A Gift to Artwork, taken from the Caligula’s Horse song “A Gift to Afterthought”, breaks down and analyses your favourite album artwork. The first time an album’s name appears, it will link to a large and (where possible) high-resolution image of the cover so that you can take a closer look. Read other entries in this series here.
Welcome to 2020’s first edition of A Gift to Artwork. Late last year we previewed that 2020 would finally be the year we tackled Mariusz Lewandowski and we’ve decided not to keep you waiting in suspense for too long. Lewandowski has been honing his style for decades, going unnoticed by the metal world until his stunning cover for Bell Witch’s 2017 opus Mirror Reaper captured our community’s attention like that of a mid-day eclipse.
Since then the Pole’s star has been an unmissable presence in the night’s sky as one artist after another has sought him out to lend that inimitable style to their latest record. This burgeoning partnership with the metal world has been fruitful for all concerned, his aesthetic a natural companion for the music and lyrics of the records he has worked on, while artists always seem to bring their A-game when seeking his services. So prepare your eyes for today’s visual feast as we dive deep into Lewandowski’s world.
False – Portent
First up, for the sake of completeness, let’s look back at the one Lewandowski piece we’ve covered before, his work for False‘s Portent. In the foreground we have sheer cliffs dotted by people approaching and gathering dangerously close to the precipice. Beneath stretches a diabolical landscape of molten lava, hellfire, and sulphuric fumes as far as the eye can see. If ever there was a scene that depicted Mordor in all of its dread, this is it. Yet, this scene of perdition is dwarfed by the monolithic grim reaper which dominates our attention. It’s hooded cloak is looking into the furnace, though whether it is drawing new strength or depositing fresh victims is unclear. Its left hand grips the dreaded scythe, the edge of its blade stained red from the blood of its victims.
Behind the reaper stand colossal cliffs of darkness that make one thing abundantly clear: the only way in or out of this damnation is the reaper. Above these cliffs stand several figures shrouded in mist, their features indistinguishable as they wave a huge white flag, surrendering themselves as they accept their cursed fate. Overlooking it all is a pained face of loss, eyes hollow and dark, and with good reason. There is no comfort to be found in this scene, only pain, loss, and suffering.
Overall, one cannot deny that the piece is striking. The imagery carries weighty symbolism with ease, clearly articulating the record’s overarching themes and emotions visually for all to see. The use of colour only accentuates the darkness, whilst the searing reds and submissive whites bring no levity, only a sense of hopelessness, inevitability, and destruction. In addition, the opaque and shrouded nature of the background in conjunction with the comparatively diminutive nature of the foreground draws the onlooker’s eye towards the most central and defined figure in the piece: the foreboding reaper. It is here that Lewandowski brings most detail to the fore, each tattered strip of cloth and twisting gnarl of wood emphasising the reaper’s power and prominence. A fantastic piece, and one which makes us truly excited to cover more of his work in future.
Bell Witch – Mirror Reaper
Best to not keep you waiting any longer, it’s time to see where it all began with the masterpiece. Mirror Reaper’s cover is undoubtedly the greatest album cover I have ever seen; awesome in the true sense of the word. I can scarcely recall anything that even comes close. Context is everything with this record, Bell Witch tragically losing their drummer Adrian Guerra when he died in his sleep aged 36 in 2015. Jonathon said it best in his review:
“His [Guerra’s] loss is reflected in every inch of this record, and is the focal point through which the band have created not only the best music of their career, but one of the best albums in any genre of 2017. This is a once-in-a-lifetime kind of album”.
The scene shows a hooded, foreboding figure looming ominously over a congregation of people marching drearily into seeming damnation. The figure is simultaneously peering out from the hellscape and holding the monolithic mirror that marks its entrance. The mirror stands taller than the cliffs in the background, dwarfing all before it. The strands of cloth or hair that reach the mirror’s edge are eerily similar to the strands that flow from behind the mirror’s top corner, as if the figure and the mirror are one and the same.
Questions of identity immediately spring to mind, the theme plastered across the canvas. When you gaze into the mirror you what do you see? Do you see yourself? A hellish existence? A reflection of the environment that has co-determined your very being? Such thoughts of identity then beg the question: who is this figure overseeing the throng? Is it Guerra scanning the departed, waiting to be reunited with his loved ones? Or is he among them, trudging towards the mirror? Is it the dreaded Reaper, who also appears to be watching over proceedings with his unmistakable scythe in the bottom left corner, somehow able to exist in two forms at once? Great works of art inspire such questions, answering all and none in an enthrallingly paradoxical fashion.
Lewandowski’s full piece, titled Essence of Freedom, shows an opposing side with cliffs overseeing a moonlit sea. The juxtaposition is wondrous with the red hues of the left side complementing the blues of the right. The inherent darkness of the work, both physically and metaphorically, bind the two sides together like glue. The addition of calm seas, a fluttering white flag and birds freely flying skywards adds a remarkable sense of peace and calm to a work that had seemed grievous.
And it is in this way that Lewandowski, and Bell Witch’s music, so perfectly encapsulates grief. There is the burning anger (fires of hell). The fear (Guerra / big reaper). The questioning. The self-reflection (mirror). The haze of sorrow (smoke). The loneliness (lone fire burning). The lethargy (congregation). The acceptance (small reaper). And then the knowledge, or at very least the hope, that our loved ones are calm (moonlit sea), at peace (white flag) and free (soaring birds). It’s a magical work of art and we’re so blessed that it has played such a role in helping Guerra’s loved ones cope with his loss and bringing Lewandowski’s art into our community, where it will doubtless help countless more.
Psycroptic – As the Kingdom Drowns
The following year Lewandowski was back for Psycroptic’s excellent 2018 release As The Kingdom Drowns. As has become commonplace by now we see a wretched landscape that brings Doom to mind. A giant chasm separates the land, a lone figure left abandoned amidst the flames. And oh how they burn, bringing the piece to life with their blazing red and orange colours alongside chokingly thick greys and blacks. But central to proceedings is the overhanging humanoid suffering in a most terrible fashion. Arms are stretched wide, fiendishly being torn from the shoulder as if on the rack, sinew and muscle fibres being ripped from bone. Meanwhile the raging inferno below burns them alive, skin smouldering like moths in a furnace as the person’s face melts before our eyes. To top it all off molten gold appears to be pouring from the band’s logo and onto the skull, piercing through bone.
The album name was an obvious decision. As you gaze into Lewandowski’s art and hear that riff opening the title track you just know this is it: this is the moment being depicted. Track names just flow from the artwork, with the likes of “Deadlands”, “Beyond the Black” and “Momentum of the Void” all borne out in the cover. Lest we forget the silhouetted figures who roam the coalface, wraiths shrouded in darkness. Perhaps they’re the stones upon which the central person is being drowned in flames. Finally, in addition to the main album cover, Lewandowski also worked on the inlay, which is the second image featured below. Both paintings are truly magnificent in their original form and I hope to see more artists commissioning and showing off Lewandowski’s work in its original medium.
Atlantean Kodex – The Course of Empire
Changing themes we have the gorgeous cover to Atlantean Kodex‘s strong 2019 record The Course of Empire. One can imagine the thought process behind the German epic doom band’s search for a new cover artist. We need epic. We need doom. Aha, we know just the guy. This piece is much less foreboding than the other work, which is fitting for the band’s sound. The ‘epic’ moments in their sound, firmly founded in traditional heavy metal, aren’t well suited to the sorrowful or torturous images we’ve seen up until now. The darkness is still there, in the rolling fog of war and the murky corners, but much like their major key guitar harmonies the colours that draw most attention are light, warm and bright.
Given their stylings and both the lyrical themes and title of the record, Lewandowski has hit the ’empire’ brief out of the park with his depiction of the army. With weapons bared and banners proudly held high, they epitomise the great empires of yore. They appear glorious, just as the tales say, but they obscure the true image. The true nature of empire. The truth of violence, slavery and death. The warriors are nameless, faceless. The horrors they have seen or may yet encounter are nowhere to be seen, their casualties hidden from sight. The fires of battle are no beauty, but this work of art certainly is.
Mizmor – Cairn
Next up we have the third piece from 2019 we’ve covered so far, and there are still more to come. Lewandowski truly is blowing up right now and such has been his proficiency that if we were to analyse each piece in detail we’d never publish this column. Thus, we’ll start rapidly cycling through some records starting with black/doom metal band Mizmor‘s latest LP, Cairn. We return to some favoured motifs, notably the hooded Reaper, sitting before a chasm as his cloak lies ablaze. A single person stands at the edge of the foreground, hopelessly small. Such depictions elicit a powerful sense of nihilism, which is here compounded by what the Reaper is holding. The electric pyramid resembles the installation before the Louvre, symbolising knowledge, art and creativity. It is lightning in a bottle. It is a purpose worth striving for. Worth protecting. Perhaps even worth suffering for.
Abigail Williams – Walk Beyond the Dark
Sticking to black metal we have Abigail Williams‘ recent record, Walk Beyond the Dark, which surprised many with its quality. Among the best black metal records in a banner year for the genre, WBtD placed in both our AOTY and artwork lists. Our hooded spectre is back, but not quite like we’ve seen them before. True enough that the fire is still there, but this time it’s more of a warm glow. While the figure looks ghastly, its tepid centre appears… inviting. A place of warmth and respite, where courage is rewarded with safety. Here the lone person does not appear so meek and feeble. They are venturing into the lion’s den, cautiously and bravely moving within the guardian Reaper. Just as Abigail Williams hope you will into their wonderfully epic new record.
Astral Altar – A:.A:.
Our final black metal record for today, newcomers Astral Altar went straight for the big guns when commissioning an artist for their debut EP A:.A:.. The sense of anguish evoked by the piece is self-evident, a shrieking banshee viciously tearing themselves apart. The infernal mushroom cloud below and the rain of fire stretching below it highlight the rage, agony and sheer unbridled power on display. It is explosive. Uncontainable. Devastation writ large. And yet, amid all the chaos and destruction, amid the flying embers and the desolate and burning lands, are calm silhouetted figures. Unmoved and unfazed. They are an unsettling and unnerving presence amid the turmoil as they go about their work. They conjure images of the Reaper’s acolytes, calmly sifting through the dead with the acceptance that punctuates much of Lewandowski’s work. It’s another striking piece, wonderfully evocative and searing itself into memory.
Rogga Johansson – Entrance to the Otherwhere
Last, but not least, we have Rogga Johansson’s Entrance to the Otherwhere. The work bears a similarity to that of Atlantean Kodex, bringing to mind great empires and lost civilisations. Atlantis is one such example, the lone ship, flowing waters and imperial architecture making it a prime candidate. It’s as if we’re seeing the edge of the world, and yet the ship is travelling away from the edge. Where has it come from and how did it get there? The arch symbolises strength, a motif made all the more powerful by the greco-roman columns and towering cliffs. Atop the arch is a large statue, reminiscent of the archangel Gabriel waiting to blow its horn. Motifs and parables abound. Journey and exploration. The unknown. Hubris and the fall. The lost and forgotten. It’s a thought-provoking piece, different in execution and yet sharing stylings and concepts with the rest of Lewandowski’s work.
Well there you have it, we’ve fulfilled one promise and brought to you some of our favourite Lewandowski art. His rise to fame has been sharp as our community welcomed him with open arms. He has such brought a level of mystery, emotional weight and compelling imagery that few can match and our scene is much richer for it. We can only hope that he can maintain such a prolific quality and quantity of work as he shares his wonderful work with our world. That’s it for today, but don’t worry, we will be back in a couple months time with some more great artwork to dive into.