The Curl of the Burl Swirls and Whirls

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Mastodon’s meteoric rise is almost ridiculous when you look at the group’s history. I say almost because the band definitely puts out high quality progressive metal, it’s just seems like they became darlings of the rock/metal community instantaneously. By the time Leviathan, the group’s second full length album, came out the band already had massive tours under their belt, high quality music videos, and legions of devoted fans that eagerly bought up the band’s subsequent albums as soon as they dropped.

For the uninitiated, Mastodon play a variety of sludge metal – metal with heavily distorted and downtuned guitars, alternating tempos, and screamed and/or sung vocals – that also embraces complex time signatures and drum patterns with thematic ideas. Their first four albums were each centered on an element, fire, water, earth, and sky respectively, with artwork that incorporated these states of matter or hinted at it in the album titles. But after they tackled all four in a string of highly praised albums the band was faced with a serious question: where do they go from here? For The Hunter, the band decided to go nowhere and everywhere at the same time.

What I mean by this is that The Hunter has no central concept or theme that it works with. It’s simply a collection of mostly hit and sometimes miss songs that shows off the varied composing abilities of the group. In this sense, then, it’s understandable why the album artwork is the first one not done by band favorite Paul Romano, who did the covers for Remission, Leviathan, Blood Mountain, and Crack the Skye. This time around the album is graced by the intricate woodworking sculpture entitled “Sad Demon Oath” by AJ Fosik. While every Mastodon album cover has been busy looking, The Hunter is unique in that the centerpiece is complex and multi-layered yet the image as a whole is far more stripped down than previous outings.

This doesn’t reflect on the music itself, The Hunter is still a solid release by Mastodon but is the first record of theirs to be a collection of songs as opposed to a cohesive story told in album form. It’s all over the map and explores multiple avenues for composition which I find the wood carving to perfectly represent. There’s dozens of pieces intricately glued together and all done so in a layered format. Various body parts are repeated on the sculpture, a symbolism for the band drawing upon previous sounds (“Spectrelight” draws heavily from Blood Mountain for example) and experimenting with or building upon them on record. Outside the actual music itself, “Sad Demon Oath” is fitting for some of the tragedy surrounding the album. The Hunter is named for the drummer’s brother tragically dying on a hunting trip and the track “The Sparrow” is an ode to the band’s accountant’s wife passing due to stomach cancer. Yet while these dark elements are present, there’s still a sense of fun found on the record which is similarly exemplified by the sculpture.

For a band to alter a sound that fans have become familiar with is dangerous. There’s an inherent risk in alienating too many original supporters and not drawing in enough new people to keep your sound going. While The Hunter doesn’t reach the same levels of punchiness of Leviathan and has a couple songs that simply fall flat, the change in direction is still admirable and so was the choice of artwork. To have kept Paul Romano on would have polarized fans more as they would have expected something similar to the past. In that sense, changing from Romano to Fosik was not only a new look for the album, it was a new message by Mastodon that The Hunter was going to be different.

Ah, my favorite album cover. What an original first post

wavering radiant

Few bands manage to alternate between grimy sludge metal, rapturous climaxes, and odyssey-like noodling the way ISIS does. Coming out of Boston after the grunge and hardcore scene had begun to give way to alternative rock and “core” variations on metal, ISIS was a band that always had big ideas and a constantly evolving sound. It’s hard to say whether Wavering Radiant, the album from which the image above comes from and the group’s final LP, is necessarily a “final evolution” of the group’s sound but it definitely reflects the growth in artistic maturity that ISIS has gone through. I could spend all day going over the intricacies of the record and its music, the story behind the band and its prolific frontman Aaron Turner, but given that this blog is supposed to be about the album covers so let’s get right to that.

The art was done by Aaron, who’s also worked on album covers for other bands, and is perhaps the most surrealist of his work. Quite a few of his pieces focus on colorful and slightly warped landscapes but few mimic the concept of a dreamscape better than this album. Prior albums from ISIS were photographic in nature, Celestial featured a single overbearing tower, Panopticon a bird’s eye view of a city, the Red Sea a blackened image of a sea surface, and Oceanic had a single illuminated space of bathypelagic ocean. It was only on their last two albums, In the Absence of Truth and Wavering Radiant, that Aaron’s art became more abstract. The most noticeable shift that Wavering Radiant has compared to older records is its orientation: it’s one of the few albums to evoke the feeling of looking up. Blue tendrils/fingers reach upwards towards a blotted night sky similar in gradient to Van Gogh’s “Starry Night.” The music reflects this upward sensation, the album has a generally brighter tone overall compared to earlier ISIS records with keyboard work that wades through higher pitched tremolo strumming on the guitars. In keeping with the darker aspects of metal; though, the art features a night sky which is also exemplified by plotting bass lines and Aaron Turner’s bark. It’s a fascinating duality that shows off the best of ISIS’s writing ability musically and in the scope of crafting particular imagery reminiscent of the album cover.

A friend described Wavering Radiant as “drugs in music form” and its an apt comparison. The free-form nature of the music and cover art could be equated to an LSD hallucination or some other psychedelic. For myself, I prefer to look at it as proof of the old adage that music is a drug in of itself.