The Obelisk Presents: 12 of 2016’s Best Album Covers

Posted in Features, Visual Evidence on December 12th, 2016 by JJ Koczan

This list could easily go to 20. Or 30. Or 50. The democratization of media and the flourishing of aesthetic thanks to wide-open digital interaction across national and cultural borders has meant that bands in Texas can get artwork from Spain easily — something we’ve come to take for granted in this age of messages flying through space in indeterminate instants. There’s a lot of art out there. A lot of it is very, very good. Not all, but a lot.

In the particular realm of heavy rock and doom, I’ve spent a lot of time this year being discouraged at the continued and apparently flourishing objectification of women. Cartoon tits. Get out of here with that shit. You’ll notice none of the covers on this list go that route. It’s boring, it’s easy and it’s sexist. If you want to establish your masculine dominance, go pull your dick out at the mall and see how that does for you. Putting other people down to make yourself feel bigger is for kindergarten. As human beings, we should be past it.

Nonetheless — and I’d be a hypocrite if I didn’t also note the lack of women on this list — there is a ton of interesting and forward-moving work being done around the world and I think that’s worth taking a couple minutes to celebrate even just a fraction of it. Hopefully you agree, and if you have some favorite art you’d like to add to the list, please hit up the comments.

Ordered alphabetically by artist

Sourvein, Aquatic Occult

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Cover by Jordan Barlow. Artist website.

Sourvein‘s Aquatic Occult (review here) was a dense, multi-faceted work, and one imagines that for Jordan Barlow of New Orleans’ Abracadabra Tattoo, part of the challenge was in either finding or creating a design that coincided with that without coming across as confused or off-theme. This bevvy of undersea elements gives us a central figure in a frustrated Neptune with a shark-teeth crown, a human presence in the two diver helmets (is anyone in there?) and highlights the dangers of the ocean with its hammerheads and threatening-looking seahorse, as well as what seems to be a whirlpool and another swirl in opposite top corners. All told, the deep blue and green tones complement the morass of Sourvein‘s sound, raw and natural as it is, and provide moody intrigue to coincide with the wide variety of songwriting on display. Like the album, it is defined in no small part by its haze.

Holy Grove, Holy Grove

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Cover by Adam Burke. Artist website.

Portland-based Adam Burke is something of a repeat offender when it comes to badass artwork. He regularly posts works in progress on social media and the lushness of his technique astounds me nearly every time out. Holy Grove‘s self-titled debut (review here) was far from the only piece of his a band used this year, but what stood it out most was the balance between nighttime — as seen in the stars and the darkness of the sky and trees — and the aurora borealis that offered such a rich, otherworldly feel. Beautiful, immediately recognizable as Burke‘s, and it pays subtle homage to his and the band’s Cascadian home region with the shapes of the tall evergreens in the foreground, speaking all the more to the beauty of the Pacific Northwest and the classic soul fused into the record itself.

Duel, Fears of the Dead

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Cover by Pol Abran Cantador. Artist website.

How could one not look at the cover of Duel‘s debut album, Fears of the Dead (review here), and not immediately think of the Misfits? And yet, Barcelona-based Pol Abran Cantador, operating under the banner of Branca Studio, brings a freshness to the striking, landmark skull design. The face is off-center, the eyes looking outward. While there’s little doubt as to the visual reference being made, it’s just that — a reference, not an emulation. Treading that balance would be admirable enough for inclusion here, but impact of the piece becomes greater with the distressed look and the deep blood red surrounding, giving dimension as a backdrop, reinforcing the perspective of the figure, and providing Duel with a horror-cinema vibe that begs the question of just what those eyes are staring at.

Brutus, Wandering Blind

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Cover by Maarten Donders. Artist website.

Sometimes something just stays with you. On the surface, Dutch artist Maarten Donders brings forward a pretty simple idea for Norwegian boogie rockers Brutus‘ third album, Wandering Blind (review here). Images from ’60s-style psychedelic pulp horror come to mind — the bat, the spiderwebs, the blank stare on the face, the flowing hair through the open mouth of the skull, the monster eyeballs, the purposefully hand-drawn logo — but at the same time, the execution of these things is so intricate. Look at the bags under those eyes, the black holes where the teeth of that skull should be, the weird bubbles by the eyeballs, and the comic-style lettering of the album title itself, which switches back and forth between capitalized and lowercase letters. Look at the shadowed impression of a vinyl record that encircles the design but lets the chin of the skull and the band’s logo protrude. It’s so immediate but so deceptive, hiding its devils in its details.

Seedy Jeezus with Isaiah Mitchell, Tranquonauts

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Cover by Mr. Frumpy. Artist website.

While it’s true that for this collaboration between Earthless guitarist Isaiah Mitchell and Melbourne heavy psych rockers Seedy Jeezus, the front cover only tells half the story of the full Tranquonauts (review here) gatefold, even 50 percent is enough to justify inclusion here. Put together by Mr. Frumpy Frumpedia, aka Seedy Jeezus guitarist Lex Waterreus, it was one of several artworks this year to feature smaller figures against a grand backdrop — Geezer‘s self-titled and Sunnata‘s Zorya, featured below, come to mind immediately, as well as the last Fu Manchu — but it was the openness of the space itself that Waterreus captured, both on the ground and in the sky, and the atmosphere that brought to the instrumental, jammed-put proceedings on the LP’s two sides, that made it work so well. The humanoid figures — maybe the total four-piece of the lineup? — are so utterly overwhelmed by their surroundings, and yet they seem more than ready to make their journey through them, finding life along what seems to be a barren path.

Greenleaf, Rise Above the Meadow

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Cover by Sebastian Jerke. Artist website.

Sebastian Jerke has kind of become Napalm Records‘ go-to artist over the last couple years, as his past and upcoming work for the likes of My Sleeping Karma, monkey3, Ahab, The Answer and others can attest, but the strangeness of the natural world, the three-dimensional protrusion of the trees, the layered depths, and the commanding presence of the bear, owl, snake and winged insects standing above it all made his work for Greenleaf‘s Rise Above the Meadow (review here) my favorite album cover of the year. It’s very much in his painterly, somewhat classical style, but the way the light seems to come from the band’s logo and behind the planet, the use of shadow and shading on the trees, and the monstrously blank eyes of the bear and owl give it a depth and narrative that remains nothing short of breathtaking. Clearly a labor of love.

Beastwars, The Death of all Things

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Cover by Nick Keller. Artist website.

My only question was whether it was the cover for The Death of all Things (review here) I’d include or Keller‘s piece that was used for Child‘s new album, Blueside (review here), but with the context of this very likely being the final offering from New Zealand sludgecrushers Beastwars, the answer was plain. Either way, Keller‘s sense of scale and scope remains immense and he continues to bring a feel of the epic to his work here as he did to his two prior covers for Beastwars, on 2013’s Blood Becomes Fire (review here) and the band’s 2011 self-titled debut (review here), resulting in a more than suitable pairing of visual representation and impact of sound. Rarely does one find an artist and a band so much on the same page.

Goatess, II: Purgatory Under New Management

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Cover by Göran Nilsson. Artist website.

Charm goes a long way in my book, always, and Göran Nilsson‘s cover for the second outing by Swedish doomers GoatessII: Purgatory Under New Management (review here), has it in bulk supply. The underlying mischief of depicting the four-piece as medieval-esque saints painted on wood like something out of the Middle Ages — their faces grim with a seriousness of purpose not at all letting on to the tongue-in-cheek nature of the record’s title — with halos behind their heads and scripture in tow, well, it’s got a humor that most doom wouldn’t dare go near for fear of losing the edge of its miseries. For Goatess, however, it works perfectly in conveying an essential piece of where the band is coming from, in that their output in the first place seems to be as much about getting together and celebrating the act of writing songs as a unit as it is worshiping the traditions of the style.

Droids Attack, Sci-Fi or Die

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Cover by Eli Quinn. Artist website.

While a jpeg of the cover alone doesn’t quite do justice to the full presentation of Eli Quinn‘s artwork for Droids Attacks‘ Sci-Fi or Die (review here), which went so far as to print the title of the record in gold ink on the CD case, feature even more detailed work inside and even go so far as to create an entirely separate artwork scheme for a bonus track hidden on a mini-CD under the back tray under the disc for the album (detailed here), I still find the image of the launching South American-style pyramid as a full diamond taking off — especially with the lights beaming out the bottom — among the most striking of 2016. Reminiscent of Arik Roper‘s detailed style, Quinn‘s cover added depth and purpose to the band’s never-tighter songcraft while also speaking to the love of science-fiction storytelling that drove them to use the title in the first place. Hard not to win with ancient aliens.

Sunnata, Zorya

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Cover by Jeffrey Smith. Artist website.

Derived it would seem at least in part from a piece called “Erosion of Self,” or at very least of a kin to it, like a lot of Smith‘s work, his art for Zorya (review here) by Polish heavy rockers Sunnata treats light with a religious reverence. Like a Kubrick shot, the sun is dead-center of the painting itself, framed and encircled by gaseous-looking clouds, and as the dawn seems to break over this landscape (or is it sunset?), it becomes difficult to tell where the robed monks end and the rocky protrusions begin. Our eyes are drawn immediately toward the light, and it’s the light that ultimately defines the story here, the way the beams of light shoot outward and turn the desert floor white so that it almost reminds of a body of water as much as a place where nothing seems to grow. Stark but consuming.

High Fighter, Scars and Crosses

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Cover by Dominic Sohor. Artist website.

This one was so dark, so malevolent, with such a violent bend in its prominent central figure, that it seemed to encapsulate the underlying threat that always seemed to loom over High Fighter‘s Svart Records debut album, Scars and Crosses (review here). Because the faceless blue skin and hanging, stringy hair are so reminiscent of Japanese horror films, and because the heart  in the right hand stands out so much in its silvery tone and because the pattern on the dress/cowl is so intricate, you almost don’t notice at first that it’s blood shooting out of that figure’s left wrist filled with upside-down and rightside-up crosses or that it seems to be veins in the top left corner acting as puppet strings, propping up the entire play. But it definitely is, and that only furthers the horrific, nightmarish imagery surrounding, where even the shaded background seems to want to lure you in with no hope of escape.

Bridesmaid, International House of Mancakes

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Cover by W. Ralph Walters. Artist website.

Come on. So you mean to tell me you went ahead an reinvented KISS‘ cover for Destroyer with Ohio heavy rockers Bridesmaid dressed as the Village People? Be still my beating heart. The art for International House of Mancakes (review here) offers subversive humor without judgment, winking at the homoeroticism that has always been and likely will always be a part of rock and roll, and ultimately mocks the ridiculousness of the denial of that same homoeroticism. From the hands raised in triumph on either side (an element pulled right from the original KISS cover) to the stacks of pancakes the instrumental outfit is standing on, it functioned as artwork to say so much about the band and was perhaps all the more effective in conveying its message and their message since there were no lyrics to pull in other directions. It’s all right there in your face; bright and brilliant.

Because I can’t seem to get out of one of these lists without a series of honorable mentions, I’ll say too that 2016 offerings from Borracho, SubRosa, Inter Arma, Mars Red Sky, Vokonis, Elephant Tree, EYE, Slomatics, Gozu and Black Moon Circle managed to strike on one level or another.

Thanks for reading. Like I said at the outset, this is barely a fraction of the amazing art that came down the line this year. If you’ve got something to add, please hit up the comments.

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Quarterly Review: Russian Circles, Salem’s Pot, Bridesmaid, Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell, Landing, Reign of Zaius, Transcendent Sea, Red Teeth, Sea of Bones & Ramlord, Holy Smoke

Posted in Reviews on October 6th, 2016 by JJ Koczan

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I’ll admit I’m a little surprised at the shape this Quarterly Review has taken. As I begin to look back on the year in terms of what records have been talked about over the span, I find it’s been particularly geared toward debut albums, both in and out of wrap-ups like this one. There’s less of that this time around, but what’s happened is some stuff that doesn’t fall into that category — releases like the first two here, for example — are getting covered here to allow space for the others. Let’s face it, nobody gives a shit what I have to say about Russian Circles anyhow, so whatever, but I’m happy to have this as a vehicle for discussing records I still think are worth discussing — the first two releases here, again for example — rather than letting them fall through the cracks with the glut of new bands coming along. Of course things evolve as you go on, but I wish I’d figured it out sooner. Let’s dive in.

Quarterly Review #31-40:

Russian Circles, Guidance

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From the warm wash of guitar that begins “Asa” onward, and no matter how weighted, percussive and/or chug-fueled Russian Circles get from there, the Chicago trio seem to be offering solace on their latest outing, Guidance. Recorded by Kurt Ballou and released through Sargent House, the seven-track offering crosses heavy post-rock soundscapes given marked thickness and distinct intensity on “Vorel,” but the record as a whole never quite loses the serenity in “Asa” or the later “Overboard,” crushing as the subsequent “Calla” gets, and though the spaces they cast in closer “Lisboa” are wide and intimidating, their control of them is utterly complete. Six albums in, Russian Circles are simply masters of what they do. There’s really no other way to put it. They remain forward thinking in terms of investigating new ideas in their sound, but their core approach is set in the fluidity of these songs and they revise their aesthetic with a similar, natural patience to that with which they execute their material.

Russian Circles on Thee Facebooks

Sargent House website

 

Salem’s Pot, Pronounce This!

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Following their 2014 RidingEasy Records debut, …Lurar ut dig på prärien (discussed here) – which, presumably met with some pronunciation trouble outside the band’s native Sweden – Salem’s Pot return with Pronounce This!, further refining their blend of psychedelic swirl, odd vibes and garage doom riffing. They remain heavily indoctrinated into the post-Uncle Acid school of buzz and groove, and aren’t afraid to scum it up on “Tranny Takes a Trip” or the slower-shifting first half of “Coal Mind,” but the second portion of that song and “So Gone, so Dead” take a more classically progressive bent that is both refreshing and a significant expansion on what Salem’s Pot have accomplished thus far into their tenure. Still weird, and one doubts that’ll change anytime soon – nor does it need to – but as Pronounce This! plays out, Salem’s Pot demonstrate an open-mindedness that seems to have been underlying their work all along and bring it forward in engaging fashion.

Salem’s Pot BigCartel store

RidingEasy Records website

 

Bridesmaid, International House of Mancakes

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International House of Mancakes – yup – is the follow-up to Bridesmaid’s 2013 long-player, Breakfast at Riffany’s, and like that album, it finds the Columbus, Ohio, instrumentalists with a penchant for inserting dudes’ names into well-known titles – see “Hungry Like Nick Wolf” and “Ronnin’ with the Devil” – but it also expands the lineup to the two-bass/two-drum four-piece of Scott Hyatt and Bob Brinkman (both bass) and Cory Barnt and Boehm (both drums). Topped off with KISS-meets-Village People art from W. Ralph Walters, there are shortages neither of snark nor low end, but buried underneath is a progressive songwriting sensibility that doesn’t come across as overly metal on cuts like “Ricky Thump” and doesn’t sacrifice impact or heft for the sake of self-indulgence. Opening with its longest track (immediate points) in “It’s Alectric (Boogie Woogie Woogie),” International House of Mancakes unfolds a heavy rock push that, while obviously driven in part by its sense of humor, earns serious consideration in these tracks for those willing to actually listen.

Bridesmaid on Thee Facebooks

Bridesmaid on Bandcamp

 

Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell, Keep it Greasy!

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Too thick in its tones to be a completely vintage-style work, the sleazy vibes of Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell’s Keep it Greasy! (on Rise Above) are otherwise loyal to circa-1971 boogie and attitude, and whether it’s the rewind moment on opener “U Got Wot I Need” or proto-metallic bass thrust of the “Hawkline Monster” or the brash post-Lemmy push of “Tired ‘n’ Wired,” the album is a celebration of a moment when rock isn’t about being any of those things or anything else, but about having a good time, letting off some steam from a shit job or whatever it is, and trying your damnedest to get laid. Radio samples throughout tie the songs together, but even that carries an analog feel – because radio – and the good Admiral are clearly well versed in the fine art of kicking ass. Familiar in all the right ways with more than enough personality to make that just another part of the charm.

The Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell on Thee Facebooks

Rise Above Records website

 

Landing, Third Sight

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The invitation to completely immerse comes quickly on the 13-minute “Delusion Sound,” which opens Landing’s Third Sight (on El Paraiso), and from there, the Connecticut four-piece sway along a beautiful and melodic drift, easing their way along a full-sounding progression filled out with airy guitar and backing drones, moved forward patiently by its drum march and topped with echoed half-whispers. It’s a flat-out gorgeous initial impression to make, and the instrumental “Third Site” and “Facing South” follow it with a tinge of the experimentalism for which Landing are more known, the former led by guitar and the latter led by cinematic keyboard. To bookend, the 14-minute “Morning Sun” builds as it progresses and draws the various sides together while creating a rising soundscape of its own, every bit earning its name as the vocals emerge in the second half, part of a created wash that is nothing short of beautiful. One could say the same of Third Sight as a whole.

Landing on Thee Facebooks

El Paraiso Records website

 

Reign of Zaius, Planet Of…

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While they’ve spent the last few years kicking around the deeper recesses of Brooklyn’s heavy underground, Reign of Zaius mark their debut release with the 26-minute Planet Of… EP, bringing together seven tracks that show what their time and buildup of material has wrought. Opener “Hate Parade” reminds of earliest Kings Destroy, but on the whole, Reign of Zaius are rawer and more metal at their core, the five-piece delving into shuffle on “Out of Get Mine” and showing an affinity for classic horror in both “They Live” – which starts with a sample of Roddy Piper being all out of bubblegum – and “Farewell to Arms,” previously issued as a single in homage to Evil Dead. The charm of a “Dueling Banjos” reference at the start of “Deliver Me” leads to one of the catchier hooks on Planet Of…, and the shorter “Power Hitter” closes with a bass-heavy paean to smoking out that digs into punkish summation of where Reign of Zaius are coming from generally as they continue to be a band up for having a good time without taking themselves too seriously.

Reign of Zaius on Thee Facebooks

Reign of Zaius on Bandcamp

 

Transcendent Sea, Ballads of Drowning Men

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Kind of a mystery just where the time goes on Sydney rockers Transcendent Sea’s self-released 50-minute first album, Ballads of Drowning Men. Sure, straightforward cuts like “Over Easy” and “Mind Queen” are easily enough accounted for with their post-Orange Goblin burl and boozy, guttural delivery from vocalist Sean Bowden, but as the four-piece of Bowden, guitarist Mathew J. Allen, bassist Andrew Auglys and drummer Mark Mills get into the more extended “Throw Me a Line,” “Blood of a Lion” and closer “Way of the Wolf” – all over 10 minutes each – their moves become harder to track. They keep the hooks and the verses, but it’s not like they’re just tacking jams onto otherwise structured tracks, and even when “Way of the Wolf” goes wandering, Bowden keeps it grounded, and that effect is prevalent throughout in balancing Ballads of Drowning Men as a whole. It takes a few listens to get a handle on where Transcendent Sea are coming from in that regard, but their debut proves worth at least that minimal effort.

Transcendent Sea on Thee Facebooks

Transcendent Sea on Bandcamp

 

Red Teeth, Light Bender

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Brothers Rael and Ryan Andrews, both formerly of Lansing, Michigan, art rockers BerT, revive their heavy punk duo Red Teeth with the four-song Light Bender 7” on GTG Records. Both contribute vocals, and Ryan handles guitar and bass, while Rael is on drums and synth through the quick run of “Light Bender, Sound Bender,” “Tas Pappas,” “134mps” and “Elephant Graveyard,” the longest of which is the opener (immediate points) at 4:49. By the time they get down to “Elephant Graveyard,” one can hear some of the Melvinsian twist and crunch that often surfaced in BerT, but whether it’s the ‘90s-alt-vibes-meet-drum-madness of “134mps” or the almost rockabilly riffing of “Tas Pappas,” Red Teeth – whose last release was eight years ago – have no trouble establishing personality in these songs. Approach with an open mind and the weirdness that persists will be more satisfying, as each track seems to have a context entirely of its own.

Red Teeth on Bandcamp

GTG Records website

 

Sea of Bones & Ramlord, Split

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One can hear the kind of spacious darkness and through-the-skin cold of New England winters in this new split EP from Connecticut crushers Sea of Bones and grinding New Hampshire compatriots Ramlord from Broken Limbs Recordings. What the two share most of all is an atmosphere of existential destitution, but there’s an underlying sense of the extreme that also ties together Sea of Bones’ “Hopelessness and Decay” (10:36) and Ramlord’s “Incarceration of Clairvoyance (Part III)” (10:10), the latter of which continues a series Ramlord started back in 2012 on a split with Cara Neir. Both acts are very much in their element in their brutality. For Sea of Bones, this is the second release they’ve had out this year behind the improvised and digital-only “Silent Transmissions” 27-minute single, which of course was anything but, and for Ramlord, it’s their first split in two years, but finds their gritty, filthy sound well intact from where they last left it. Nothing to complain about here, unless peace of mind is your thing, because you certainly won’t find any of that.

Broken Limbs Recordings on Bandcamp

Sea of Bones on Thee Facebooks

Ramlord on Thee Facebooks

 

Holy Smoke, Holy Smoke! It’s a Demo!

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Philadelphia-based five-piece Holy Smoke formed in the early hours of 2015, and the exclamatory Holy Smoke! It’s a Demo! three-track EP is their debut release. Opening with its longest cut (immediate points) in “Rinse and Repeat,” it finds them blending psychedelic and heavy rock elements and conjuring marked fluidity between them. As the title indicates, it’s a demo, and what one hears throughout is the first material Holy Smoke thought enough of to put to tape, but on “Rinse and Repeat” and the subsequent “Blue Dreams” and “The Firm,” they bring the two sides together well in a way it’s easy to hope they continue to do as they move onto whatever comes next, pulling off “The Firm” particularly with marked swing and a sense of confidence that undercuts the notion of their being their first time out. They have growing to do, and by no means would I consider them established in style, but there’s a spark in the songs that could absolutely catch fire.

Holy Smoke on Thee Facebooks

Holy Smoke on Bandcamp

 

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