A visual primer for the upcoming year-end contender of Norwegian thrash metal.
Among the most visual of music genres, metal is at the top and to break it down even further, thrash metal leads the charge with some of the most iconic album covers across time. Slayer, Kreator, Megadeth, Testament, Sepultura, and so many more set the stage for a promising future to come, highlighting the significance that a well-crafted visual investment can have on the impact and longevity of a full-length record. Needless to say, some of those records and album covers alike still hold their weight and continue to inspire bands of today, several decades beyond their inception. Though the thrash flame may have dwindled over the years, it still burns and a new generation of bands are taking the helm in paying it forward. Norway's NEKROMANTHEON is one and with their third chapter Visions Of Trismegistos fast approaching, the trio skyrocket themselves to the top of the flooded metal underground with conviction. In true thrash fashion, they do so accompanied by a rather twisted cover illustration.
Arriving on April 30th via Indie Recordings and Hells Headbangers Records, Visions Of Trismegistos presents itself as a labyrinthine listen of towering proportions. Technically excellent in every aspect, Visions is the result an honest attention to songcraft, one that comes well adorned by the artistic prowess of Zbigniew M. Bielak. His multidimensional approach to the cover is an exquisite pairing for the band's take on thrash, the likes of which incorporates an overarching and sinister approach to the genre in the same vein than that of Bielak's architectural depictions. Visions Of Trismegistos is simply an all encompassing beacon of light for audiences looking for the raw nature of 80's thrash in a trailblazing new light.
We talk to NEKROMANTHEON's own Sindre Solem (bass/vocals) and Christian "Kick" Holmes (drums) about the devilish intricacies of Bielak's cover illustration for Visions, the contemporary state of thrash, and more:
The stage is now set for ‘Visions of Trismegistos’, which comes almost a decade after ‘Rise, Vulcan Spectre’ (2012) and a little over a decade after your debut, ‘Divinity of Death’ (2010). You’ve remained active through live shows and much has obviously happened since then, creating plenty of subject material to build upon. Now entering 2021, to what do you attribute this magnificent return?
Solem: Well, there are several reasons it has taken time, one being occupied with other bands and projects, plus life in itself. We have also a somewhat unrealistic standard of what thrash metal should be, so writing new material takes a very, very long time. Thrash metal gets boring and generic very fast if it does not have the right balance of darkness, speed, dynamic, ferocity and uncut rawness, mixed with technicality up to a point, without losing the sense of spontaneity, element of surprise, and feeling of “danger” so to speak. It also needs a fitting production AND personality. We try to make our own strain of serious thrash, based off a few classics and obscure old recordings, and take it from there to a place that feels somewhat timeless and personal. This ideal has led us to throw away mass amounts of music and re-write even more time and time again. This takes A LOT of time and can be quite demoralizing when you’ve spent a year on material that goes in the bin. But that’s the path we choose, for this record anyways.
It would appear that those years of frustration and patience in crafting 'Visions' definitely paid off because the record is truly astounding. Touching a bit on the predecessor, ‘Rise’ was of course illustrated by the talented Rolf Kristian Valbo, who truly captured the malevolence on that record. For ‘Visions’, you’ve enlisted the multifaceted Zbigniew Bielak. What inspired the transition to Zbigniew? Perhaps one of his many fantastic covers?
Solem: RKV is the drummer of Obliteration and has done much artwork/designs for both bands in the past, nailing the very sentiment and vibe of what we do, visually. However, his time is very limited at the moment so we could not ask him to do a full art and layout job for us again. Zbigniew and I met for the first time in Poland in 2013 when Obliteration was on tour. I had really enjoyed and been impressed by his work at the time, and he turned out to be a fan and great supporter of our music (with both bands). We talked loosely about working together and as the years went by and he made even better and better art, it wasn’t really a tough choice. His work for Portal, the last Ghost record, Watain, and Absu are among my favorites of his work.
There's really no shortage of great Bielak covers to choose from. Visually, what were you looking for when approaching him for ‘Visions’?
Solem: Earlier in the process, we had spoken about him making somewhat of a Gustave Doré – 'Dante’s Inferno' (1861) kind of universe for us that took inspiration from the lyrics. On our first record (Divinity Of Death) we even used a Doré piece. But as time went by and the music and lyrics took form, we pictured something a bit more absurd and weird. I guess our final instructions, in addition to take inspiration from the lyrics, was to create something of Gustave Doré / ancient looking thing with heavy inspired by Larry Carrol and a healthy dash of Hieronymus Bosch absurdity. We wanted it to look like a twisted, yet classical piece.
Zbigniew achieved exactly that. His architectural talents are also on full display here. There are several worlds within one, stairways into new realms, portals, a blood drenched environment, and just a variety of Greek elements at play with one another. How do these depictions fit into the conceptual approach of ‘Visions’?
Kick: The lyrics on 'Visions' are about mysticism, esoteric realms, the subconscious, and the drive for death, and other aspects of the psyche. As usual, we try to use language and symbols from the classical era to give a timeless, ancient feeling to the music. Zbigniew’s artwork is a great visualization of the lyrics as a whole, with classical elements combined in absurd and chaotic ways, grotesque imagery and occult connotations.
Alchemic references, dissected bodies, and a headless being holding a penis are illustrated among a multitude of other malicious deeds and entities. This is not a simple piece by any means, provoking thought upon first glance. Is there an intended reaction you wish to provoke upon the viewer?
Kick: We wanted the artwork to be reflective of the images we had in mind while writing the album, which were chaotic and macabre in a Larry Carroll/Hieronymus Bosch kind of way. That’s what we told Zbigniew we were after and he was given full freedom to interpret the music and lyrics, and use whatever elements he found suitable. The elements in the artwork doesn’t have a specific message, it’s meant to let the observer’s mind wander along strange and obscure paths and into realms of darkness, mystery, and chaos.
As it should. The lyricism truly becomes one with the twisted landscape of hermetic alchemy before us. Do you feel as though the artwork is an extension of the journey you guide listeners on rather than it being a mere complement for marketing purposes?
Kick: Yeah, that's a good way to put it. We wanted the artwork to connect with the lyrical theme and Zbigniew did a really great job managing that. People normally see the cover before they hear the music, so it's important for us to give a first impression that fits the atmosphere we want to convey. Even though the music is the main focus for us, we always have in mind that we're making an album, and part of that is the visual experience. Cover art is a great way of influencing the listener's mental imagery, which in turn affects the way they feel about the music. I’m not sure if this kind of chaotic, surreal artwork is considered ideal by the marketing experts, but that’s not important.
Very well put, Kick. Some artists prefer vague details, such as the album and track titles and perhaps a few conceptual ideas. Others prefer a very detailed and specific direction. How would you describe the collaborative process with Zbigniew?
Solem: More of the first. We had a clear idea of the broader strokes, but we wanted Zbigniew to read into it as he saw fit, and hopefully be inspired by what we gave him of ideas and lyrics, etc.
Kick: He sent us some early rough sketches, we gave our thumbs up, and then he worked out everything according to his idea and without our interference.
Were there any particular elements of the cover that required revision or further discussion between you and Zbigniew to fully reach the intended result?
Solem: Not really. He did some afterwork with textures, etc. after all the drawing and colors were in place. We were a bit back and forth about the area around the logo, as it looked a bit more unfinished in our eyes maybe, but we left it as it is since it gave a more punkish addition to the whole piece, and in retrospect, keeps the focus on the chaos beneath.
Kick: Zbigniew’s ideas resonated with ours, so we just allowed him to do his thing. We felt quite perplexed when we first saw the giant phallic battering ram you mentioned earlier, but that kind of confusion and perplexity was a part of the general feeling we were after, so we didn’t want to censor it. It’s a great cover because you can keep watching it while listening to the music and constantly discover new things and get confused over and over again.
If that's not enough of a reason for audiences to pick up the vinyl version, then I don't know what is. Upon first glance of the cover illustration, Larry Carroll’s legendary painting for ‘Reign In Blood’ (1986) comes to mind for they both depict a sadistic look at hell. Zbigniew himself has made it known that the painting serves as somewhat of an homage to the iconic Slayer cover. Was this intentional on your end or more so just Zbigniew’s interpretations of the concepts you presented to him?
Solem: We spoke about what we wanted, which were elements and inspiration of the universe Larry Carroll made for Slayer, but we asked not for any homage or tribute. I love the art he did for Slayer, it’s almost better than the music, haha. Zbigniew states it’s a nod or homage on his part, but I think the album cover really stands on its own. It doesn’t immediately look like a Larry Carrol cover, you know what I mean?
(Liner notes by Zbigniew M. Bielak):
"I followed Nekromantheon for over a decade and always held their natural ability to convey darker spirits of true thrash in highest regard. With every album they condensed their essence and so is the case with Visions Of Trismegistos. Laced in virulent riffage and murky atmospheres, their new album stands as rare kin to the masters of old.
And so is the cover art - grotesque, trashy and almost punkish in execution, thus taking a farewell bow to the late Larry Carroll - the absolute luminary of metal's quintessential dread. This album is obligatory. A true benchmark of coherence and determination in today's metal scene."
Definitely. It's reminiscent to an extent, but unique in its own way. As mentioned, ‘Visions’ is more than just a visual tribute of sorts to the greatness of the past but a musical one as well, harnessing a Kreator-like intensity with flourishes of old school death metal layered in between. You even used old, analog equipment to get that warm, genuine sound. In a contemporary time where musicians across genres are looking to innovate and present new ideas, ‘Visions’ embraces and builds upon the past. Where do you feel that this distinction comes from?
Solem: Well, as you are correct here, I’d like to point out that we are trying to see forward, just with very old glasses so to speak. We are not a tribute band by any means, nor do we rip off riffs. I can’t stand mere “worship” bands.
We are trying to create something that sounds personal and to a certain extent unique, while still being heavily rooted in the old. When we started out playing in bands, we hated the contemporary scene. It was polished, technical, soulless, and clean, not how we wanted our metal to be. So, we tried to create sort of an antithesis, a resurrection of the old! Old ideals, old production and the old vibe with fresh anger and vision.
I do not have anything against innovation, but the progress in metal in the late 90’s and early 2000’s was heavily linked to rudimentary technical advancements and early digitalization, which in my mind correlated badly with metal. New thoughts, ideas, and innovation within the more soulful and analog side of metal is possible (and it’s been flourishing in extreme metal in the later years). Innovation and progress for the sake of being innovating or artsy without personal ideals and taste is just as worthless as making a Bathory worship band, though. My two cents.
Kick: I agree with Sindre. We want to look forward and be progressive, but at the same time stay within the framework of the 80’s thrash metal aesthetics that we love. In the same way, the lyrical references are always classical, or at least pre-modern, never modern. We can still write about current stuff, but in a more timeless language. Working with these kinds of limitations is interesting and rewarding, because it’s difficult to think inside the box and still be original.
Definitely, and there's honesty in your approach. As mentioned by Sindre earlier, you throw away countless material because it doesn't fit the exact parameters that you're looking for, which can be daunting over time. Visually, thrash is one of the most stunning metal genres. From Ed Repka’s Megadeth covers to Michael Whelan’s for Sepultura, we can go on and on. Seeing as many will enter ‘Visions of Trismegistos’ after coming across Zbginiew’s illustration, are there any thrash or metal album covers in general that have made you pick up a record prior to ever engaging with it?
Solem: I agree, and the span is so vast as well, from really gritty lo-fi covers to the most epic works, like the Ed Repka stuff. Early on, I will have to say that the Slayer covers were very engaging. I’m pretty sure 'Reign in Blood' (1986) or 'Hell Awaits' (1985) were bought because of the cover. I don’t really remember other thrash metal purchases due to the cover without having heard about the artist first. I bought Harsh Reality (1969) – Heaven & Hell based on the artwork at a shop in Tilburg some years ago. It looks evil and doomy, so I was hoping for some cool 70’s heavy, proto metal kind of thing, but it was really boring blues rock. Disappointing.
Kick: I would totally buy ‘Killing Technology’ (1987) based on the cover alone, but I’d already heard parts it before I saw the artwork.
Normally, I try to avoid judging records by the cover, but one can’t help getting an impression and a pre-judgement, and it’s good to know that many people will have Zbigniew’s work floating in their subconscious while listening to our music. By the way, what’s up with the cover on the Znowhite album ‘Act of God’ (1988)? I never would have bought that one if I hadn’t heard it first. Great album, though!
Yeah, I'm not sure what the hell inspired that cover art decision whatsoever. Either way, some interesting choices here! In closing, we’re decades from the glory days of thrash and though many will argue that it is dead, that’s clearly not the case. Sure, it may not be where it used to but you join a list of hard-hitting new bands that carry the torch forward, the likes of which includes Demiser, Havok, Demoniac, High Command, and so many more across the world. Where do you see the genre now and moving forward? What role do you feel ‘Visions’ plays in the larger picture?
Solem: I’m not that much in agreement that thrash is thriving. I think it’s been far and few between the real good releases the last 5-10 years, compared to the wide range of absolute stellar black and death metal releases! Salute to bands like Antichrist, Deathhammer, Condor, and Inculter for making proper thrash metal, and the new-old masters in Aura Noir who singlehandedly took the genre forward in the 90’s.
I hope to see some form of new thinking and more “risky” decisions within the darker side of thrash, incorporating weirder stuff while maintaining the speed, power and raw approach. Hopefully, ‘Visions’ will be a part of pushing the genre forward in the “right”, darker direction, but I don’t know. Not sure if people will even like it at this point.
Visions Of Trismegistos arrives on April 30th via Indie Recordsings and Hells Headbangers Records. Get your own copy HERE.