Exploring a conceptual tech death trilogy through the eyes of the award-winning artist.
Words by Luis (@luis.hoa):
Over the course of the last three years, an enthralling collection of full-lengths have arrived by way of Seattle's SLEEP TERROR. The Luke Jaeger brainchild has an ample sound palette that evolves with each passing composition, exploring the realms of blues, country, surf rock, and prog within the all-encompassing scope of technical death metal that is found across the band's recently completed trilogy. Consisting of El Insomne (2018), Abreaction (2019), and the recently released Above Snakes, SLEEP TERROR's musical complexities come well adorned by the art of India's own Reuben Bhattacharya, a.k.a Visual Amnesia.
Reuben, who has worked with the likes of The Black Dahlia Murder, Monuments, Jinjer, Soilwork, and tons more, is no stranger to expansive illustrations. To tell the tale of SLEEP TERROR's hymns, Reuben worked closely with Luke and established what became a journey via the arts. Each record sports a vibrant collection of works, illustrated by Reuben as a voice to Luke's atmospheric craft. From El Insomne to Above Snakes, SLEEP TERROR's delivery is that of excellence.
Above Snakes, which arrived earlier this year, marks the third and final entry in SLEEP TERROR's tale of rebirth, one that finds a protagonist discovering his self as he undergoes the pain of loss and betrayal. Visually, Above Snakes takes a much darker direction than that of the predecessors, matching the themes of vengeance and the character's reincarnation as an undead spirit through a use of blood red hues amidst a graveyard that utilizes key symbolic figures. Though the record itself is instrumental, Visual Amnesia's ability to present a storyboard through the cover illustrations is bar none a feat to be appreciative of for it guides the narrative while SLEEP TERROR's technical death metal intricacies consume the senses. As great as it is as a standalone composition, the experience is much better felt having all three chapters to dive into.
We talk to Reuben about what went into the making of this ambitious endeavor:
With ‘Above Snakes, you and Sleep Terror have just closed out an expansive conceptual trilogy that began with 2018’s ‘El Insomne’ and continued with 2019’s ‘Abreaction’. You of course illustrated the entire trilogy. When you were first approached by Luke for the project a few years ago, what did you both aim to achieve, especially given the ambitious approach to a release at a time where streaming dominates music consumption?
Bhattacharya: Thank you for that acknowledgement, and what a ride it has been. Luke and I had some shared views towards life, art and music, so the process was organic. Right off the bat, we had a very clear idea that we wanted to push the boundaries in all sonic and visual aspects of the effort, to put the 'artistry' above everything else. Yeah, we were completely going off the rails with a trilogy, all extended art and physical packaging in a streaming dominated scene with no surety of what lay at the other end. But isn't artistic ambition the most liberating thing? We had the worthy aim of trying to break artistic barriers on how tech death albums are seen and perceived, sort of reinvent the steel while staying 100% true to what makes death metal one of the purest forms of extreme metal.
The Sleep Terror narrative spread over 3 albums is essentially connected by one skull-faced protagonist in 3 avatars, with elements of nature, animals, and birds watching his human story. The first outing, 'El Insomne', was tech-death rooted in los muertos, flamenco, retro surf, and funk sounds and dealt with feelings of loss, empathy, and rejection. That said, he appears as a Mariachi in a surreal lucid dream battling alien sea cacti to serenade his love even as she is eaten up by her own darkness. With our second effort, 'Abreaction', this template moved forward into a darker, more wintry twist with thrash and blackened leanings. Our protagonist is now a Diver being attacked by bizarre sea life while the love he tried to save engulfed him as an undead mermaid. He's sort of sunk into a wanton thing here and lost himself, his own identity. In the third and latest chapter, 'Above Snakes', everything comes to a head and a new chapter rises as a delta-blues driven wild-west dark fantasy. The protagonist, having found his strength of self in the depths of desolate hope, now rises anew from swampy graves as a snake slinging, vengeance seeking undead spirit. Quite simply put, the trilogy deals with 3 stages of self; wanting something more than yourself, then letting it eat you up from within, then rising from that struggle as a completely new version of yourself.
You outdid yourself here, Reuben. You truly did, and thanks for sharing the full artwork! In true DIY fashion, Sleep Terror self-released the three chapters and allowed for full creative exploration. How significant was this to you as an artist, to have free creative reign with respect to the themes and concepts present on the records?
Bhattacharya: Undoubtedly, this trilogy is one of the most significant achievements of my art career so far. We managed to touch upon and pay homage to artistic highs of American pop-culture (1950's to 1990s) that Luke and I grew up on and we could reinvent it from a musical, artistic, and philosophical standpoint. In hindsight, it was essential to have complete free reign in order to drag all that out of the fog and put together. I took a deep dive on every aspect, from building themes, narratives, illustrating, and designing to physical production. Unrestricted creative freedom isn't an easy beast to control, so I'm immensely grateful to Luke for always making me feel like an equal part of the band and trusting the process.
Building that trust is always an integral part of the audiovisual partnership. The recently released ‘Above Snakes’ is truly the epitome of the wild west, musically and visually. You’ve embraced the thematic approach and expanded upon it beyond the cover, putting together additional artwork for the ‘Hellagator Resonator’ and ‘Wagonbvrner’. Was this intentional or was this more so a result of your creative ambitions as you went about illustrating the cover?
Bhattacharya: Well, all 3 albums involve thematic approaches within a larger narrative. The last two albums' defining factor was the evolving narratives via continuous art panels. 'El Insomne' had a flowing low brow retro-comic bent, 'Abreaction' was all dense quill-inked brutal detail. Both were set off with rich and bright color palettes. I started on 'Above Snakes' by developing on that ethic, but it evolved into a worn and gritty painted graphic approach, true to the grit needed for a great southern dark western. It grew from there as the narrative evolved. I had a very strong feeling the art needed space and larger cinematic framing as opposed to choked with detail. An inner voice was saying that this was a definitive moment for Sleep Terror, it was a coming of age for the sound and the band and the album art had to reinvent itself to be honest to the theme.
Touching again on the expansive approach to the visuals on ‘Above Snakes’, about how long did the cover and additional artwork take to complete? And what tools were used in the process?
Bhattacharya: We generally like to work a couple of months in advance, syncing art and ideas with how the music develops. I started with practice runs, trying out various pencil, charcoal and ink approaches. Ultimately, pencil drafting the scenes and completing them digitally. I didn't want to get hung up on my preferred ink tools and tried to stay more lucid through the process. The mood, emotion, and feeling were more important than how much tool skill I could render. Even in the album, there are these haunting whistling bits, the sound of rattler’s tail moving and cinematic background style moody moments juxtaposed against snarling passages and relentless blasts. I wanted to capture that contrast. 'Above Snakes' would have been released in 2020, but we held off due to the pandemic. Both Luke and I felt that it deserved more for all the work that has gone into it and having it sink in a sea of pandemic noise just wasn't worth it. Instead, we used the time to hone and polish it further. In hindsight, we made the right decision. There's a trilogy LP box-set in the works to commemorate all 3 releases and new merch, all of which should see the light of day soon enough.
That's boxset is sure to be a must own. There’s an abundance of reference material when it comes to the ‘wild west’ concept and ‘Above Snakes’ excellent portrays it. Were there any films or soundtracks that served as an inspiration in any way?
Bhattacharya: Quite right. Well for starters, Ennio Morricone and the iconic spaghetti westerns with his soundtracks were already a huge influence on us. All the gritty and cathartic westerns too. I modeled our main protagonist, 'The Rev', as a sort of zombified Sam Elliott. Over the years, I've also been an avid reader and collector of Western Adventures, undertaker, blueberry comics, and Bantam paperbacks and have a load of Louis L'Amour, Adam Steele, and JT Edson books in my library that stretch back to growing up in the 80's - 90’s. I'm a mountain kid and for a good part grew up next to a haunted old catholic cemetery. My friends and I would spend weekend afternoons playing ‘cowboys and indians’ in the woods next to the graves and dare each other to hang about after sundown. I’d perpetually be in flannel checks and scruffy jeans, stealing mom's kitchen towels to tie as scarves, and had a replica Stetson, a toy replica Colt .45 with it’s waist holster, hahaha. We didn’t grow up with much T.V. or any smartphones or malls and traffic jams, so we had comics, books, games, and real-life adventures. We had to be creative y'know, either read or draw or play or risk boredom. As teenagers, we’d hike into the woods fishing, chill beer in the stream, someone would get a guitar, some tapes and a stereo. Those are some of my favourite memories and there are certain sounds, images, and smells that take me right back. So I guess y’know, in a poetic sort of way, the real reference material and mood was pre-built into my life. I just had to look back and recognize that inspiration again.
Those were the days, my friend. The record itself is instrumental, but the artwork speaks for it. What role do you feel that symbols like the crow among the burning wagon and guitar tombstone play when encouraging listeners to engage with the material beyond a surface level?
Bhattacharya: I feel with all great concept instrumental albums, the album art bears that extra responsibility of creating a worded story in the listeners mind. This is the darkest yet most mature album of the trilogy, with symbolic cues that act as analogies. 'Wagonbvrner' is an analogy for the world set afire, the crow acting as a symbol for fence-sitters coldly watching the world burn, all the goodness going up in flames. 'Gator Resonator' again resonates with danger lurking underneath the swampy surface, the croc guarding the tombstones, and the snakes are nods to the old west symbols of acknowledging danger and to tread carefully. Things that men realize after hard life experiences is that there's no place for foolish bravado and survival often means facing the red sunset alone. The wild west was built by those who knew these facts well in order to be above snakes, to be those free men who survived against odds. The crosses, tombstones, and the main protagonist being a Reverend have nothing to do with Christianity, but are artistic analogies to the spirit of the frontier, of survival and trying to find some meaning to the human spirit in a chaotic world. These are analogies that I think are as important in 2021 as they were in 1821.
Amazing how all of that makes its ways to the artwork, even if subconsciously. Reflecting a bit on the Sleep Terror trilogy, how has your partnership with the band evolved since ‘El Insomne’?
Bhattacharya: Like any partnership, trust grows with time. We faced the ups and downs as a team and tweaked our approach with every release, growing the overall vision manifold in its scope since the first album. Being well versed in how the band functions and thinks, I can now take a lot of pre-emptive decisions in a more efficient manner, knowing that the band trusts me in making the right call. Sleep Terror sits on that musician's musician shelf with far reaching influence, even beyond the labyrinth of tech-death, so I'm honored to helm the visual wheel of this illustrious legacy.
You've both put together a trio of gems, that's for certain. Cover art has the unique trait of drawing audiences into a record prior to even hearing it and the three Sleep Terror covers are enticing enough to draw listeners in. That said, do you recall an album cover or artwork in general that had that effect on you?
Bhattacharya: Whew, that's a huge question, there's too many to name. Some of my earliest and everlasting impressions are album covers that drew me in and left lifelong influence are; Derek Riggs’ 'Somewhere In Time', Ed Repka's 'Rust In Peace', Mark Wilkinson's 'Painkiller', Don Brautigam's covers for 'Master Of Puppets' and 'Persistence Of Time', Michael Whelan's covers for 'Arise' and 'Cause of Death', Dan Seagrave's 'Altars Of Madness' and 'Clandestine', Giger's 'Melana Chasmata'. Of course there's the artwork in general of HR Giger, Bekzinski, Moebius, Frank Frazetta, Noriyoshi Ohrai, Luis Royo, Earl Norem, Richard Corben, Simon Bisley, Katsuhiro Otomo and Todd McFarlane. There's an entire galaxy of Heavy Metal, Metal Hurlant, and comic illustrators, golden era fantasy and sci-fi book cover artists and surrealists that have drawn me down the rabbit hole ever since.
Quite a selection here! Music illustration is truly at the heart of your work and you’ve had the opportunity to partner with The Black Dahlia Murder, Monuments, Jinjer, Soilwork, and so much more. How is your work with Luke and Sleep Terror distinct?
Bhattacharya: Y'know, a lot of artists do this one style for all bands, which is absolutely great, though I realized over the years that it takes quite something else to try and nail different genres and make them your own, specifically to try and mold your style to fit a variety of tonalities without losing your own distinct voice. That challenge has fascinated me. I enjoy evolving and learning and trying out new ways to define my visions for different acts, aiming that it be definitive to each individual band. Most of my work is direct artist to artist, which I feel is when creativity can function at its peak without outside influence. Work with Sleep Terror helped develop this entire process a lot, as one of my longest running artistic endeavors with any band. Luke was one of the first to bet on Visual Amnesia and I hold that in very high regard.
Definitely. In closing, Reuben, the excellence of the trilogy you’ve built with Sleep Terror is an example of what can happen when a band finds an artist that takes an invested interest in the project and not simply seeing it as another commission. As someone who understands the importance of visual investment, why should bands invest on this aspect of a release?
Bhattacharya: I see bands as individuals, each one is different from the other. Every band has its own life-force. We are all unique in our ways and that's what we like to present to the world right. It is important to define that unique individual identity of a band, in the same way an individual tries to define his or her sense of self. I think a great piece of music without a great visual to adorn it is like a naked body in a sea of nudes, lost in a mass of flesh. Album covers are like clothing, tattoos, or jewelry that help the person stand out. A record sleeve or jacket must define what lies within, to try and offer insight into what the album is about before one hears it. That's why bands should seek an artist who takes a vested interest in understanding their life-force and has the ability to deliver a fully realized vision of that identity. The artist and the band can grow together with this approach, setting new benchmarks along the way.