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.
*prognotes breaks down and analyses your favourite metal and progressive concept albums lyrically and musically. Read other entries in this series here.
Welcome to 2020’s second edition of our bi-monthly A Gift to Artwork column and strap yourselves in, because we’ve got special one for you today. Last time we fulfilled one of our two promises from 2019 by finally covering arguably the most notable artist of today, Mariusz Lewandowski. Today we fulfil our second promise by diving deep into the cover art of We Lost the Sea’s latest release, Triumph & Disaster. While we looked at the record’s cover in our 2019 end-of-year artwork special, today we will go not one, but two steps further. Firstly, we will be analysing the artwork of the children’s storybook that they released to accompany the record. Secondly, we will be analysing said story in conjunction with the record itself. Which means today is doubling up as an A Gift to Artwork and *prognotes double-header that is going to be a real treat for any huge fans of We Lost the Sea or our long-form content. So yes, *prognotes do still exist despite us only having published one of them in the past 18 months and don’t worry, we haven’t forgotten about them. We intend to bring more of them to you later this year, so there’s another promise of mine you can bank on!
Now one last thing before we get going. Most of the source material for this post comes from the following treasure trove of a webpage created by guitarist and artist Matt Harvey. If this post interests you in any way I implore you to go check it out for more details behind the record’s concept, its message, how the band was feeling, artwork drafts, photos of physical copies and more! It’s amazing that he and the band have made their inner workings available for fans to consume and this post wouldn’t have been possible without it – please do check it out. With that said, let’s now dive into the lost seas of Triumph & Disaster.
Let’s set the scene with a quote from the band themselves about the record and its concept:
“Triumph & Disaster is a post-apocalyptic view on the collapse of the world told like a children’s story and illustrated through the eyes of a mother and her son as they spend one last day on Earth.”
Before we jump in we’re also going to recap our thoughts from last year on the album cover for Triumph & Disaster, just to make sure everyone is on the same page. Within the silhouette of our loving mother we see a setting sun, the visual symbol of the apocalyptic aural world they’ve depicted. Night is falling, dark shades of blue descending upon a world that will see no further light. The sun is an orange eerily similar to what hovered over their native Australian state of New South Wales during the infernal fires of 2019. The haze that constricts the sun serves as the smokescreen, while the beginnings of a mushroom cloud are visible just below the sun and behind the shadowed city. Stretching into the foreground lies a lonely road, the mother’s son its only inhabitant as he walks by rotting animals and litter surrounded by a barren landscape. He is only a child, his innocence encapsulated by the piece of string that he’s holding, as he walks home with his balloon (the sun) in tow. He is undeserving of the world he has inherited. The world that appears to be dying and looking to take him with it.
The first illustration we see is a lone blue hand hanging down with a piece of string in its hand. Thoughts immediately turn to our two characters. Is it the son, still holding the string from his balloon? Or is it the mother, who has picked it up for him? The hand is a sickly shade of blue, the colour ushering forth that most dreaded of fears: death. From the very first image, we get the strong impression that one of our characters has died. The hand hangs loosely, fingers beginning to unfurl but still clutching at that precious piece of string. Trying to hold on to a lifeline, to some hope, but it appears a lost cause. The hand is superimposed in front of a round disc the colour of a dying sunset, the sun perhaps falling for one last time over our dying character and over our dying world.
From here on out we will do what We Lost the Sea explicitly chose not to do on this release. We will marry up each following piece of art with one of the record’s songs. We will follow the narrative of the story and its illustrations rather than the track listing of the record, so don’t be concerned if our bandcamp embeds seem out of order or the jump from one track to another doesn’t seem to flow right. The record is sequenced as it is for a reason, but for narrative purposes it’s easier to follow from the book’s perspective so that’s what we will do. The image above was the easiest to marry up, for the monolith in its centre jumped out as “Towers”. Both the track and the image serve as an overture of sorts, outlining what we will encounter over the coming hour. The huge tower appears to levitate, ascending high into the darkening sky. It has no identity, nameless, faceless, unmarked. It vaguely resembles a skyscraper, perhaps representing the capitalist societies many of us live in, with overcrowded, unsustainable megacities soaring skywards. This mental representation is aptly juxtaposed against a red and barren land. No cities to be found and, save for our boy and some weeds, no life either. The tower here almost reaches the top of the sky, a parallel of the furious drive for efficiency, glory and profit leading to ever larger, ever taller buildings.
With such imagery one can’t help but think of Icarus, whose similar hubris led him to fly too close to the sun and come crashing down to his fall. Capitalism’s fall appears a similarly bleak prospect here and this translates sonically too. The record kicks off with ominous, bordering on atonal, tremolo-picked guitars before bringing through a powerful, sludgy riff that forms the song’s backbone in these early stages. This huge riff evokes the sense of a monstrous, lumbering beast trudging inexorably forward. Once again we’re left thinking about the truly monstrous things modern societies have been built to do, crushing all in their wake with impunity. While a brief foray into clean guitars may remind us of the legitimate progress we have achieved along the way, the band proceed to bring back the riff (but slower, of course) to show us that such progress is not worth its cost. The track settles down into a contemplative state, with soft and jazzy snare work, and a beautiful piano melody. However, here too we’re forbidden our respite for long, the tremolo-picked riffs returning to keep us unsettled. The contrast of the beautiful piano and drums offset against the atonal guitars parallels the world we live in today. There are warning signs (the guitars) that are as uncomfortable as they are crystal clear, but many of us have learned to live with such unpleasant sounds and feelings, focusing on the remaining beauty (piano) instead.
The track ebbs and flows in this fashion for some time, and we turn our attention back to the picture at hand. The land is the stunning pastel red of the Australian outback, the sky lit up in wondrous shades of blue and red. And yet this natural beauty is offset by the waylaid electricity poles, collapsing and with no wires to support, no further messages to carry. What sounds like a wailing, mournful violin enters the background of the mix as we look at the rubble of mankind. Like that of the overgrown road the boy stands upon, the asphalt returned to the Earth, dotted with weeds. The song once again begins to build in intensity, commanding our attention. The piano’s tone grows more chaotic, guitars trading off bursts of rhythm as military-like tom and snare rolls ramp up the urgency. The song begins to coalesce as we stare down the path we’re treading, the lone road stemming to and from the monolithic capitalist tower of waste and destruction. At this point the symbolism of the Tarot card Tower seems particularly apt: calamity, deception, ruin, negligence, unforeseen catastrophe. The boy stands small and alone before it, fist raised, as the track continues to build. Will these two worlds meet? All of a sudden the music cuts to a pause with nothing but choir-like synths and the brief taps of a bell or xylophone. We wait with bated breath before the tension is released, the crescendo breaking before us with long, slow riffs whose very genre herald the doom we will embrace should we continue down this path. And then the riffs drone into nothingness and all is quiet. The scene is set. Let our story begin.
Our story begins with the relaxing introduction of “Parting Ways”. The song builds slowly in a playful fashion as we study the sparse opening page. A gorgeous, velvety royal purple serves as our background, striking images of power and wealth. Inlaid is the silhouette of a person’s head, this time though it looks to be the boy rather than the mother we saw on the record’s cover. Quite literally we will be seeing the story through his eyes to begin with. The music is comforting, with synths coming and going amid math rock style riffs and noodling. Yet, as we approach the midsection there is a sense of unease that belies the bass, perhaps foreshadowing what is to come. We see more of the barren red lands, a lone road cutting the land in two as we read of the two protagonists in our story, “a boy with his mother in a house with no walls”. As we pass the 7-minute mark of the track we hear remnants of those bleak guitars from “Towers”, unsettling as we hone in on the finer details of the image. The road appears flanked by craters and spot fires, earmarking the destruction and loss we are about to encounter, the track’s title of “Parting Ways” offering us a solemn outlook on what is to come. As the song continues to build we get a sense of loss and melancholy, and yet there is hope and triumph too in the lead guitar. Perhaps hope in our two protagonists, triumph in their love for each other. And no sooner does the thought enter our minds that an abrupt, jazzy transitions paves the way for beautiful clean guitars that usher forth soothing waves of warmth. Our story has only just begun, and despite the threats and looming burden of loss, it is this warmth between mother and son that characterises it for it now.
The warmth with which “Parting Ways” ends begets the warmth with which “A Beautiful Collapse”. Bright, yet restrained clean guitars wrap their arms around us like a mother’s hug. However, it is is not long before an unsettling droning begins to creep up from the bottom of the mix, slowly gaining prominence. Before long huge tom hits and loud, buzzing bass begin to take over the song’s momentum as we drink in the next chapter of the tale. This zoomed out shot offers us an insight into what the world has become. “The trees are all dead. The green grass is brown… the landscape red”. Small ponds of water on our right, resembling the shape of Australia no less, are a brackish brown and, like the rest of the landscape, appear incapable of supporting life. The song’s midsection brings back remnants of its earlier warmth, the math rock tones and clean guitar refrain of 4.45 evoking heartfelt images of the mother lovingly watching over her son as they embark on “One last adventure under the sun”. The driving bass riff begins superseding the guitars and driving the song forward, lending it a newfound sense of momentum as we continue to drink in the sights before us. The leftmost road is in the shape of a thermometer, a symbol of the gradual warming we’re experiencing that threatens our future generations. A similarly neat reference is the pier that sticks out to the left like the neck of a guitar, replete with tuning knobs and all, as the band show that art has a role to play in galvanising us into action.
And then it hits us. Out of nowhere we’re slammed by thick, apocalyptic riffs as the plane nosedives and the giant ship is scuttled and left to rust at the bottom of the sea. With just a moment’s notice it has all come crashing down, man’s rule over the sky and seas crumbling before us. The purple we had thought of as glorious and regal only one page ago now muddies the blue waters, like an oil spill spreading across the sea and poisoning all around it. The riffs give way to electronics that close out the track, perhaps a signifier of the crumbling electrical wires from the previous image and the demise of human engineering before us here. Either way the warmth with which we began the track has dissipated as “All of the many beautiful things were now just… skin and bone.”
Yet, with the very next track we’re looking at the warmth has returned, and it’s more touching than ever on “Distant Shores”. When I first read through the children’s story this was playing in the background and I highly, highly recommend this for those of you who enjoy breaking down in tears while consuming some of their favourite art (I’m looking at you Eden). We see the boy playing “on the broken old swing set”, having a great time on this adventure of his as nostalgic and contemplative tones envelop us. The guitar is heart-warming, little flickers and ruffles lending the piece a vinyl flavour that colours the music in a beautiful way. The addition of an organ adds a homely feeling of connection as we read of our protagonists having a grand time playing in the park and racing their bikes. A day full of “joy… [as] her face beamed with pride”. As the song progresses the guitars begin to take on a country twang, evoking a dreamy sense of innocence that perfectly captures the moment. It may be one of the shortest songs the band has written, and as such it can’t take us to as many places, but the places it does take us to are simply wonderful.
As powerful as “Distant Shores” is, it is not alone in its story-telling. The artwork is full of references to the band’s past work, with the astronaut’s helmet, the rocket-shaped playground and the fallen rocket ship toy all throwing back to 2015’s Departure Songs. “Challenger”, the 30+ minute closer to that record, was inspired by the ill-fated Challenger space launch that claimed the lives of seven people. The theme fits perfectly here as another example of humanity blowing itself up in its pursuit of progress, a stark reminder against a backdrop of dying vegetation and the setting sun. The day is approaching its end.
For the first and only time in our story, we see another character here, as a lone person rows their paddle boat out to sea. “Dust” begins strangely, with muffled sounds not dissimilar from the sounds of distant crowds or riots. Just the same, they could represent the chaotic, desperate inner workings of this person’s mind as they row out on their last voyage. A lonesome guitar plucks away before it is joined by a trumpet. The pair evoke a sense of incredible loneliness. All seems hopeless. All seems lost. The clever use of colours shows the sun-struck water in the top right of the image, our rower moving in the opposite direction, away from the light and into the darkness. This too hearkens back to Departure Songs and the tale of “The Gallant Gentleman”, but I will let you look into that yourself for if I dwell on that song too long I will end up sobbing. Finally, the debris floating atop the water is in the shape of the boy’s head, the mirror image to the silhouette we had seen at the beginning of this tale. That is all that is coming to be left of his world. Debris. Litter. Abandoned toys, bringing no sense of comfort. Life rafts, that which is necessary but no longer sufficient to survive in a dying world.
The final two images will both be devoted to the epic “The Last Sun”. We’re back to big and powerful guitar riffs full of purpose as the detours come to an end and forward momentum is restored. Toms pound away with vigour as the track builds up and we know it’s time for business. Business, that capitalist centrepiece that has largely contributed to the situation the world finds itself. Business, that which lays abandoned and lost in the image above. Doors are locked shut, graffiti decorates the walls and windows are cracked. Business is closed, and the Earth is following suit. That which had seemed to drive humanity forward for decades, perhaps centuries, has ground to a halt just like the lone car we see before us. Alone, disconnected and powerless as a result. Litter continues to plague the streets as we look upon this ghost town. And then, 2.5 minutes into the song, the song breaks and all fades. A throbbing hum leads in a lone clean guitar which begins to paint a somewhat more serene picture amid the squalor. It is quaint, as if the fog of war has cleared to reveal children frolicking in a nearby meadow. The boy wanders down the road with his kite held firmly in tow, and we recognise that the string we’ve seen before was for this kite all along – not a ballooning sun. The music brings back “old times past, of colour and joy” as the mother and son reflect on the joy of their day, of that last adventure. The despair, the greed of “oil and gold” is forgotten as we’re transported to another world, a world where only our two protagonists matter. A world where maybe everything will be alright.
As we embrace the serenity and approach the song’s halfway mark we’re hit by that gut-punch we had feared from the beginning:
“The end was close and our story almost written
The Earth would reclaim and no longer play victim
The boy’s time was up
In a short while he’d be gone
No matter what she did, his sickness was too strong”
The boy is wandering off into his last sunset. It seems we are, truly, too late.
At this point the story seems to break from its narrative structure, and it sounds as if we the readers are being directly addressed. As we pass the 11-minute mark the song continues to build, the guitars yearning and screaming with desperation as we’re told to unite, to love, to trust and, most importantly, to “build something better”. All amidst this heartbreaking backdrop of the boy in a boat, floating in a sea of his mother’s tears as she desperately tries to keep him afloat. As desperately as the rising guitars and wall of noise. She too is blue from the struggle and dying with the world around them, yet still she strives to protect him to the last. Alas it is in vain, that precious lifeblood of water slipping through her fingers as she battles against an impossible task before:
“His eyes slowly closed
His hands went numb
With tears in her eyes, she laid him down but held tight”
The guitars make way for electronics as we hit the story’s outro. All seems so much more quiet and the electronics seem to sonically resemble the stuttering of our life support as all turns to darkness. It’s an incredibly emotional ending to an incredibly emotional record. The lasting question: are we really too late?
The closing “Mother’s Hymn” is an addendum of sorts. Louise Nutting’s soulful vocals hammer home this parting message. Amidst the backdrop of tragedy we have this uplifting closer, with triumphant horns and emotive piano, spurring us into action. Not to accept fate, but to take action to change it. In the words of Matt himself:
“In this album we try to talk about themes and events such as the climate crisis, over consumption, isolation, and the loss of love and trust. It is a lament for our planet, all of us on it and the beauty we will leave behind.
The music is the narrative for the destruction and tragedy. The words and art below tell the story of love, loss and letting go.“Matt Harvey, We Lost the Sea
And what a narrative it has been. An incredibly emotive journey of love and loss. Of beauty and despair. Of triumph and disaster, and it’s told as wonderfully through its artwork and accompanying children’s book as it is through its fantastic music. Thanks for joining us today in celebrating this remarkable record and taking heed of its message. We’re all in this together and it is up to us to force change, whether that be by leading through example at home or making our voices heard on the streets and in the ballot box. Finally, once again please do check out the webpage which inspired and provided most of the source material for this post, it’s truly fantastic and offers even more depth than we managed to cover here. See you in June.