“Cry “Havoc!” and let slip the LISTS OF WAR!”
Julius Caesar Act 3, scene 1
Welcome to list season, friends, that time of year when every music related site and ‘zine hopes to force their excellent taste down your throat to the point where you begin to question whether you’re roiling in purgatory or living inside a swirling Buzzfeed nightmare. Take a deep breath, we’re here to help. Well, not really, but we would like to remind you just how FUN it actually is to compare favorites, complain about what’s missing and what’s tops, and maybe even discover some new things that flew under the radar.
We’re kicking things off with something new this year: staff members’ selections for their favorite album artwork of 2015. Honestly, this sort of thing has been long overdue at Last Rites, because how a band chooses to beautify their efforts with artwork plays a huge role in the overall enjoyment of a record, and the artists behind that work clearly deserve to be recognized and applauded.
So, without further delay… List ho!
Grave – Out of Respect for the Dead
Artist: Costin Chioreanu – http://twilight13media.com/
Romanian artist Costin Chioreanu seems to be just about everywhere these days, but it will take some effort for you to notice. The reason is that his unorthodox style is not one easily pigeonholed; not to my untutored eye, at least. Active in producing album artwork since the late 1990s, possibly sooner, Chioreanu’s artwork graces the albums of a myriad of bands, from Arch Enemy to Darkthrone to Sigh. He has been the go-to artist of choice for Grave since 2008, and Out Of Respect For The Dead is a fine example of his work.
I’m not an art critic, and my own formal education in art consists of an undergraduate elective called “Appreciating Visual Art” (which many a science major took to fulfill a requirement where one sat in a lecture hall and said, “I appreciate that.”), so I’ll just let the cover speak for itself.
I appreciate that.
Chaos Echoes – Transient
Artist: Stefan Thanneur – http://manifeste.net/
Stefan Thanneur is not only the artist behind the entrancing cover that adorns Chaos Echoes’ Transient, he is also responsible for the band’s bass, vocals and various effects duties. And really, who better to understand how to visually represent such a swirling, trippy, drifting and often nightmarish soundscape than one of the band members themselves.
What I love about Mr. Thenneur’s work here, beyond the fact that the mummified head nearly looks like an old geological survey map, is how much attention and effort went into the ENTIRE package for the record. Like a handful of other bands, Thanneur and Chaos Echoes understand that the way to ensure that people will still want to buy a physical copy of your record is to make sure that the end product brings more to the table than just a list of unknown thank-yous and lyrics. In the case of Transient, particularly the beautiful LP version, you get loads of visual trippery that’s every bit as otherworldly and enticing as the music it so fittingly represents.
Horisont – Odyssey
Artist: Henrik Jacobsen – [No current website for artwork found]
Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been a sucker for the classics of science fiction. It’s fascinating to me, yesterday’s imagining of tomorrow – by now, we should have colonies on Mars, flying cars, alien invaders, laser guns, something, right?
Done by current Koldborn (ex-HateSphere) guitarist Henrik Jacobsen, Odyssey’s art, like Odyssey itself, is a hodge-podge of its influences, and yet explicitly derivative of none in particular. There’s the 2001 starchild-ish fetus-in-the-moon, and the foreboding line of humanoid aliens in the background wearing similar suits to Klaatu in The Day The Earth Stood Still… There’s the fishbowl-helmet space suit and the laser blaster that attaches to the belt with a telephone cord… From the Golden Age of Science Fiction (and, of course, beyond), these were the images of the future, of progress, of mankind’s destiny among the stars… Painted softly in the colors of space and shot through with stars – my God, it’s full of them – it’s a cover that looks classy and classic.
But it’s more than just a pretty face – even beyond its dimestore Ace Books novel / movie poster perfection, Odyssey’s art also brilliantly represents the album’s sound and style. Odyssey is an album rooted in yesterday and yet facing forward, although perhaps not the same forward as where we actually ended up. Musically, with this record, Horisont took their retro-rock and added to it a hearty dash of retro-prog and a sci-fi storyline, making it oddly both backwards-facing and forward-thinking at once.
Valborg – Romantik
Artist: Peter Böhme – http://www.peterboehme.com/
Artwork by Peter Böhme showing up as the cover of a Zeitgeister album is nothing new. In addition to doing the the beautifully painted works that Valborg have used in the past, he has produced such things as the monstrosity pictured on this year’s Owl EP, Aeon Cult. The work that fronts Valborg’s latest, Romantik, is a fitting reflection of the musical direction the band took on the album: dark, minimal, and oddly soothing, despite the obvious menace. It’s also an almost perfect composition, from the choice of color on the band’s great logo to the level of detail and filter used on the jellyfish subjects.
Beyond just the cover’s success as a standalone piece of art and its appropriateness for the album are a couple less obvious connections. First, the intentional-or-not moon craters in that front-and-center jellyfish evoke the vastness of space to go along with the obviously deep ocean scene. And if you’ve ever played Metroid Prime (as I have, a lot), the whole thing feels like some scene from the Phazon mines. An immediate personal connection, to be sure.
Beyond all of this, a corny heavy metal wink-wink-nudge-nudge must be given for having jellyfish on the cover. I mean, a different species from that pictured is called the man o’ war. How do they not end up on more covers?
Magister Templi – Into Duat
Artist: Stefan Bleyl – http://www.scheinlichter.de/
First things first: yes, this sure as hell looks like a gigantic sea-phallus. Deal with it. But the real reason Stefan Bleyl’s cover art for Magister Templi’s tremendous second album is worthy of highlighting is its detail and classicism. The medium is as old-fashioned as they come – paint on canvas – and the more you examine the evocative colors of this scene, the more alien it becomes. Is this doorway opening behind the world, or is the world spilling out of the doorway? The lines are sharp enough for clear definition of layers, but the motifs blend such that it’s not immediately clear if the shapes are formed by water, clouds, mountains, fire, or some liminal other entirely. Like a long-lost Gustav Dore interpretation of a Lovecraftian Ragnarok, why the hell WOULDN’T you spend a whole hour drinking this in, you rube?
Contrarian – Polemic
Artist: Marco Hasmann – https://www.facebook.com/marco.hasmann
The great thing about art is that it’s open to interpretation. The artist likely has something that he/she would like to convey through his/her art, but once a piece gets to the public, it’s open season on the meaning. When it comes to Marco Hasmann’s glorious cover art for Contrarian’s Polemic, however, I think the artists intent is obvious: The cover depicts two rival bands of space-fisherman, each attempting to land the mother of all space-swordfish to serve up as an hors d’oeuvre for Galactus in the hope that he will spare their respective home-worlds in favor of devouring that of their rivals. Either that or the Drule have cooked up some kind of giant fishy robeast and some of these ships are just about to combine and go all Voltron on its spiny tail. Either way, this is the most epic art of the year, there can be no question.
Kauan – Sorni Nai
Artist: Sofiia Melnyk – https://www.behance.net/sofiiamelnyk
Album cover art is a big deal. It represents the artist’s identity, and more often than not, it tries to capture an idea of an album. Before the internet era, us old folks would go to CD shops and pick out an album to buy based on the cover art alone. Many, many words could be written here on the various visual identities metal bands choose as a signal to the fan pointing them in the way of a specific genre, the story behind the album, and/or the message they’re trying to convey. But for now, let’s focus on one cover that I chose to shine a light on here: Kauan’s Sorni Nai. This year’s release by Kauan deals with the story of the Dyatlov Pass incident that involves a yet to be solved mystery of 9 hikers who died in 1959 in the Ural Mountains. The album itself is an intense musical journey into that day, but coupled with the cover art, you get the missing pieces of the story the band wanted to tell. Drawn in contours, rather than sharp lines, the cover shows you the blizzard, the blinding snow, and the nine souls hiking towards their tragic destiny. There are no details here, no skulls, bones or epic mythical creatures, just the naked simplicity of nature and men and women who got caught in the middle of it. It’s a larger than life sort of image, just as the story of the hikers’ mysterious death is, and the puzzling legacy such mysteries leave us with.
VHOL – Deeper Than Sky
Artist: Brandon Duncan – http://www.expiringsun.com/
Brandon Duncan’s throwback futuristic visual art for the amazing new Vhöl album, Deeper Than Sky, has all the savvy of a modern scifi geekout painted in the raw vibrancy of an 80’s teen geek’s restyled Trapper Keeper insert. But, like so much of Duncan’s art, this is more than just a pretty picture – it’s also a fantastic little “Choose Your Own Adventure” story! Itself a portal to the album’s enigmatic universe, the cover features what could be a cyber-biological interstellar ring gate. From our perspective, we peer through this cosmic keyhole, but which side of the event horizon are we on? Or is it a giganti-galactic amoeba? Whatever it is, it’s tethered to a… a ship? a probe? a… pseudopod? And what’s that doing? Eating a planet? Regurgitating one from the other side? …an outpost portending some alien manifest destiny? And what’s with the glassy shards? Has the presumably uninvited guest (we or they) compromised the very fabric of the universe? …found the dark matter edge of the Space we know and shattered it? All of this just from the first page(!); the mysterious journey continues through five more wonderful panels of the album’s packaging. Thank you, Mr. Duncan, for blasting a fiercely chromatic signal through the gray of the Too-Much-Information Age.
Leviathan – Scar Sighted
Artist: Jef Whitehead – https://trvlvthn.bandcamp.com/
The thing that strikes you first about Scar Sighted isn’t the flaming head or the extra limbs or the snakes in place of fingers. It’s not the intricacy of the lines or the sickly fogginess of the colors. No, you notice all those things when you stop and reflect on the art that Wrest created. The first thing that strikes you is the eyes. The multiplicity of eyes, peering glassily through flesh, unblinking in the palms of two left hands, horrifically tumorous. It’s an unsettling, flesh-crawling feeling, thinking about those eyes. It’s easy to imagine them watching you as you listen to the album.
As though the cover art weren’t enough, though, Wrest also painted ten other scenes of art to accompany the album. Waves made of hands wrapping a spectre as a cloak; deep sea tentacles with mouths to devour; a butterfly-winged monstrosity with a necklace of skulls. The entire package feels like an answer to the question “What is a Leviathan?” It is this; obscure, impenetrable, and utterly enthralling.
Sulphur Aeon – Gateway to the Antisphere
Artist: Ola Larsson – http://olalarssonillustrator.blogspot.se/
When you open yourself to a piece of music and allow it to flow freely, not only can it inspire feelings and desires, but it can open up worlds in which they are possible. Possible only because of that push to reach for them, limited only by your imagination. Ola Larsson journeyed into the depths of Sulphur Aeon’s album Gateway to the Antisphere and it led him down a path with equal terror and wonder of the cosmos. A beauty that cannot be appreciated without the contrast of the cold dark places our hearts can dwell. The artwork is perfectly tailored to the subject matter and concept of the album with such titles as “Calls From Below” and “Devotion To the Cosmic Chaos.”
As with all art, it’s up to interpretation. Although I do hope that you might view it the same way, a transformation for those with the courage to break through the dark tumultuous waters that life can bear down on them. A place where deep down you are as ugly as the foul beings that lurk there, their power over you equivalent to the weight of an ocean. When you push and stretch yourself to reach for the stars, bask in their light and the soft gentle glow of the milky way, it might be possible to become part of them. Or at least a better version of yourself.
Khemmis – Absolution
Artist: Sam Turner – https://www.instagram.com/unicorpsegrinder/
Lots to drink in here. Sure, one could go the stereotypical oversexualized young male route and focus attention on the Heavy Metal-esque warrior princess in the foreground. But forget the boobs, n00bs; the key is her eyes. They’re white like the wizard’s, and he has an eyebrow cocked, so the situation must be an unexpected turn of events. Who are you, the viewer, in this context? Have you come to destroy the monolith, the source of the sorcerer’s power, only to discover a member of your campaign—or worse, your family—now under this man’s command? Is he also a necromancer, which explains the animated skeletons coming from behind? Or… perhaps YOU are the necromancer, arriving to fight with your undead minions, now moments away from battle with an Amazonian death machine under the power of a mentalist mage, the two of whom may or may not additionally have a Million Gold Piece Baby thing going on. It’s by far Sam Turner’s best piece yet—I only wish the music jelled as well as the artwork.