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.
Welcome to November’s edition of A Gift to Artwork, and today we’re going to mix things up and do something a little different. Last year WRVTH released their self-titled which was, by all reports, a phenomenal album. We certainly loved it a lot here at HBIH, as we gave it an awesome review, it featured very highly in our end of year list, and we had the band run us through the influences that made them the musicians that they are today. However, there was at least one member of staff who didn’t jump on board the hype train: me. Why is this, you may be asking? Because, despite all the kind words about it, I simply never got around to actually listening to it. The only things I know about this record is that it’s metal of some kind, there is saxophone involved, and that the artwork is pretty cool. Which brings us to the format of today’s post. I’m going to analyse the artwork for an album I haven’t heard, from a band I’ve never listened to and know nothing about, and I’m going to state some hypotheses regarding what I think the cover tells us about the music within. I will then go and to listen to the album a few times and read the lyrics. Finally, I’ll re-analyse the artwork and see where I went wrong, whether I got anything right, and what I may have just missed entirely. Let’s get started!
Before listening to the album
We’re going to start broad by trying to see what genre we’re working with, before drilling down into specifics such as what motifs and concepts may be involved. The first characteristic which immediately strikes us is the colour scheme. The cover is devoid of any colours, instead consisting of various shades of black, grey and white. The lack of colour evokes emotions such as hopelessness and despair, giving it a sense of bleakness that is often found within black metal. Looking more closely at what is depicted in the illustration, several motifs begin to emerge. In particular, there are multiple references to well known black metal themes such as nature and death, in the form of the full moon, the leaves near the bottom, the potentially dead female figure, the raven-like birds, the dying trees, and the haunted-looking house. Such imagery is certainly unsettling in nature, and unsettling people is in the mission statement of many black metal artists.
Yet, generally speaking, black metal covers are typically raw and somewhat crude, and so this particular artwork somehow comes across as too neat, too slick to be traditional black metal. Thus it does not seem to fit the traditional black metal aesthetic, though there is enough there to suggest it is blackened in some way, in which case it is likely to be some form of extreme metal. So if we’ve established a belief that it’s extreme metal, but we don’t think it is black metal, then the most obvious alternative would be death metal. Thus, in terms of genre classification, our best guess at this stage is that we’re looking at the cover of a blackened death metal album.
Having established a hypothesis for the genre we’re working with, let’s start digging deeper into the imagery and symbolism we alluded to earlier to try and figure out what this album is looking to communicate to its listeners. Let’s start off with the most unusual aspect of the cover, the face in its lower centre. The face has quite feminine features and appears to be wearing make-up, so it’s reasonable to conclude it belongs to a female. Her skin looks pale enough to suggest that she has died, whilst the leaves which wrap themselves around her and the roots which she appears to have for hair imply that she has been buried, and has become one with the earth around her. Her eyes are open, though they appear to be completely black, reinforcing what we’ve hitherto established. If we interpret the dark birds found in the upper-right as ravens, carrion birds and symbols of death, then it’s safe to conclude our interpretation of her having died is a viable one. In saying that, there is enough ambivalence there to allow plenty of room for alternative interpretations. For example, her natural complexion may be pale, the reason her eyes appear black may simply be that she isn’t looking directly at us and there appears to be a shadow cloaking them, and the leaves and roots may symbolise that she is the personification of the earth. She may be the earth mother, a living spirit looking up with heartbreak at the bleak landscape around her. Still, according to Occam’s Razor the simplest explanation is usually best, so our story is that she’s a dead human and we’re sticking with it.
If we accept that the female is dead, this then begs the question, who is she, and how does she fit in? Again, the simplest way to look at it is that she lived in the house which holds a very prominent position in the cover’s centre. It’s at this point that it’s worth reinforcing the fact that she is a female, and that in and of itself is highly symbolic. As we mentioned in last month’s analysis of In Flames’ cover art, throughout history women have come to represent symbols of love, life and fertility. Furthermore, the various roles they play in society (mother, wife/partner, caregiver, breadwinner etc.) have them rightly placed as the very foundation of one of the most basic building blocks of human society; that of the family. Where does the family live? Why, in the family home of course, and so the house may represent exactly this. Now that she has died, the house has begun to slowly fall into ruin. Our female is the antithesis of what her sex symbolises. Rather than being a symbol of life, she is dead. Rather than bringing new life into the world, she has left this earthly realm. Finally, without her love and care the home she lived in, the home she is perhaps buried beneath, has fallen into a state of disrepair.
After the face, the house is the most prominent feature of the cover so that’s what we’ll turn our attention to next. The house is considered to be a very feminine symbol, because it’s the place in which many of us are brought up and nurtured; the outside world’s equivalent to a mother’s womb. It represents a place of shelter, and it’s one of the few private places in a society with such an omnipresent public sphere. The house/home is the place where we can be ourselves, where we can do away with the masks that we live behind when in the workplace, when at school, when seeing friends or family etc. It is a place where we can nurture our true selves, and a place of safety when we need an escape from the outside, from an other. Importantly, it can also be representative of the inner workings of our mind, it can represent the psyche itself. The upper levels of a house represent our rational selves, our head and mind, whilst the basement represents our base instincts and our unconscious thoughts and desires.
Thus we have several avenues with which to begin tying things together. Our female is outside of the house, suggesting vulnerability and continuing the inversion of symbolism associated with her sex. Similarly, that the house now appears haunted is itself an inversion of the house’s role as a harbour of safety, and whether it’s our protagonist who haunts it is another distinct possibility. She is also underneath the house, indicative that perhaps the album will tie into the chaos and primal urges associated with our unconscious selves, but she is looking up at the rational aspects of the psyche, implying a conflict of some sort. Whether these themes bear themselves lyrically, musically, or even at all, we’ll need to wait and see.
There are two other areas we’ll explore before diving into the album; the role of night and the full moon. We covered the former in our *prognotes on Slice the Cake’s Odyssey to the West, so let me
plagiarise quote myself again:
“Night is a very powerful symbol. It can represent peace and tranquillity… [and] It can also represent darkness, loneliness, danger, and the conflict and contrast between light and dark.”
These motifs of darkness, danger and conflict tie in pretty well with the ground we’ve covered to date, and the same applies for the moon. The moon is yet another feminine symbol, one representing fertility and illumination. It is also a full moon, at the peak of its powers, and yet its meanings here are conflicting. It’s a symbol of fertility, yet our female is dead and the landscape is dying. It’s also the only source of light in a world of darkness. Finally, the full moon was once thought to heighten one’s lunacy, and this adds another layer to the psychological aspects of our analysis. So there we have it, we’ve dug into a lot of the images seen in this cover and we’ve come out with a lot of different jigsaw pieces. We have several different hypotheses, potential motifs and alternate interpretations floating about, so here is a quick summary:
⁃ The genre will be blackened death metal
⁃ A concept perhaps relating to the life/death of the female
⁃ Lyrical/musical motifs and themes relating to nature, family, death, and the aspects surrounding, and conflicts involving, the human psyche
Whether or not these pieces actually fit together nicely is something we’ll find out soon enough, and I for one sincerely hope they do!
After listening to the album
We’re going to start this section by having a look at the music, before analysing the lyrics a little later on. We were wrong in our assertion that this is a blackened death metal album, but we weren’t far off the mark. WRVTH is a tricky record to categorise, and the safest bet would just be to call it progressive extreme metal. At its core this record seems to be a progressive death metal album. We have technical riffing which certainly has a strong death metal flavour to it, whilst the tasteful inclusion of saxophone and the skill with which they combine aspects of multiple genres certainly justifies the progressive tag. Honing in on those other genres, the two main ones which spring to mind are post-black metal and hardcore. Atmosphere is a crucial aspect of this record, and the way in which they enshroud the listener in a dark and brooding ambience is typical of post-black metal. Throw in some tremolo riffs and the black metal component is well and truly present, whilst the hardcore elements come primarily from the vocals. There are the odd occasions where we hear some death growls or blackened vocals, but for the most part it’s the raw, pained barks that hardcore makes frequent use of. At first the vocals don’t quite seem to fit the more polished and, at times, atmospheric music; however, the contrast between the two styles grows on the listener over time and represents one of the key motifs of the record: that of struggle and conflict.
Musically, the broad themes we hypothesised are well represented. There is certainly an ominous and brooding darkness which permeates itself throughout, tying in with the themes of death, night, conflict and the human psyche. Focusing on the latter, the music certainly lends credence to our psychological motif. The abrasive chaos brought through in the vocals and the more aggressive instrumental sections can be linked to our base, subconscious nature. Conversely, the slower, more melodic, and more atmospheric sections could represent our rational thought processes, the upper levels of the psyche as we try to think our way through what is happening and what we should do.
Lyrically, it appears that we’re dealing with a concept album centered upon the drug addiction, conflicts and inner torments of a protagonist, with a couple of tracks featuring an additional character. It is probably safe to assume that the protagonist is the woman depicted in the artwork. She is wracked by paranoia and the strife caused by her addiction. She knows that she needs to change and that her addiction is literally and figuratively killing her, but she is unable to overcome her primal desires. The lyrics are littered with references to night, darkness, danger and a litany of negative emotions, all of which tying in with both the lyrical concept, the music underlying it all, and the motifs we speculated at beforehand. One area which we didn’t pick up on in advance, which we really should have, was the reference to isolation. The female in the cover is the only human to be found, and she is outside of the house, which is a clear reference to how isolated and alone she must feel, themes which are reoccurring in the lyrics. Our protagonist feels like she is going insane, that she is a lunatic. She can only dwell on her past mistakes, her broken relationships, and the hopelessness of her situation. What’s more, the only time when the other character steps in things only seem to take a turn for the worse.
“Lured By Knaves” is the first such track, and it introduces the crucial line of “Your glass house will shatter / Into pieces on the floor”. As it’s made of glass, the house, a place of safety where one can shed their public persona and be themselves, is transparent. There is no refuge, no safe harbour. Its foundations are fundamentally weak and susceptible to vicious collapse, much like the psyche of a drug addict. So at this point the only motif we hypothesised that hasn’t yet made a firm appearance is that of nature, yet even that comes into play on the penultimate song, “Into Bloom”. It is the only song on the album imbued with a sense of positivity, as the woman looks to escape the confines of her home/prison, and move to a place where she can reconnect with nature. A place where she can blossom into the person she wants to be, and this explains the series of leaves, roots and branches emanating from her face on the cover. However, there is still a sense of dread about that depiction, which is where the aptly titled closing track, “Cease to Exist”, comes into play. In it, our protagonist reveals how she was betrayed by a person she loved and “left alone to die”, ending the decidedly dark record on an appropriately chilling note.
In conclusion it looks like, despite the risk that we would be completely wrong in our pre-album assertions, this post has gone rather well. Sure, not everything we mentioned was correct, we missed a couple of points and some of our more outlandish propositions were nowhere to be found. However, we successfully identified, or came pretty close to, most of the record’s core themes. Thus both the band, and cover artist Zedadiah Martinez, have done an excellent job at selecting and rendering symbols which are appropriate for the album’s content. They’ve provided listeners with another way of engaging with the concepts contained therein, as well as providing newcomers to the band a snapshot into what this album is about. Sure, there is some guesswork involved with the latter, but we’ve shown today that if you put some effort and considered thought into it, the cover really can tell you a lot about an album, even if you’ve never listened to it before. At the same time, there is enough mystery and ambiguity to not give everything away, so that you still have to listen to the album and actively engage with its musical and lyrical contents in order to truly grasp what is happening, and for the symbolism and imagery to be appropriately contextualised. Overall we hope you enjoyed the slight twist on our usual format as much as we enjoyed writing it, and we’ll see you again next month!