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

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.

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