Although we spend the majority of our time begging that listeners consider above all else the music contained within an album, we can sometimes be found discussing the artwork that adorns an album cover or record layout. That said, we are careful not to let our final opinion of an album be determined by artwork. It is no secret that plenty of terrible albums have tremendous artwork and vice versa. It’s crucial that we, as critical listeners, don’t let that artwork sway our ultimate opinion of the music. Get the point yet? Good.
It takes a team effort to release an album that is successful in all regards. It begins with a vision. Someone in the band or collective receives inspiration either from within their soul or from the greater world around them. That vision is but a seed that must be watered and fed with creativity, passion and dedication. It takes months, perhaps years for that vision to grow into an assemblage of cohesive compositions that are worthy of being pressed into an album. The band then must align themselves with a team that can execute their vision. Engineers must be hired, rooms rented, recording time paid for and vacation time from daily life obtained. An expert must be relied upon to mix the album once recording has finished. Further yet, someone (usually one of a select few sets of ears) must master the album, turning it into a device from which all formats can be seamlessly pressed and produced.
That process, although it takes many, many months, results in something tiny; these days it is often merely a data file on a hard drive, perhaps something as small and insignificant as a thumb drive. It is now up to a visual artist, often with the assistance of an adept designer, to breathe visual life into the album. Be it LP, cassette, compact disc or some other even cooler format that I don’t know about yet, design and layout matter.
At this point a number of things can go wrong. Perhaps a Paolo Girardi painting is molested by a poorly placed band logo or title. Perhaps an album becomes unbalanced when typography is set upon the artwork used for the cover. Perhaps a cassette design is carelessly uploaded into iTunes to become digital art or, even worse, a cassette layout is printed as an LP sleeve. There are many ways that the artwork and design can clash, and ultimately fail.
The albums below represent artwork, design, and layout that did not fail. Whether the process was handled by an individual or many, the coalescence of the three formed an unbreakable chain of events that led to success. These are the few projects that saw the original vision grown from seed to bountiful harvest.
So, the youngest child asks, why is this day different from all others? Because today we celebrate the album artwork that draws our eyes from album to album. Artwork that makes our eyes dance as our feet often do. Artwork that simply deserves attention. So relax, put your feet up and enjoy some of the most stunning covers to garner out attention in this year of our Dark Lord, two thousand and eighteen. While the year undoubtedly belongs to Eliran Kantor, we have taken great effort to include other worthy artists. [MANNY-O-WAR]
Cedric Wentworth’s artwork for Khorada’s Salt is a striking complement to the album not only because of how atypical it is for a genre whose visual aesthetic often suffers from over-reliance on a set of effective but too well-worn tropes, but also because of how fittingly it evokes the music itself. Wentworth’s painting is smeared with thick, blotchy lines in colors that pop despite a relatively muted palette, and despite how clearly it represents a human face, the more you allow your eye to follow the details, the more the overall impact dissolves into abstraction. Simultaneously beautiful and grotesque, the purplish brown of the shoulders is arced in an unnatural curvature, and the teeth leer garishly off the side of the head. It’s an image that is both immediately familiar but also slightly uncanny, with one’s expectations quickly turned back interrogatively. The more I stare at it, the more it evokes one of the most crucial lines of the album: “Something will grow in our place. / Once the salt is washed away, / The rain will reclaim.” As a portrait of human frailty, possibility, decay, and foolishness, Wentworth’s gorgeous cover is a blessing and an affirmation of Khorada’s achingly furious songs. [DAN OBSTKRIEG]
Portal’s entire career has seen them building an unknowable nightmare year by year, album by album, so it’s fitting that Zbigniew Bielak’s incredible art for ION appears to show some monstrous construction project. At the top, at the source is something alien and unnatural, a being emitting the crystalline electricity that serves as the image’s focus. As this power travels down, it is supported by… nodes of some sort, which appear to be giving it more physical form. However, in the image’s bottom half (and this is where you’ll need to click on “full size image” above) the truth is revealed. This power isn’t being supported by these structures that appear to be buildings in a sort of infinite city; the power and the creature up top are creating the urban monstrosity. The massive bolt of whateverness is placing new walls upon the buildings as the structures and the city grow ever upward, the unnaturalness of it all growing in perpetuity.
Look closer, and the idea that both an unholy city and Portal’s career are in perpetual growth becomes even more apparent. The monster at the power’s source, when combined with its initial threads of lightning, certainly look a bit like the spider things on Vexovoid‘s cover. Much less open for interpretation are the “gears” protruding from the buildings that clearly show the design on the Swarth artwork. This goes in line with how ION at times pulls from all of Portal’s past albums while looking forward. Both music and art communicate past, present, and future. Both music and art communicate Portal’s complete disinterest in showing mercy.
Their city is an abomination. Their abomination is a city. [ZACH DUVALL]
Artist Eliran Kantor may look fairly young, but he’s been helping metal bands find a visual expression for their music for fifteen years and counting. He’s come quite a long way since the earliest days spent slashing through mostly underground bands with personal connections, but somewhere around 2007 and the cover artwork for Mekong Delta’s Lurking Fear, things really started getting serious. Then came Testament’s The Formation of Damnation, Sigh’s Scenes from Hell, and the incredible cover for Sodom’s In War and Pieces. By this point, people started recognizing his extraordinary and often shocking style and pinned Kantor’s name on the board as a true successor to sovereigns such as Seagrave, Necrolord and Duncan Storr.
Nowadays, Kantor is a very busy man—to be honest, Last Rites could’ve selected a total of seven covers he’s done in 2018 that are worthy of high praise. Demon Rider wins one of the top prizes, though, and for a number of reasons. First: well, who the hell are we kidding—the man is obviously exceptionally talented when it comes to color stratagem, vision, and outright execution. The cool, contrasting blues and grays toward the top of the piece still give a sense of combativeness because of the way the background lines and angles suggest a descending assault, and they meet Hell’s agent in a violent strike of white and fiery red before everything plunges into the origins of an inky abyss. The demon itself is gnarled and furious, horns curling with no discernible beginning or end, and its rider is clearly determined in his pursuit—eyes fixed forward and his face glowing with rage. The entire presentation does exactly what album artwork is supposed to do: make a huge first impression.
What truly sets Demon Rider apart from most any other album cover you’ll see in 2018, however, is the way Kantor deals with one of the single most aggravating elements faced when the full vision finally meets its conclusion: what to do with the band logo and the album title. We’ve all seen an infinite number of album covers spoiled in this manner, so Kantor’s choice to paint ARTIZAN and Demon Rider right into the artwork himself puts the responsibility on the correct person—the artist. A whole lotta folks would walk away a lot happier if this would become standard practice. [CAPTAIN]
Scorched didn’t merely put out one of my favorite album covers this year, they also used that artwork to make my favorite t-shirt of 2018. They were also one of my favorite live bands to see in 2018 (which I did multiple times). And, on top of all that, I absolutely love their album even though it was barely edged out of my year end list. This art has everything. First off, the band logo and the album title are not placed in a moronic area that covers up the art. The design team was careful to maintain the integrity of the art. Second, it’s got a totally vintage-yet-timeless feel, similarly to the way that campy horror movies will be dated no matter when you watch them. Third, you’ve got death, aliens, torture, vivisection, UFOs, and one absolute hell of a color palette. The green works so nicely with that muted red color in a way that doesn’t look cheesy and doesn’t call to mind Christmas. The artwork for Scorched’s Ecliptic Butchery is one I proudly wear on my torso and it’s one I would proudly hang in my home or office. I hope to eventually be buried in the woods, wrapped in a shroud that is covered in this artwork. That’s how much I like it. Now, stop being a dumbass and go listen to Scorched. [MANNY-O-WAR]
Hungary’s Sear Bliss has spent the better part of the last 25 years serving up fantastical atmospheric black metal that’s always been attached to equally chimerical cover artwork. Well, up to 2012’s Eternal Recurrence, that is, which yielded a notable departure from the sort of otherworldly “Summoning meets Fiend Folio” style in favor of something quite a bit more…grey and realistic. As fun as it is to mix things up and throw an occasional curveball, though, it’s good to see the band opting to return to the more rustic, fanciful realm for album number eight, Letters from the Edge, even if its culmination looks a bit more abstract compared to earlier works.
To be honest—and outright rude, unfortunately—I was amazed to learn that this particular cover was painted by Sear Bliss guitarist Attila Kovács. He was part of the band in past years, but this is the first Sear Bliss record he’s actually credited on, and his guitar style fits the group’s character perfectly. To discover that his artistic talents extend to other mediums shouldn’t be at all surprising, but it’s not terribly common to experience such a close connection between the auditory and visual elements of a record. Not rare, in fairness, but not exactly routine. It makes sense, though—no one is going to understand an album’s complete image better than someone who has their hands in the process from the ground up, and Attila’s fairly abstract interpretation of the “environmental” side of Sear Bliss is directly on target. The record itself is dark and deep and craggy, but bursts of melody by virtue of guitar and trombone introduce wide stretches of intense color and detail—all of which is painted by Kovács capable hand.
A small snapshot of the full artwork is pictured (far too small) on the LP’s inner sleeve, and what we don’t see here is how the mountains extend to a sky that’s dappled with more reds and a large, bright moon. The whole piece is very nocturnal and slightly vague, but there are bursts of intense clarity, too, just like the music itself.
In the end, perhaps what’s most surprising is the fact that this appears to be the only album cover with Kovács’ name attached to it—something that could change moving forward, if we’re lucky. [CAPTAIN]
I’m not going to sit here and tell you that the album art for Thy Catafalque’s latest collection of beauty took as much time to put together as some of the intricate paintings you see in this article, but that doesn’t make it any less perfect for the music it represents. Handled by bandleader Tamás Kátai himself, it’s a minimalist bit of graphic design that simultaneously communicates both the massive scope of Kátai’s music and serves as a reminder that it is in fact just music. As one of the leading acts in the “cosmic” metal realm, Thy Catafalque conjures plenty of space imagery (“folk metal from another planet,” one LR staffer once said), and the cover art’s giant circle could certainly be interpreted as a massive planet or star, with the red dot to the right representing a moon or other satellite. The cover’s text being so small only adds to this sense of colossal scale for the object.
A much simpler interpretation is that it’s a record, with the lighter blue-grey being the center and the darker being the vinyl itself, but that also might be wrong. The odds that Kátai had something different in mind than either of these things are just as likely that he merely wanted to make a neato piece of graphic art for his music. The fact that bandleader Kátai included all of the contributors on the cover as if this was a jazz record speaks volumes about the unique nature of this project, so in the end maybe he just wanted to give the listener something visual to ponder on while pondering the sounds. It both looks and sounds great, so you might say it look-sounds great. [ZACH DUVALL]
I’ll admit that my gut reaction here was to be upset. I did not like the use of orange and blue. It truly upset me. But after letting the music sink in the cover began to make sense. The fantastical death metal contained within could easily have been made by the odd creatures inhabiting the cosmic desert on the cover. It also calls to mind Dr. Seuss. In particular, it calls to mind The Lorax. I speak of course of the original book and not the bastardized film. Further, while the artwork may seem more playful than most metal covers, closer inspection reveals that each playful looking vine creature is actually an LSD-laced killing machine. It’s an album cover you can easily get lost in, following the vines from eyes and razor-sharp mouths to their roots curling into the ground. And all that stands out from the beautifully and carefully graded orange backdrop. Hidden back there are spires, perhaps ice castles reaching towards the burning, orange sky and the tiny, spider-like moon that orbits it. The most important aspect, however, is that the cover makes sense with the music. They are intricately connected in their psychedelic zaniness. Ulthar rules and they are lucky to have Ian Miller’s vision to go along with their compositions. [MANNY-O-WAR]
ELIRAN KANTOR (again)
“For sale: Baby shoes, never worn.”
That six-word piece of flash fiction is often attributed to Hemingway, although his authorship of it remains unproven, and regardless of who composed it, it remains an intriguing collection of words simply because of how much it does with so little, how many emotions it evokes without any direct descriptions. The mind tends to assume the baby is dead, infers a tragedy when the words don’t explicitly state such, an ending that’s given more credence when the story is sometimes cited as the saddest tale ever told. (On brighter sides: Maybe the baby was born without feet. Maybe the shoes are simply the wrong size. Maybe the shoes are pink and the child is male. Maybe the shoes are tiny Crocs and the parents have better taste.)
Elliran Kantor’s art for this latest Bloodbath album brings those six words immediately to mind, not only because of another baby that is presumed dead. (On brighter sides: Maybe the baby just smells bad. Maybe the baby is fine and this family lives in the Amityville house. Maybe these people are disgusting hoarders and it’s not a baby at all, but rather a pile of garbage.) The artwork brings that ultra-short story to mind because of the emotions it evokes, because of the myriad possibilities it implies. What happened to this baby? What happened to the parents? Are they dead as well? If not, what will happen when they awaken? How long have they been sleeping for flies to gather like that? Why don’t they shut the window? We may never know.
Unfortunately, The Arrow Of Satan Is Drawn is far less compelling than the picture that fronts it, full of far fewer surprises and emotions, but Bloodbath’s minor stumble aside, Kantor’s painting is a fine and finely disturbing piece of work. [ANDREW EDMUNDS]
CARROTS AND THROW-UP?
(13) The artwork for Kolme toista, at first glance, appears to be some sort of geometric configuration, perhaps a totem or sigil. In that same glance, the eye may also note the three carrots, the nexus of which is placed in the center of the sigil, their eyes staring omnipotently at the viewer.
(13) Breaking the release down, more clues are to be found about the motives behind the bizarro death metal act’s album. “Kolme toista” is a play on words in Finnish. “Kolmetoista” is “thirteen,” while “Kolme toista” literally translates to “three seconds” or “three others.” This numerology is consistent with the three tracks of the album, each titled “Toista.” What’s more, each of these tracks come to exactly thirteen minutes on this, the third full-length from the three-piece band, released on the thirteenth day of April 2018. And what does this have to do with the art? The primary sigil on the front cover has three carrots. Unfolding the j-card on the cassette reveals twelve other similar sigils for a total of thirteen.
(13) The clues are there. Keep searching. Dig deep. Look closer. Think harder. Follow the carrots Oksennus have laid before you as the gears in your mind start to turn. Run down that mental treadmill as you create the very electric power you see reflected, emanating in bursts of threes from the three carrots before you, three from each and three from all. Three from each and three from one, and a one and a three are together thirteen. Continue to give your mind-energy to Oksennus as you find yourself lost amongst the mind-bending maze that is Kolme toista. Feel yourself get twisted in the dark, inviting labyrinth of the music as you search for more, expensing all your brain power to the might of the music and the totems and the mystery before you, the unflinching, all-knowing gaze of the three eyes staring down into your soul, coyfully toying with your curiosity, and ultimately your very sanity.
Keep. Following. The. Carrot.
“Oksennus” is Finnish for “vomit.” [RYAN TYSINGER]