(credit: Florian Bertmer)
In this edition of A Gift to Artwork we’re going to be doing things a little bit differently. Rather than being a stand-alone article looking at two contrasting album covers from the same band, we’ll be following on from this week’s *prognotes piece and analysing a single cover, that of Transcendental, the split EP between The Ocean and Mono. If you haven’t already read that edition of *prognotes I highly suggest you do so now, as this post will assume you already have an understanding of the record’s concept, namely the cycle of life, death and rebirth. Whilst the artwork we’ve seen with Caligula’s Horse, Megadeth and Napalm Death were extremely interesting and thought-provoking, this magnificent piece has a certain wow-factor about it, an appeal that stretches beyond its relationship with the music. It was my fascination with the cover, more so than the music itself, which prompted me to dig into the album’s concept to begin with, so let’s finally take a look at how this cover fits in with the contents of the record.
Having examined the album’s concept and explored ‘The Quiet Observer’ in great detail, it would appear that the piece is set in the third bardo. A baby, representing the soul struggling for liberation, is surrounded by four demons, each with a menacing and blood-thirsty expression. Given these expressions and the dark and foreboding nature of the music on Transcendental, it is fitting that blood red and an array of dark blues dominate the artwork. The demons, nothing but evil reflections of the soul itself, wear headdresses adorned with human skulls. These skulls perhaps represent each of the soul’s previous lives, which the apparitions have claimed for themselves, forcing the soul into another cycle of life and death. Ironically, each of the demons has a third eye, a Buddhist symbol of Enlightenment often referred to as the Eye of Consciousness. Thus, the demons know full well what is occurring, yet the soul clearly does not. How could it, when it is personified by a toddler, a being scarcely capable of complex thoughts and decision-making.
What’s remarkable about the illustration is the interaction between the child and the demons surrounding it. While its face is obscured, the posture and body language of the child suggests it feels safe and calm, the polar opposite of the fear and terror which would befit the sight of demons surrounding it. Note that there is a duality to this marked indifference. It could be said that the soul has failed to reach nirvana and has just reached the safety of its cave, in this case the shell which appears to be enveloping the child. Knowing that liberation will not be possible in this cycle, the soul has already entered the womb and taken the form of a child, oblivious to the life which has just ended. By stopping there, such an interpretation has a defeatist vibe to it: the soul has failed to transcend the bardo, and so the cycle begins again. Yet, there is also a more positive interpretation to be gleaned. The child appears fully formed, not some embryo that has just entered a womb. Therefore, rather than looking back at the cycle in which liberation was not achieved, what if we look forward to the oncoming cycle. Perhaps the child’s indifference towards the demonic figures is evidence that, at long last, the soul is comfortable with itself. The soul is prepared for what will come at the end of this body’s life, and it knows not to fear these horrid representations of itself. It will know how to recognise them for what they are, and finally reach nirvana.
Whilst the child and demons dominate this stunning illustration, the four little red butterflies are arguably just as important. The butterfly is often associated with being carefree, and so it is entirely fitting that the curious child appears to be playing with one of them, without a care for the demonic figures around it. Yet, more than this, the butterfly perfectly embodies the overall concept of the record, that of life, death and rebirth. The butterfly goes through four distinct phases: egg, caterpillar, chrysalis and butterfly; and this can easily be related to the human life-cycle when looked at within a Buddhist framework. A child in the womb is like the egg, and it subsequently enters the world as a caterpillar. Death acts as a momentary chrysalis in which there is a dramatic transformation, and the result is the emergence of the soul floating towards transcendence in the form of a butterfly. This process of rebirth and the dichotomy both between body and soul, and also between one life and its previous life, is well surmised by the following Chinese proverb:
“What the caterpillar perceives as the end of all things, the rest of the world perceives as the beginning of the butterfly”
As we stated throughout our *prognotes, this record is shrouded in ambiguities, and this continues in our interpretation of the artwork as well. Thus far, across both posts, we have built a seemingly strong case to argue that this soul failed to attain liberation from the three bardo, consigned to yet another cycle of life on Earth. Yet, there are a couple of symbols which imply that perhaps this is not the case after all. Firstly, our previous analogy portrayed the butterfly as the personification of the soul after death. We had already established that the child itself was also a representation of the soul, and so the child staring at and making physical contact with the butterfly suggests that perhaps it has finally recognised its true self. Perhaps that is why the child is oblivious towards the demonic beings around it. It has recognised its true self, its true form in the figure of the butterfly, and by extension it must then recognise the demons for what they truly are, safe in the knowledge that they are of no threat. This more positive interpretation is lent further credence by the smoke which envelops and rises around the child. Smoke is a common feature of many rituals, its near-universal presence not limited to space or time, it has appeared all over the world throughout known history. Its prevalence can be partially explained by what it can be seen to represent: the transition from matter into spirit, the transcendence of the immortal soul from the decidedly mortal body.
Thus even in conclusion we are still left with ambiguities. Some will feel that the soul fell through each of the three bardo, preparing for rebirth and another cycle of life. Others will feel that it achieved Enlightenment, that it was liberated from the cycle of life and death, and that it successfully reached nirvana. One thing that we can all agree on is that The Ocean, Mono and cover artist Florian Bertmer have come together to craft a truly exceptional work of art, one in which the music, lyrics and artwork are intricately woven together into a most beautiful tapestry. Transcendental was declared the best EP of 2015 by the staff of Heavy Blog, and hopefully now we all know why.