Hello, friends. Welcome to the official kickoff of Last Rites List Season 2017. Sure, we had a bit of a soft opening last week with Captain’s mostly comprehensive look at the year in power metal, but from here on out, we’re pushing the self indulgent listicles to ludicrous speed. We’ll be diving into releases both short and full, shrugging off curious selections as a result of “the process,” and dropping so many individual staffer lists that are sure to make the back of the class fall asleep by the time ol’ Saint Nick starts invading homes.
But first, we direct your undivided (right?!) attention to call some much deserving attention to the non-musical side of the scene: album art. Us Last Ritesers are known art collectors, even organizing a massive tournament to find the best of the best, and it’s a (recent) tradition that we honor the year’s best visual works in the heavy metal realms.
While visual art is undoubtedly less influential in a fan’s purchases in today’s mostly digital times than it was when Fartbox Frankie was using his weekly allowance to add another LP to his collection, it is still an important factor. The latest Bell Witch album got an immediate boost in visibility due to its wicked cool cover, while other, arguably less deserving bands owe far more to their album artists.
The album cover is typically a listener’s first impression. The colors, detail, imagery, and overall emotion of the visual art sets the setting for the music. There’s a reason 5,000 black metal albums have copied the cover of A Blaze in the Northern Sky: it’s a perfect match for the style’s stark and icy tone. There’s also a reason why overly polished power metal is often displayed using very overly polished art that really abuses an Adobe license.
But these are tropes, and while the results of tropes sometimes yield great art, the special stuff defies convention. Below are some of our favorites of the year. They stood out for different reasons that may or may not directly relate to the music they represent, but each struck a deep chord.
Album: Malokarpatan – Nordkarpatenland
Malokarpatan’s sophomore LP, Nordkarpatenland, is a conceptual work based on the Slovakian poem “Na skle maľovane.” In it, an 18th century Slovakian highwayman, Juraj Janošik, is executed in a most gruesome manner: skewered through the torso with a hook in 1713 for a series of Robin Hood-like robberies that extended throughout Slovakia, Poland, and Moravia. That backstory, traditional Slovakian folklore, turns up in more than just Nordkarpatenland’s lyrical themes and play-like intermissions: The cover art, by Slovakian artist Dávid Glomba of Teitan Arts, features what appears to be a tarot card of sorts showing a highwayman as he swigs from a bottle and wanders around surrounded by a field of psychotropic drugs—a great snapshot of the life of Janošik. An ominous figure, perhaps death or the law that would eventually catch up with Juraj’s noble pursuits, levels a finger at our hero. Maidens fair and naked dot the roadside using scythes to harvest magic mushrooms as lizards slink to the foreground. Below, demons play cards and smoke pipes as they await the eventual deadly arrival of Janošik. It’s a cover one can get lost in with layers upon layers used to intricately weave the tale of Janošik into a visual one that can be digested in one glance. It’s been a fun year for metal musically, but even as the age turns more digital than we may like, we should never forget those people, the artists, that spend countless hours making albums not just sound good but look great. [MANNY-O-WAR]
Album: Pyrrhon – What Passes for Survival
Caroline Harrison, the artist responsible for all that is Visual Pyrrhon, has a knack for nailing the feel of the band’s albums with a single image. The feral dog that graces the cover of What Passes For Survival is one of the more blunt representations of an album steeped in a more overt aggression than efforts past. With one paw stuck in a hunter’s trap and wounds all over the animal’s body, the palpable look of terror in its eyes also gives one the sense that if it is going to die, it’s taking you with it should you choose to come near. And even more depressing in a gruesome way: the stark yellow just behind the raised hide of this malnourished beast indicates that we are just beyond hope. It’s too far into the woods to turn back and only the dark lies ahead. It’s the perfect encapsulation of What Passes For Survival‘s themes and tone convey sonically. [CHRIS REDAR]
Album: Execration – Return to the Void
Execration has never been a band I necessarily associated with space or Lovecraft or KOZMIK TERRORZ or that whole shebang. Even “Return to the Void,” the title track of an album that seems to be named with such imagery in mind, seems to be as much about the embrace of human death than it does something as unimaginably massive as the cosmos. So count me surprised when I saw all the horrors that Zbigniew Bielak depicted on the cover of Return to the Void. Whether this is the inside of a living, malevolent black hole, or the creatures merely have the power to manipulate gravity and evolution and biology and space-time itself, nothing here has your best interests in mind.
Bielak’s black and white palette is as important to this piece’s outlook as is Costin Chioreanu’s vivid colors on his work for Klabautamann’s Smaragd (had to sneak in another favorite). Bielak’s touch is also crucial, giving each part of this monstrosity the feeling of movement, of unending change or adaptation. The outlook is bleak at absolute best. Most likely, there is no escape from all of the alien forms and shapeless abominations and eyes… my god THE EYES… that are growing, expanding, and consuming all that is natural and wholesome that dares approach this unearthly place. Choose your event horizons carefully. [ZACH DUVALL]
SAVERIO “NARTUM” GIOVE
Album: Emyn Muil – Elenion Ancalima
The elephant in the room: yeah, Emyn Muil is pretty into Summoning. The band’s logo echoes the pentagram shape of Summoning’s logo, the cover uses the same circular framing Summoning has frequently used, and… what else? Oh yeah: Emyn Muil sounds more or less exactly like Summoning. All of this is gravy, as far as I’m concerned. Also gravy is the album art of Emyn Muil’s second album Elenion Ancalima, which is truly striking and luminous. Although obviously indebted to Summoning’s art direction, sole band member Saverio Giove’s art takes a heavily stylized, almost cartoonish direction. The rich saturation of the blues and greens suggests more texture than actually exists in the image, but the most impressive aspect is the underlit silver that glows as if etched in mithril. It’s a stirring image that, like Summoning, like Tolkien, trades realism for escapism but remains keenly serious. [DAN OBSTKRIEG]
Album: Argus – From Fields of Fire
One of the things I’ve always loved about heavy metal is the fact that a significant portion of it remains devoted to transporting listeners from the present day into ages long past or lightyears into the future. Thinking back on the golden years of Fates Warning that produced The Spectre Within and Awaken the Guardian, Ioannis Vassilopoulos and his fantastical artwork had nearly as much to do with getting those records into people’s hands as did the music itself, and that’s something that’s repeatedly lost in the shuffle in an age where people don’t even bother with music’s physical product anymore. Thankfully, there are still bands custom-made for those who appreciate the tangible fruit of musicians’ labor, one of them being Pennsylvania’s Argus, and they’ve always relied on Brad Moore’s freakish imagination to help ferry listeners to distant lands.
I have no clue what the hell sparked the concept behind the Lovecraftian vulva-beast that adorns each of the Argus full-lengths, but it’s found an ideal pinnacle with record number four, From Fields of Fire, which convincingly venerates the creature in twisting obelisk form surrounded by a vivid and harsh alien land. Moore’s choice of wildly dramatic reds and yellows is as bold and beefy as the music itself, and the general sense of menace and vulnerability conveyed is tactile and inherently tempting to anyone who still appreciates holding an actual record in hand. Boosting its appeal even further is the fact that Moore is an artist who actually paints, as opposed to the digital amateurs that “borrow” from previous works and somehow justify calling the end product their own.
All in all, Moore’s rendering for From Fields of Fire works extremely well because it does precisely what album artwork is supposed to do: Catch your eye, haul you in for further investigation, and inspire you to get the physical record into your hot little hands. Top-shelf work for 2017, for certain. [CAPTAIN]
Album: Friendship – Hatred
It’s like, “How much more black could it be?”
And the answer is “None. None more black.”
It’s as black as coal covered in tar, as black as night in the emptiness of space, as black as what passes for Mitch McConnell’s soul, as black as the farthest center of the black hole that will one day swallow us all into the void, as black as death and hate and misery and anger, and best of all, if you hold the packaging at just the right angle, right there in the middle of all that negative space, staring back, you’ll see a faint, ghostly, almost-disappearing image… and it’s you. [ANDREW EDMUNDS]