Kicking things off with the theme to “Welcome Back Kotter” might seem strange, but there’s a warmth and familiarity in the tune that’s fitting as an opener to this most hallowed season. No, not the Christmas season, little Timmy from across the street, LIST season. So yeah, welcome back. Welcome back to list season. Maybe not “the same old place that you laughed about,” but quite possibly the same old time of year that you’ve already seen a handful of no-gooders complaining about. You know who they are – the list haters who use social media outlets in December to denounce this sacred tradition. Who are these fiends? WHO? And more importantly, WHY do they hate? It’s likely the same problem that plagues essentially everything in the 21st century: there’s just too much of it. Too many lists from too many places trying to convince you that they’re more right about too many great albums. And we all want to be just a little different from the next joint. Better, somehow righter and unique. Who knows, maybe the future will eventually feature a site that picks their champion based on which record a particularly cute kitty chooses to sniff and playfully roll around. So hails in advance, Sargeant Sniffles, the kitty with the most brutally wise whiskers this side of Mt. Blashyrkh.
Thankfully (and regretfully, in some cases), Last Rites remains steadfastly oldschool. Some of us even manage to take it to the next level by actually being old, so don’t expect a lot of new tricks up our sleeves. We’re still in the business of being impressed by riffs, and we still believe in the power of the LIST. Can we get a hallelujah, brothers and sisters.
Similar to last year, we’re starting things off with a salute to the artists who provide boundless reward to those of us who aren’t ashamed to admit that we love judging books by their cover. To quote our dear old friend Pabs Picasso, “The purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls. I mean, have you seen the cover for Altars of Madness?”
Here are a handful of our favorite album covers from this year, and why we think they’re so great. We’d love to know what some of your favorites are in the comments below. Or, you know, just follow protocol and hurl insults at us for the ones we picked.
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Graf Orlock – Crimetraveler
Artist: Not sure. Probably the band.
If there were a lifetime achievement award for conceptual album artwork, it would have to be named after Graf Orlock. In the past, this Los Angeles-based grindcore/hardcore collective has released a science-fiction themed album wrapped in an Alien facehugger, a split with Greyskull that came packaged in an actual backpack, and the Doombox, an LP / CD combo that folds out from a normal 12” sleeve into a cardboard boombox. Each of Graf Orlock’s previous albums has been based around films, but Crime Traveler takes that concept one step further – it’s based around an original film, the tale of a time-traveling Canadian who returns to the past to assassinate certain politicians, and it’s packaged in a 12-page newspaper with articles written to reflect the album’s storyline. Now, I must concede that I don’t actually own the physical product, so I can’t vouch for its overall quality, but in concept alone, it transcends average packaging in that patented Graf Orlock manner. (I do have the Doombox, and it’s pretty amazing, especially the snarky “user manual,” which is really the liner notes.) Now if only the band’s pretty-standard grindcore exhibited the same ridiculous creativity…
Nucleus – Sentient
Artist: Dan Seagrave – http://www.danseagrave.com/
If you’ve been a fan of death metal for at least ten minutes, you probably know this man’s art. He’s done over 100 album covers over the course of the last 25+ years, and we still get excited at the opportunity to scope the absurdity of his creativity whenever something new pops onto the radar. That’s rather uncommon in a realm where most are all too familiar with the perception of artist over-saturation. The man has always had a true gift of lavishly painting the music’s picture, for certain. And if you’re an enterprising young band with something to say, and you have a true eagerness to crack the absolutely ENDLESS ocean of competitors, you get Dan Seagrave to invest in your discovery. Case in point, Chicago’s world exploring, new life and new civilization seeking, boldly going where a number of bands have gone before death metal travelers Nucleus and their debut full-length, Sentient.
Seagrave’s interpretation of the painting: “[It] encapsulates the concept of life and death on a cosmic level. Otherworldly elemental beings give birth to twin-packaged Sarcophagi – each carrying a couple deceased to their astronautical destiny. Atomically driven into particles of the unknown.”
10-4, Dan. That’s precisely what I was thinking when I first saw it.
Anyway, it’s an amazing slab of art that prompted me to pick up the shirt/CD bundle from Unspeakable Axe Records (green shirt alert!!), and that hasn’t happened in quite some time. Oh, and the album just so happens to smoke as well.
In The Woods… – Pure
Artist: Max Winter – http://www.teratogen.at/
I briefly spoke about my love for this cover in my review of In The Woods… 2016 release Pure. For starters, that logo font (also designed by Max) is badass. It’s super organic and just creepy enough to let you know that the band doesn’t fuck around. And, the soup! It’s the cosmos. In a fucking bowl. And that sweet old man, age spots and all, is about to gobble that shit up. We all know that old people love soup, but what we didn’t know is that old people love to eat galaxies. So put galaxies in soup form and old people line the fuck up. I don’t know a lot about flowers, but what I assume is a Tulip is a nice touch. You gotta respect an old man that sits down to a meal with fresh flowers and a skull. I assume the skull belongs to his dead wife. She probably made him great soup. The attention to detail is also admirable. The floor appears to be straight out of Tron, while it’s backed by a very dense forest full of exceptionally thin trees. In a final touch, the artist chose to put spinning planets and science lines around the old man’s head. A brilliant touch. We will never know if the planets really do revolve around this God-like figure, or if that’s merely a cartoon-like expression of the inside of his mind. Regardless, In The Woods… provided an endlessly thought-provoking cover that forced questioning and introspection as well as a terrific accompaniment to their exceptional album Pure.
High Spirits – Motivator
Artist: Alexander von Wieding – http://www.zeichentier.com/
Chris Black of High Spirits has a special knack for getting in touch with both the greatest of rock and roll escapism and the purest of human experiences: love, need, loss, friendship, adventure. Motivator, like all High Spirits releases, hits all of those notes in a package loaded with riffs, solos, and simple, infectious melodies tailor made for the live singalong. More than anything, High Spirits captures a moment and holds onto it.
In translating these themes for the cover art of Motivator, German artist Alexander von Wieding absolutely nailed it; colors, scene, and logo are all absolutely perfect. Even the runway lighting plays a part beyond its its simple perspective compositional job, as it appears to be pulsating along to the music within. The plane is taking off in a colorful urban dusk, either at the end of some very real life experience or at the the beginning of some new adventure. Is it loss and longing or the promise of an unknown future? Likely all of these things and far more. As with High Spirits’ music, the cover art represents these very tactile, relatable realities and a sense of fantasy, as the city in the background is like none in the modern world. And somewhere within that believably futurist city are surely the neon-lit highways and speeding convertibles with which I will always relate this irresistible band.
Gorguts – Pleiades’ Dust
Artist: Zbigniew Bielak – https://www.behance.net/zbigniewbielak
2016 was a fantastic year for artwork, with many an inspiring design vying for top spot. The decision to write about Gorguts was primarily one part bias (I’m Canadian), and one part taste (I’m a sucker for pen and ink technical drawing). The artwork for the Pleiades’ Dust was done by Polish artist Zbigniew Bielak, who has composed equally compelling illustrations for the likes of Ghost, Watain, and Mayhem. The design is impressive for a few reasons. Firstly, the level of detail is insane. This piece of artwork could quickly fall apart due to the limitations of pen and ink, but the intent of the image jumps off the cover with ease. The illustration succeeds in conveying, in exquisite detail, the 13th-century sacking of the House of Wisdom by the Mongols. From the technical drawings and formulae inscribed on the shredded parchments near the base to the mounted Mongol archers along the margins, to the hands of the astronomical clock that forms the focal point, Bielak’s illustration embodies the record’s determined criticism of anti-intellectualism and is truly a sight to behold.
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Wode – Wode
Artist: Zdzislaw Beksinski – http://culture.pl/en/article/the-cursed-paintings-of-zdzislaw-beksinski
What is this building I am seeing? Is this yet another dark, cliché black metal art that some band threw together for their album? No, wait, it just seems sort of familiar, like I’ve seen it before, but there’s something haunting about it, there’s mastery in it.
These were the thoughts I was thinking when I first saw Wode’s cover for their self-titled debut, and upon investigation, my feeling of familiarity came from the cover being a painting by one of my favorite artists, Zdzislaw Beksinski. If you also find it familiar, but are not acquainted with the artist’s work, you may have seen his art on another black metal cover, that of Leviathan’s Verräter. Needless to say, Beksinski has been recognized by metal musicians as an artist suitable for expressing their music visually, as Beksinski is renowned for his dystopian, surreal paintings. In this particular work, we see the artist’s often-used impressionistic style in a dark, apocalyptic context. The grandiose house that stands as the centerpiece of the work calls upon the “Fall of the Usher House”; it’s a cathedral on the other side, decaying, waiting decrepitly for you to enter. Everything about it refers to a dream you’ve had, to that collective primordial image engraved in your brain with no known origin or source. It’s just there, familiarly standing on the other side of your consciousness. Does the painting accurately represent Wode’s music? Perhaps, but the choice of Beksinski shows the band’s fine artistic sensibility as well as ambition to craft complex, intelligent metal.
Urfaust – Empty Space Meditation
Artist: Thorny Thoughts Artwork/Cynthia Meier-Dusol – http://thornythoughts.com/
Three items that make up something like a mirror-universe syllogism:
1. Empty Space Meditation is the perfect name for the new Urfaust album.
2. The cover art for Empty Space Meditation seems to have very little to do with the title.
3. The cover art is nevertheless perfect for the album.
The striking artwork for Empty Space Meditation – from relative newcomer Thorny Thoughts Artwork (nee Cynthia Meier-Dusol), who also did the art for Urfaust’s 2015 EP Apparitions – gives an immediate impression of aquatic themes, particularly in how the circular framing and above-/below-water ratios call to mind Paul Romano’s cover for Mastodon’s Leviathan. But stare at it a little more deeply, particularly while listening to the beautifully hypnotic album it supports, and things aren’t quite so easy. The deep purple and teal of the waves pull the image’s weight downwards, but the vapors that swirl and rise – off the water, off the waves, off the gaunt Neptunian figure – draw the eye upward into the undefined cosmic vortex. The journey of Empty Space Meditation does the same, in its way, with the sparse ambient opening and synth-backed black metal of its first two songs painting a ribbon of distant stars, while the pounding, repetitive, gorgeously atmospheric doom rock of the album’s midsection pull the listener back down to earth, and below. The ambiguity of the cover, like the ambiguity of the music, suggests that all space – inner, under, outer, beyond – is empty, and a meditation that churns in one dimension has its own wisdom to teach about all other dimensions.
Our favorite EPs of 2016 gets published Wednesday. See you then.