A Gift to Artwork breaks down and analyses your favourite album artwork to see what it communicates to the listener and how it interacts with the music and lyrics. Read other entries in this series here.
A couple of months ago we did a lengthy *prognotes series on Mastodon’s Crack the Skye, and to top that off we also examined its phenomenal artwork too. However, Mastodon’s album art is simply too good to leave it at just covering one album, and so today we’re going to be shining a light onto the covers of their first three LPs. We may as well go in chronological order, so let’s get started with Remission.
Mastodon’s debut album was arguably their heaviest. They hadn’t become a progressive rock band yet, instead they were still a raw, dirty, heavy and in-your-face sludge band. Their sound had a distinctly dark and grim quality to it, almost akin to black metal in its aesthetic at times, and this really shines through in the cover art. Out of all of their albums, this is the only one which does not feature a vivid, vibrant and bright colour scheme. Instead we have a dark palette of colour, set against a flat, midnight black background. There is only one image here which draws our attention, that of the dead horse which dominates its centre. At first glance it appears that there is a massive purple fire erupting from its side, the colours and context suggesting the fire is analogous to blood spewing forth from the dying creature. Given the extreme fear written upon the horse’s face, this could be interpreted as its final, dying moments. However, look at the colour of the horse. It is not white or grey, a colour of horse which is relatively commonplace. It is a bluey grey, a shade of colour which you will never find in a horse. Therefore it’s quite possible that what we’re witnessing is not the dying moments of a living horse, but the resurrection of a grey/white horse which has begun to turn the blue of death. The flames of blood may not be leaving the body, but entering it, infusing it with a new life.
Let’s also take a quick look at the symbology of what’s being depicted here. Horses and fire are both symbolic of energy, strength and power, characteristics which are certainly found within the album’s music as well. More significantly, horses can also represent the dichotomy between tamed and wild instincts, whilst fire can have both positive connotations (warmth, cooking, building) and negative (danger, pain, burning). Thus we can see a parallel behind such symbolism and the contrast between two of Mastodon’s identities: the progressive and melodic side, versus their crushingly heavy side. The last little bit of symbolism we’ll cover with this album is that, as you can see, fire plays an important part. This is because the first four albums of their discography is associated with an element, and Remission’s element is fire, which is also why we see the symbol of a flame or torch either side of the band’s name.
The next album, which many claim to be their finest, is none other than 2004’s Leviathan. It represents the first concept album of their career, one which is loosely based on the story of Moby Dick. For those unfamiliar with the tale, here’s a brief summary (spoiler alert): whale-hunting sea captain (Ahab) loses a leg to an albino whale (Moby Dick), swears revenge against him and then scours the seas to find him. Once he does he manages to wound Moby, but his ship goes down in the process and the entire crew (bar one) dies, whilst Moby’s fate is unknown. So now it’s pretty easy to see what’s going on in the artwork and how closely related it is to the lyricism, as it captures the moment that Moby shatters Ahab’s ship to pieces. The colour scheme is much more vibrant, with turquoise chosen for the water, rather than the dark, stormy blue one might expect for such a brutal scene. Turquoise is a colour associated with calm, completely contradicting what is happening in this moment, as Mastodon ensure they continue to display stark contrasts within their album art, contrasts which can just as easily apply to their musical identity. There are a mountain of other parallels and allegories which could be examined here; however, that would fill an entire *prognotes article and so we will have to leave that for another time. Until then, just as Remission had it’s flaming torch to represent fire, Leviathan has its crashing wave above the band name to represent the element of water. And with that we can move to today’s last album, Blood Mountain.
The element associated with Blood Mountain is earth, which we see in the pair of hands cupping a seed above the band’s name. Looking first at the background of the artwork, there is a circular pattern which seems to be revolving around the sun, clear links with the planet Earth and its orbit. The main figure on the artwork of their third album is the humanoid hybrid creature, sporting the heads of three creatures: an elk (which has three eyes) and two large dog/cat-like creatures, such as a puma and a coyote or similar. These animals thus represent the earth’s fauna, whilst the flora can be found inside and upon its body; with the depiction of trees, leaves and flowers. This intertwining of predators, prey and vegetation emphasise the harmony and balance associated with nature, that everything comes together to form one complete whole. This ties in nicely with the fact that a third eye plays a significant role in many eastern religions, symbolising clairvoyance, the ability to have visions, and enlightenment to name but a few. This sense of spirituality feels right at home amongst the rest of the cover artwork, particularly as antlers are also seen as symbols of spiritual authority. Like its predecessor, Blood Mountain is also a concept album and so there are doubtless many more clues to be found, themes which tie in with the concept, lyrics or music of the album without being covered in this post. That’s where you come in. After all, these sorts of analyses are always a lot more fun when they’re part of a discussion, rather than when they’re being lectured to an audience, so if you think something has been missed or you just have a theory about a possible link – please – sound off in the comments below, we’d love to hear it. We hope you’ve enjoyed this month’s edition of A Gift to Artwork, see you next time.
Credit: Paul Romano, artist responsible for each of the covers seen in this post