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The Art of Collaboration: An Opeth Conversation With Travis Smith

The Swedish ensemble expand upon an already staggering being with a new complete edition that lights a torch to their longstanding partnership with the acclaimed artist.

Words by Luis (@heaviestofart), Artwork by Travis Smith (@theartoftravissmith). Photographs by Maurice Nunez (@devilman.138) at the Riverside Municipal Auditorium on May 11, 2022:

With two consecutive North American co-headlining tours with Mastodon now behind them, the prog-rock masters in Opeth continue to breathe new life into the multi-faceted composition that is In Cauda Venenum. Initially released in 2019 via Nuclear Blast Records and the band's own Moderbolaget label, In Cauda Venenum, which is the band's longest record to date, now celebrates the recent release of an Extended Edition, bringing together both the English and Swedish iterations of the record with new illustrations by Travis Smith and additional, previously unreleased bonus tracks in both English and Swedish. As if it the original release didn't already, the Extended Edition excels at capturing the gripping nature of the Mikael Akerfeldt led unit through audiovisuals that encourage repeated visits.

For those who have had the privilege of seeing Opeth in concert in recent months, you'd attest to the staggering live show that the five-piece so meticulously craft, allowing their thirteenth album to shape shift through brief improvisations that flow through each musician. We'll let Maurice's exquisite photographs from the Riverside Municipal Auditorium performance help guide us through today's feature.

Photograph by Maurice Nunez

Like most celebrated progressive records, In Cauda Venenum is another entity in the flesh. Strobe lights and lasers reign down upon the audience as riffs and vocal melodies soar with Travis Smith's artwork cycling through the digital screen in the background. Listening through the album on your record player or phone is only one part of the experience, letting it gaze upon you physically is another.

Smith's artistic contributions are more than just a pretty picture, though. They become synonymous to each of Opeth's album cycles. Fans know the peacock as the symbol for Sorceress (2016), the weeping Melinda for Still Life (1999), the somber candelabra for Ghost Reveries (2005), and so on. Whether it be the wondrous tree of Heritage (2011) or the haunting doll of Damnation (2003), one can identify an Opeth album and era by a singular central figure, and In Cauda Venenum is no exception. It's the result of a fruitful relationship between the two ends of a release, each respectively achieved by Akerfeldt and Smith as one cohesive unit. "Working with Mike has been rather harmonious since first the day we started talking. We really hit it off right away, had a good connection, and everything just sort of flows," comments Smith. "We’ve developed an understanding and a strong creative relationship over the years. If he comes to me with an idea, I generally understand what he’s after right away, and if not, I might find a few different ways to interpret it. He knows what he wants but is receptive to new ideas as well as different takes on his own. I find a lot of inspiration in Opeth's music and his lyrics, so there’s never any shortage where that’s concerned."

Photographs by Maurice Nunez

As Smith explains, approaching the visual development of Opeth is not a one way street with singular conventions. The two inform one another's work and the results they yield speak volumes of their collaborative. In Cauda Venenum's artwork could arguably be among their best yet with so much living beyond beyond the album cover through merchandise, art booklets, stage backdrops and imagery, and more, as we've seen on tour. The joyous nature of Opeth's stage presence and facial expressions as they play through the album's staples is enough confirmation of the pure splendor that is felt. For artists to see their talents evolve as a living, breathing work of multiple interpretations, it's surely an act of reflection. "I’m very proud of it, and it’s quite the compliment having the artwork not only represent a song on the record, or the record itself, but also being a significant part of the live experience, up there alongside the band," says Smith. "It’s also more than a little flattering seeing things like the animated visuals for The Wilde Flowers illuminating the Red Rocks Amphitheatre or the Sorceress peacock looming over the Wembley Arena as a backdrops for the music."

As Akerfeldt explains on a Nuclear Blast video leading up to the album's initial release, In Cauda Venenum's cover came about from a fluid exchange of ideas, which again characterizes the development process that the two parties have built from album to album. Akerfeldt is receptive to Smith's ideas and trusts him to bring to life the themes and conceptual world of the music, which isn't always achieved on the first try. The cover you see now is not what was initially intended.

"The In Cauda Venenum cover concept was a little different in that the original concept shifted gears few times and ended up being something completely different from the idea he’d initially proposed. The first one was a more general idea he mentioned to me during a visit with them at a show on the Sorceress tour, so we’d been talking about it for sometime before we starting actually laying down drafts. The first idea involved the band members represented as sort of twisted versions of various real-world animals. That one could have been a lot of fun. I had a good visual in mind to start with, but it never really made it onto paper save for one member and a bit landscape before it was axed. The second one involved the courtyard of a large manor with a central fountain surrounded by trees that were trimmed into faces of the band, the house looming in the distance beyond them. This wasn’t really working as a cover (the basic idea was finished for a piece of related merch later on), and Mike suggested bringing the house to the forefront and had a lot of great ideas for the scene and details around it."

Smith continues, "As it was nearing completion, he came up with the idea for a second image where we 'pulled back' on the scene, showing the house is in fact sitting on a demon’s tongue, (which I thought was rather brilliant and played very well with the album title), as well as some good ideas for interior stuff and the back cover."

'In Cauda Venenum' Cover Iterations, Artwork by Travis Smith

"Properly realizing his vision for the record first and foremost, I want to make the artwork something that tells a little story or creates a mood or atmosphere, and invites the listener to pick it up from the proverbial shelf and enhances the experience of the music for them," Smith adds. "Sometimes, we will have more ideas for that than we can say or tastefully fit onto a single cover and that’s when we might have multiple illustrations throughout the package, such as with Watershed (2008), Sorceress, or In Cauda Venenum, and these can come from his ideas, mine, or a collaboration of both."

As you scroll through the multiple iterations of the In Cauda Venenum manor, you'll notice variations in the windowed subjects. Though one could consider these to be minute details, they play a key role in Opeth's world-building abilities, which is further emphasized by the intentional approach to lyricism. On his end, Smith understood the power that cover illustrations have on the wandering eye. "Early on, a good album cover always did that for me with a new record," Smith comments. "I can’t say taking in Iron Maiden’s Live After Death (1985) or Seventh Son (1988) for the first time would have been quite the same had there been a plain photo of the band on the cover. Still being one of those same listeners myself, I am hoping to achieve the same thing."

With regards to their creative process, Smith mentions that though each album's visual identity is unique, the creation isn't all too different, only slightly varying in the mental and creative state that it found them in at the time. "The creative process tends to be similar from album to album; Especially for the albums since Watershed, Mike comes to me with the front cover idea mapped out, sometimes quite specific and other times maybe a little more vague, but often with some kind sketch or description of varying detail. There’s a few questions, a few jokes, and then we’re off to where I’m sending him a few in-progress drafts to see if my interpretations are on target, then developing it together from there."

Full Cover Illustration and Additional 'In Cauda Venenum' Artwork by Travis Smith

"As I heard more (or learned more about) the record, it quickly became one of my favorites from them. I found a lot of inspiration in the music and certain lyrics, and developed and presented several more illustrations, a few of these being after we had turned in the record. I had the idea of using them for singles or a possible bonus track release in mind. Not all of them fit the record and some of those became merch or simply wound up in the circular file."

The aforementioned illustrations that were done after the initial release of the record are the ones you see here today, beautifully included in the art booklet of the album's Deluxe Edition. Among them is the below Universal Truth, a great piece of vibrant purple hues, snowy landscapes, and an apparent possession or mesmerizing.

Artwork by Travis Smith for 'In Cauda Venenum'

Instead of detaching himself from In Cauda Venenum upon completion of the cover and the accompanying work, Smith paid it a visit once more and continued his expression of the themes and messaging layered across this contemporary prog-rock gem. Every detail is strategic and heartfelt, unfolding with every subsequent glance. When asked if this was by design or more so a byproduct of the creative process that he and Mikael have so strongly defined, Smith answers, "It’s a little of both - we love to put in a lot of little details, things going on when appropriate, sprinkle a bit of humor around, and just have fun with it. Sometimes most, if not all of them, are planned or at least mentioned as a possibility, such as with Heritage for example. A lot of the times, they come up spontaneously as we work on it, being inspired by (or even dictated) by the artwork itself."

Artwork by Travis Smith for 'In Cauda Venenum'

He continues, "It can be a personal reference, in-joke, or just an odd detail that may or may not fit in the context of the artwork. There’s more than a few things like that going on in the artwork for Heritage, Garden of the Titans (2018), and ICV, for example." There was certainly much fun to be had when placing the band's heads atop a scorpion, which coincidentally aligns with the album's Latin title.

Artwork by Travis Smith

Having invested so much time and effort into developing yet another maelstrom of works to support the band's latest endeavor, Smith can sit back and look at it all as an act of reflection. To see millions of viewers across the globe engage with the material, whether physical or digital, and have them develop unique interpretations of the artwork and lyricism as one joint product must be cathartic in some sense. For Smith, it's more so gratifying to see In Cauda Venenum evolve from sketch and draft sessions to a full blown, international persona, and receive kind words from those who have developed an affinity for his role in the Opeth trajectory.

"I don’t think I can really say that I’ve seen a lot in the way of connections people may have or expressed with it, specifically, but I have heard some feedback from time to time since it was revealed, and the response has been overwhelmingly positive. I’ve seen some comment it’s a perfect cover for the way the record sounds, which I think of as high praise because ultimately, it's something I hope to achieve with every Opeth cover."

Photographs by Maurice Nunez

As noted prior, there's no doubt that Smith has seamlessly captured sound in unique and refreshing ways beyond just the Opeth discography, but through his other notable collaborations as well, including Katatonia, Devin Townsend, Allegaeon, and Fleshgod Apocalypse to name a few. On Opeth's work alone, Smith has cemented his positions among the Dan Seagrave, Ed Repka, Michael Whelan, and Joe Petagno ranks of metal, leaving behind a wealth of memorable album covers for a legacy that will never cease to amaze decades past its inception. Never one to conform and stay at ease, Smith continues to astound with contemporary covers for bands both new and established, challenging himself in technique and delivery as does Mikael Akerfeldt and his ever growing prowess. At a time where both have nothing left to prove, Travis Smith and Sweden's Opeth stray from the norm and push towards a freeing achievement that is the boundless nature of their craft. In Cauda Venenum, in all of its glory, is the culmination of what genuineness among two of metal's most important names can do. We as a keen audience stand to benefit.

Photograph by Maurice Nunez

Stream/Order your Extended Edition copy of In Cauda Venenum and for our European readers, catch the band on tour now.

OPETH (Tickets):

6/02/2022 Mystic Festival – Gdansk, PL

6/10/2022 Sweden Rock Fest – Norje, SE

6/16/2022 Copenhell – Copenhagen, DK

6/17/2022 Hellfest – Clisson, FR

6/18/2022 Graspop – Dessel, BE

6/25/2022 Tons Of Rock – Oslo, NO

6/30/2022 Resurrection Fest – Vivero, ES

7/02/2022 Provinssi – Seinajoki, FI

8/03/2022 Beyond The Gates Fest – Bergen, NO

8/06/2022 Leyendas Del Rock Fest – Villena/Alicante, ES

8/13/2022 North Of Hell Fest – Oulu, FI

8/20/2022 ArcTanGent – Bristol, UK

w/ The Vintage Caravan:

9/14/2022 Helitehas – Tallinn, EE

9/15/2022 Palladium – Riga, LV

9/16/2022 Progresja – Warsaw, PL

9/17/2022 A2 – Wroclaw, PL

9/19/2022 Forum Karlin – Prague, CZ

9/20/2022 Arena – Vienna, AT

9/21/2022 Barba Negra – Budapest, HU

9/23/2022 Arenale Romane – Bucharest, RO

9/24/2022 Roman Amphitheatre – Plovdiv, BU

9/26/2022 Culture Factory – Zagreb, CR

9/27/2022 Teatro Degli Arcimboldi – Milan, IT

9/28/2022 Ostia Antica Theatre – Rome, IT

OPETH By Request Set - 30th Anniversary Tour:

11/12/2022 Schlachthof – Wiesbaden, DE

11/14/2022 Admiral Palast – Berlin, DE

11/15/2022 - Historische Posthalle – Wuppertal, DE

11/16/2022 Pleyel – Paris, FR

11/18/2022 Eventim Apollo – London, UK

11/19/2022 TivoliVredenburg (Grote Zaal) – Utrecht, NL

11/20/2022 TivoliVredenburg (Ronda) – Utrecht, NL

11/21/2022 Komplex – Zurich, DE

11/23/2022 Razzmatazz – Barcelona, ES

11/24/2022 Santana 27 – Bilbao, ES

11/25/2022 La Riviera – Madrid, ES

11/26/2022 Sala Tejo – Lisbon, PT

opeth, progressive metal
Cover Artwork by Travis Smith

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