, an iconic ‘metal’ painter.

Besides my profession as a palaeontology professor at Lund University in Sweden, I have a major soft spot for the arts and music. As a matter of fact, in some aspects of my professional life, I have had (or created) the opportunity of actually combining these long love affairs. When it comes to scientific outreach, I am involved in a traveling exhibition on fossils named after rock stars (‘Rock Fossils’; Eriksson, 2014a) and I have named fossils in honour of some of my favourite musicians (Eriksson 2014a, 2017; Eriksson et al., 2017). I also record music based on palaeontological research results together, with established metal musicians (for example, Eriksson, 2014b; https://kalloprionkilmisteri.bandcamp.com/releases).

Granted, this might be viewed as exceedingly eccentric and something that you perhaps think does not belong even in the very outskirts of science. I am perfectly fine with this, as it fills a very important purpose in my life – that is, I have fun. The added benefit is that it might actually generate interest (and has proven to do so) for the history of nature to some people that normally lack any inclination for the deep time past and its long dead inhabitants. Perhaps equally important, research suggests that a joyful working situation leads to a better life, higher productivity and more success. So, to me it is a win-win situation.

Anyhow, last year I began working on a new music project (baptised, ‘Primordial Rigor Mortis’) dealing with some of my favourite extinct organisms; the so-called ‘Orsten fossils’. Originally discovered in Sweden in the 1970s, this world-famous Konservat Lagerstätte comprises exceptionally well-preserved, miniscule fossils of Cambrian age (Nudds and Selden, 2008; Eriksson and Waloszek, 2016).

The bulk of the animals recorded are arthropods, which have been secondarily phosphatised and are so stunningly well-preserved that they look almost modern through the binocular microscope (Maas et al., 2006; Eriksson and Waloszek, 2016, and references therein). Not only are the hard external parts preserved, but also the ‘soft ventral cuticular tissues’, so these fossils hold significantly more biological information than is normally acquired from the fossil record. They have therefore contributed greatly to our understanding of life in the Cambrian seas.

Figure 1
Fig. 1.The legendary Joe Petagno working on a tour poster for our travelling exhibition ‘Rock Fossils’. (Photo with kind permission by Joe Petagno.)

The idea behind the name ‘Primordial Rigor Mortis’ was my way of playing with words and concepts; the pristine and three-dimensional preservation of the ‘Orsten’ fossils simply makes them appear as if they were momentarily ‘frozen in time’. Accordingly, I wrote some song lyrics based on this concept, invited musicians to participate and started recording the music. For this pet-project, I also aimed for a powerful and attractive artwork and LP cover that would fit the ‘Palaeo Metal’ music, as well as the palaeontological concept. Therefore, I reached out with a commission to make such a painting and I got in contact with a certain Joe Petagno.

If you are a geologist reading this piece, it is not surprising if you have not heard of his name. However, in the realm of (heavy) music, he is a household name and, in my world, he quite the ‘Homo deus’ (compare with Harari, 2016 – by the way a thrilling must-read, for palaeontologists and everyone else) when it comes to album cover artwork. Having been the ‘father’ of Motörhead’s mascot, ‘Snaggletooth’, and many of the band’s album covers, he is nothing short of an icon in the business. Well, his CV is filled also with works for Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Nazareth, the Sweet and other stalwarts. To have this legend doing the cover artwork for this outlandish project dealing with ‘my’ fossils was nothing less than fantastic. The fact that Joe truly seem to have enjoyed the fossils and the project was the icing on my ‘Palaeo Metal’ cake.

To get the project rolling, I gathered some of my favourite art works by Petagno for reference and to portray the colour tone and style that I was looking for. These were sent to him, along with the lyrics for the song ‘Primordial Rigor Mortis’, a whole bunch of photographs, illustrations and publications showing the uniquely preserved, minute beasts of the ‘Orsten’ Lagerstätte. Based on this background material, I asked Joe to do whatever he wanted for the record sleeve; that is, just to let the creative juices flow with complete artistic freedom. My only directing guidelines, or wishes, were that he should strive for ‘dark metal aesthetics’, rather than trying to make the fossils as scientifically correct as possible (as we obviously do when traditional ‘palaeo artists’ illustrate our specimens, but those are made for completely different reasons – it all comes down to the context, right?).

Figur 2
Fig. 2. The finished front cover artwork of the picture vinyl Primordial Rigor Mortis, a concept record dealing with the Cambrian ‘Orsten fossils’. (Illustration by Joe Petagno.)

Petagno strikes me as a combination of a sophisticatedly aging artist with kind of a ‘biker touch’, in the most positive sense of the words – a sort of wild Pablo Picasso meeting Marlon Brando à la The Wild One (1953), if you wish (Fig. 1). Corresponding with Joe also revealed a truly free art spirit, equipped with a warm and witty sense of humour. It was as heart-warming as it was pleasing to learn that it is apparently not only us palaeontologists (or at least me, if I happen to be biased) that are in awe of the amazingly well-preserved and alien-esque creatures of the ‘Orsten’ Lagerstätte. Joe seemed to be quite amazed by the scanning electron images of these infinitesimal beasts as he noted:

Thx for the material…I really “dig”. No pun intended…all the fossils…they’re fantastic…and I can see the similarity to some of my own paintings and models….This is going to be really great. I am into the whole idea/concept….your lyrics are a welcome change….and the title… “Primordial rigor mortis” is perfect…..and pretty much sums up the state of world today…HA.”

It actually did not come as a complete surprise to hear that he found the creatures exciting. Countless famous painters have taken artistic inspiration from nature. I am obviously not only talking about the renowned naturalistic portrayals of Claude Monet, Van Gogh and their peers, but also more abstract and fantasy-oriented artists have used nature as inspiration; Swiss artist HR Giger and his evidently bug-inspired alien monsters come easily to mind.

Well, Joe made a remarkable job and managed to get the fossils quite accurate anatomically, while simultaneously making the entire painting way exceeding my expectations. I remember being on the phone with my main music partner in this project (Tomas Andersson), while receiving the email with the first, black and white draft painting from Joe. I literally could not speak for minutes (Tomas wondered what was going on) – I was that out of breath. Joe’s conceptual idea is well-worth citing:

Here you will find a Petagno version of the Furongian [the uppermost global series of the Cambrian System] chaos in the bowels of Mother Earth…the whole world and the spagyric fire that divides disordered matter. I intend to have the top light area a flaming red nebula with gas and stars that feeds down via lightning thru the demon head to the earth. The rest of the colours will be earthy and dark…. with a touch of Artiodactyla bone in the cranium for effect.”

Figure 3
Fig. 3. The album cover painting (reduced in contrast) by Petagno with scanning electron microscopy (SEM) images of the ‘Orsten’ fossils for identification. All specimens are in the microscopic size range. (SEM photographs by Dieter Waloszek (Ulm/Lund) and used with kind permission.)

And man, did he pull this off. Just look at the final painting in all its glory (Fig. 2). As an added bonus for the fossil aficionado, I have included a complementary figure showing an identification ‘key’ to the ‘Orsten’ arthropod hall of famers, such as skaracarids, phosphatocopines, Bredocaris, and Rehbachiella (see also Maas et al., 2006; Eriksson and Waloszek, 2016), included in the painting (Fig. 3).

Apparently, Joe got severely engaged in this project, as he by far broke his own deadline given to me and noted that he had been up all nights working on the ‘Primordial Rigor Mortis’ piece. As is probably evident by now, this was a truly amazing and heart-warming experience for me. Not only the exceptional end result, but the entire working process was rewarding; the delight of getting a sneak peek into the mind of an inspirational and amazingly talented artist, and how combining the worlds of ‘metal’ music and palaeontology can result in such wonderful things.

If you wish to check out the record, please visit: https://primordialrigormortis.bandcamp.com/. The project was exciting for me, not only because Joe made the amazing cover artwork, but also because the people involved more or less form an all-star team of famous and extraordinary metal musicians, including for example, Karl Sanders (Nile), Mattias “Ia” Eklundh (Freak Kitchen), Snowy Shaw (Snowy Shaw Band, ex-Mercyful Fate, ex-King Diamond and too many other bands to list), Johan Larsson (Seance), Charles “Chulle” Rytkönen (Morgana Lefay, Cibola Junction), Tomas Andersson (Freevil, Seance, Denata), Fredrik Andersson (Phanatos), and…ehm…well…myself.

About the author

Mats E Eriksson is a professor of palaeontology at the Department of Geology at Lund University in Sweden. He primarily works on Palaeozoic microfossils and tries to reconstruct and understand ancient organisms and ecosystems. Besides research and teaching, Mats has a deep interest in scientific outreach and adores it when different disciplines – such as science, arts and music – amalgamate.


Bandcamp: https://kalloprionkilmisteri.bandcamp.com/releases

Bandcamp: https://primordialrigormortis.bandcamp.com/

Eriksson, M.E. 2014a. Master of Puppets: sculpting ancient worlds. Geology Today 30, 98–104.

Eriksson, M.E. 2014b. Rocking rock research: ‘Science Slam Sonic Explorers’. Geology Today 30, 207–208.

Eriksson, M.E. 2016. Prehistory as sonic inspiration: palaeontological heritage in popular music. Geology Today 32, 222–227.

Eriksson, M.E. 2017. Worm monstrosity – a giant extinct worm. Deposits Magazine 50, 40-41.

Eriksson, M.E. & Waloszek, D. 2016. Half a billion year old microscopic treasures – the Cambrian ‘Orsten’ fossils of Sweden. Geology Today 32, 115–120.

Eriksson, M.E., Parry, L. & Rudkin, D.M. 2017. Earth’s oldest ‘Bobbit worm’ – gigantism in a Devonian eunicidan polychaete. Scientific Reports 7, 43061; doi:10.1038/srep43061.

Harari, Y.N. 2016. Homo Deus: A brief history of tomorrow.

Maas, A., Braun, A., Dong, X.-P., Donoghue, P.C.J., Müller, K.J., Olempska, E., Repetski, J.E., Siveter, D.J., Stein, M. & Waloszek, D. 2006. The ‘Orsten’—more than a Cambrian Konservat-Lagerstätte yielding exceptional preservation. Palaeoworld 15, 266–282.

Nudds, J. & Selden, P. 2008. Fossil-Lagerstätten. Geology Today 24, 153–158.

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