Monday, 27 June 2011

Take Some Thought For The Artwork

With our debut album 'Take No Thought For Tomorrow' well and truly released, I thought it'd be cool to say a word or two about the artwork which accompanies it, which as it goes we're all incredibly proud of.  Firstly, it might be useful to look at what album artwork is (woah) as an ever evolving medium, the importance of which, I think, has steadily diminished since the move away from vinyl LPs.  I'm not one to harp on about how vinyl 'just sounds better' – it doesn't - but aesthetically I sympathise with those who yearn for those poster sized panels to accompany their laps.  For me, it's always been something to gaze at and puzzle over, while diving into the music - all part of the ritual of getting hold of your favourite band's new CD.  In this sense it was partly the scale of the LP cover which contributed to the success of the vinyl's iconic place within pop culture.  For decades, more than any other recorded medium, vinyl sleeves were the lenses through which popular music was perceived.  Album artwork was the non-musical medium by which musicians mass communicated with their fans and in the global marketplace.  Billboards almost, they were made to stand out while being riffled through and picking over by fans eager to learn about Bowie or The Beatles' latest aesthetic, musical and conceptual identity.  Even before you heard the music, you were left with an impression about the album you'd just bought, hulked under your arm on the bus home, be it the busy collage of Sergeant Pepper or the blank, unassuming 'White Album',  The LP sleeve offered artists a platform for their mission statement.  

With the rise of MTV and the music video, this entirely changed.  Michael Jackson now had 20 minutes of cinema time to play with, as advertising and artwork began to merge ever more deceptively in the mainstream eye, subsuming the album artwork as the visual medium.  The CD of the 90s diminished the role of artwork even further: no longer could you stick album artwork on your wall, you needed a magnifying glass to figure out what you were looking at.  And finally, with the development of the mp3, artwork is left as an optional part of a download, rendering it an essentially unnecessary part of the modern listening experience.  As a young mosher though, in the glory days of the late 90s/early 00s, I remember artwork playing a pivotal role in my relationship to the music I consumed.  Call it vain, but I was definitely more turned on by bands who seemed to pay attention to their public image to an extent.  Before Kerrang TV, a lot of the bands I listened to weren't on MTV, so again artwork became an important part of conveying an aesthetic message within the confines of the 'alternative and metal' section in HMV.  Because of this there seemed to be a new attempt to fill this void.  Tool built 3D glasses into their packaging for example.  Radiohead offered large special edition CDs within hardback books which expanded visually on the lyrical themes.  More than this, these bands went further, and presented something which I think, could stand alone as 'art' as well as packaging.  Of course the USB drive is still the future, but an awareness and attention to detail was displayed by these bands which helped emphasise an artistic vision and totality which I (perhaps shallowly) responded to.  I found this exciting, immersive and indicative of a certain commitment to making great music.   Looking back, it's no surprise that I and so many others were obsessed with Slipknot but weren't too bothered about Stone Sour – one of them is awesome and one of them sucks, on many many levels.  

That ridiculous preamble leads me on to talk about our new album, and the artwork which goes with it, and why we wanted to identify with a certain type of album artwork, as opposed to another.  

We started with a few conceptual ideas based on lyrical interpretations and themes within the album, in line how we see the role of album artwork.  We wanted something bold and beautiful and most importantly something which might be considered 'art' in itself.  We decided to aim high and got in touch with Graham Bowers.  Graham Bowers is an artist, composer, sculptor, engineer, designer and many other things besides.  I've known him since a young age because of his collaborations with my Dad.  About the time Al and I started playing music together my family took a trip to visit Graham at his home/studio in Anglesey, North Wales.  It was a holiday which left a definite impression on me.  As well as telling me the scariest ghost story I've ever heard, Graham gave me my first recording experience, taping me jamming on an old fender on the spur of the moment.  It didn't seem to matter that I was far from an accomplished guitarist, it was a thrilling experience, at least for my 12 year self.  A few years later my Dad must have played him some of the tracks Al and I had been working on, and he got in touch to say how much he liked them.  A few years hence we decided to release an album of this material, which we developed under the name Blank Comrade, as it was so far removed from White Heaths' sound of 2010.  With Graham's extensive help we got this album together and out. Check it:

When we got in touch with Graham initially about the project he was understandably weary about what he might be letting himself in for, but quickly threw his hat in when we presented a few of our conceptual ideas.  Based on some of the lyrical themes we decided that a cool visual metaphor would be an interpretion of the Hellenistic statue 'Laecoon and His Sons', which is based on a story from the Aeneid.  

In the tale a suspicious Laecoon warns of the Trojan Horse which is indeed sent to ambush the Spartans.  A malicious God spies Laecoon's insightfulness and orders a sea serpent to ensnare Laecoon and his sons and drag them into the sea.  In the Hellenistic statue we were struck by the expression of Laecoon's face, he is utterly terrified, yet he is resigned to his death as he knows resistance is useless.  Dancing in his eyes is the spirit of the ultimate will to live, to 'take no thought for tomorrow' in the face of the unassailable end.   The sea, and unstoppable natural and emotional forces are also reoccurring lyrical metaphors on the album and so Laocoon became our mascot.  We asked Graham if he could come up with a modern take on this theme, possibly incorporating the existing image of Laocoon  He promptly responded with a set of images, many of which went into making the final cut.  All of us were instantly struck by the image which is now the front cover, which remains unchanged from Graham's original version which he presented to us. 

  There's something effecting in the contrasts at play in the image - old and new, free and heavy, fluid and solid – on a purely aesthetic level we thought it was a stunning piece.  The cover also seemed to achieved our aims in terms of being 'art' on its own terms, while expressing something about the music, and our vision.  One of the great things about working with Electric Honey is that they were happy to sign over creativity and design entirely to us, some of which conflict with commercial conventions.  One such way in which they came good, was to allow us to leave out the name of the band or the album title on the front cover of the packaging as we felt this would compromise and distract from Graham's brilliant work.  This became the central image which we worked around when designing the rest of the layout and when thinking about the name the album would go under.  The title 'Take No Thought For Tomorrow' comes from a line in The Bible, and as such, a dominant ideology of Western society in the last half of the previous millennia.  We don't intend necessarily to endorse this statement (something which has confused several people already) rather its meant as a window into zeitgeisty ideas about what drives peoples lives and actions, which forces are controllable and which aren't.  The statement combines Dionysian abandon, irresponsibility, servitude, freedom, alienation and oblivion, all concepts which are at play in the lyrical and musical themes of the album.  These dichotomies are bluntly explored in the central pages of the album booklet, where quotes from the bible are intertwined with Homeric ones, pitting two monoliths of Western ethical, 'spiritual' literature together, centred around the most modern piece Graham contributed to the artwork.

They touch on how we have defined ourselves in the past, as well as the future, faced as we are with impending natural disaster and potential extinction.  It's ambitious, but we think it works.  And it looks beautiful.  Thanks to Graham for putting up with our pretentious, precocious selves, and for all the fine work you contributed, we're immensely proud to have worked on this with you.  Graham's fantastic new musical project titled 'Unresolved Issues' is available to download NOW as is 'Take No Thought For Tomorrow' by White Heath and 'If There Is Hope...' by Blank Comrade. Also check out his website for some of his other artwork, music and videos.


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