An in-depth look at the visual approach to a contemporary melodeath staple.
Amidst the crimson skies of Niklas Sundin's atmospheric prowess lies DARK TRANQUILITY's Moment, a composition of perspective intrigue and controlled melodic aggression. Released last week on November 20th via Century Media, Moment finds frontman Mikael Stanne and the ex-DARK TRANQUILITY guitarist revisiting their audiovisual partnership once more, a partnership that stems back as far as their Kindergarten days. Not only is the cover illustration before you magnificent, it serves a guide towards understanding the themes at play. Those who have embarked on the journey through a vinyl copy can attest to the depth, but we look to dive into it even further.
We go Behind the Cover of Moment with frontman Mikael Stanne and Niklas Sundin to dissect the wondrous landscape that fronts their latest spectacle:
As we celebrate the arrival of ‘Moment’, it’s important to highlight how you’ve led Dark Tranquility through several line-up changes, genre polarity, and of course, the inevitable shifts in the music industry. As you finish this 12th full-length cycle, where do you see Dark Tranquility now compared to when this all began as Septic Broiler in ‘89?
Stanne: Everything is different, but in a way, so much is still the same. We’re the same adventurous kids at heart who want to make music and make the most out of it. We’re still inspired by the bands that we love and devoted our lives to being fans of. We’re still trying to kind of push the limits of what death metal can be. Somehow, we’re still trying to figure out our way into this world of music in a way that we feel is interesting. We started out not knowing if we could be a part of this, but now that we are, we’re trying to find our place there and make the most out of it.
With the music industry being what it is, there are different opportunities for the big cool bands who cater to the biggest crowds and for the bands who truly want to be underground and not play by any rules. We’re somewhere in between. Our heart is still in somewhat of a punk attitude of trying to be as different as possible to what was the standard when we started. Our idea from the beginning was to make music that we love and feel strongly about, and eventually people would get it and understand. If the five of us could agree on something, then hopefully more than 5 other people would agree on liking it, and here we are 30 years later. We’ve built up a fan base and a following that is incredible. With all of the different lineups and things going on, we’ve focused on us and that has been most important.
That said, is the pre-release excitement still as high for you as it was for ‘Skydancer’ (1993) and ‘The Gallery’ (1995)?
Stanne: Things are different now. Back then, we really didn’t talk to anyone. You couldn’t gauge any anticipation or what people thought until the album was out, which took months because that would happen until we went out on the road and saw the reaction. This is now different, but it’s as exciting of course. This album, especially with having two new guys in the band, is an album that we worked harder on than almost any other album I can recall. We wanted to get it right and we kind of afforded ourselves the luxury of taking our time with it because of the pandemic, not having time constraints, and deadlines. We just focused and made the most out of our time off from touring, festivals, and all that. The anticipation and expectation was high for us, but it’s unfortunate that when the album comes out, we’re going to have to sit on it until we can tour once more. It’s a weird state of mind where you’re super excited for something to come out but then can’t do anything about it.
Definitely. In analyzing your expansive discography, one can note that Dark Tranquility has always benefited from an eclectic variety of album covers. From Kristian Wåhlin to Cabin Fever Media and of course, Niklas Sundin, what do you look for when approaching the visual elements of your records?
Stanne: Niklas and I grew up together, drew together, and learned how to sketch together in Kindergarten, for real. Niklas was always the better artist. I moved on to do logos for other bands and he did covers for other bands. Niklas is the talented guy whereas I am more of the conceptual guy. I have a lot of ideas but I can’t fully realize them at times. That has just been the dynamic since we were 15, when we started the band. We have ideas together and he makes something out of it. It’s been amazing. Sometimes we’ve worked with other cover artists, but it’s been our idea to approach it with what we feel is conceptually appropriate for each album.
I love record art. I love records. I love albums. I love holding them. I love looking at them and collecting them, so of course that part of an album is important. Everything has to be right and it’s always been like that. One of my first loves was discovering Iron Maiden through the cover artwork. I then discovered Helloween, Kreator, and these bands that had this amazing cover art. That was it. You wanted to do something like that and eventually have an album that looked as cool as some of those albums did.
Even though Niklas has stepped down from being the guitar player for the band, we still very much talk about the visual side, from everything from icons on Instagram to backdrops for the live shows and the t-shirts. It feels very good to still have that connection even though he’s living in America and on a seven hour time difference. We constantly communicated to make sure the album had the feel and look that we were aiming for.
It's safe to say that there's a strong mutual understanding here. Niklas, what did you aim to achieve with the cover?
Sundin: The starting point is always that however the visuals turn out in the end, they have to represent the music in a convincing way and allow for people to draw some kind of connection without being either too far-fetched or too obvious. Just as with the lyrics, there should be a sense of ambiguity and the feeling that there’s something waiting to be discovered, but it’s up to the reader/viewer to connect the dots and come up with their own interpretation. Continuity is also important; we wanted the “Moment” album to fit in with the band’s extensive back catalog. Since, as you say, D.T. has worked with different people for the visuals over the years, there are many different styles covered - photos, traditional paintings, digital/mixed media - but there has always been somewhat of a red thread where every new album cover makes sense in relation to the previous ones.
Seeing as you’ve been involved in a large majority of the band’s covers, was there ever a defining factor that determined whether it would be you or someone else in charge of visuals?
Sundin: I don’t know how the discussions went within the band since I was no longer a member, but I didn’t take for granted that they’d ask me. It’s great to continue being a part of the legacy, so to speak, but there’s also nothing wrong with changing things around and collaborating with new people every now and then. One perspective is that since there was quite a significant line-up change on “Moment”, having me doing the cover artwork would keep the album a bit more anchored in D.T. history compared to introducing yet another change by using a different illustrator. Either way, I’m glad that it happened and couldn’t be more satisfied with the result.
And the result speaks for itself. What were you looking for conceptually when approaching Sundin for the cover this time around?
Stanne: My initial idea was actually to throw a few different ideas his way around the halfway point of the lyric writing process. I wanted to explore different versions of events where things can go one way or another. You could realize something and it could change your perspective on things, to the effect of something influencing you in a way that it changes everything. I didn’t have a title for the album just yet, but I wanted something that fundamentally changes the way that you see the world. We then exchanged some photos, color schemes, and sketches from the web. About a week later, I had the title of “Moment” and sent it his way. This was maybe in September or October of last year. He started developing the idea of seeing a moment for what it truly is amidst an ever changing, strange environment. That was all his doing. He sent over some sketches and I was amazed. I love when that happens. Sometimes it takes 4 to 5 tries for us to get on the right starting point, but this time around, it was immediate.
You two have such a great history together and the collaborative process must come as organic at this point. How would you describe your audiovisual partnership when it comes to interpreting concepts through the artistic lens?
Sundin: Yes, we’ve known each other since the age of 5 or 6 and have collaborated on visuals for almost as long - even drawing Don Martin-inspired “bizarre characters” together as kids and making the first Dark Tranquillity logo together (he did the lettering, I did the exploding sun), so it’s a very natural and organic relationship. I’m not sure if I can analyze it or say something particularly interesting about how things work; it’s always a rewarding and fruitful process. Mikael is pretty decent at drawing himself, as well as being very up to date with even the most obscure styles of music, so I know that his ideas always are worth listening to, even if there of course are things that we think differently about.
Stanne: It’s very good. I send him all the songs, lyrics, etc. He was actually the one who introduced us to Johan, his replacement. He couldn’t be with the band anymore and wanted to spend time with his family. He moved to America to pursue careers with his wife and now he’s living there and working. Despite all of this though, our partnership is very much the same. I still talk to him all the time about different business decisions, merchandise, and other stuff outside of the musical side of the band. I always want his opinion on lyrics and songs because we started this band together. He understands exactly where I’m coming from and I know what he’s capable of. I try to pull the best out of him all the while trying to give him as much information as possible about what I want. I then let him go nuts with whatever he wants to do with the project. I cherish every time we get to do this because it’s super rewarding and I know that Niklas really enjoys this too. The match could not be more perfect.
Of the many great details scattered throughout the illustration, the color choice is one that immediately captures the eye. There’s a beautiful blend of red and orange hues, highlighting the fiery landscapes that our protagonist has to endure. Vibrant color palettes just seem to be your bread and butter. What inspired the color choice?
Sundin: Thanks! When it comes to colour schemes, I usually try some different ideas out during the process, just to get an idea of what’s possible and to avoid getting stuck in a corner. Sometimes everything can fall in place just by changing a key colour, so I try to be open for experiments in this area. For a long time, I struggled with colours and prefered working in black and white, but in recent years I’ve tried to get more comfortable with more vibrant palettes and connecting them to what the image tries to express . With the “Moment” cover, Mikael was actually the one suggesting “fiery” colours, since the idea was for a very dramatic image. After having compared some different versions (there was also a “night” theme, which I’ll develop into an animation for the band’s live shows instead), we agreed that this was the way to go.
Stanne: I sent Niklas some images from the video game “Firewatch” (2016), which is one of my favorite games. Do you know the game?
Yes! A wonderful indie game.
Stanne: I just loved the aesthetic of it, especially the color hues. I sent that as a reference, in addition to some Roger Dean stuff. He wanted to stick to a warm, vibrant color style, so the game reference worked perfectly. I wanted depth and as you’ve seen, there are a variety of hues that help amplify the message.
The early black and white version of the painting highlights the patience that it took to get to the end result. About how long did the cover take to complete?
Sundin: For a while I entertained the idea of having a black and white line drawing for the actual cover, so in an alternate reality this is how the album would have looked like. As much as I like that drawing, I’m very happy that the artwork developed further into a colourful and more painterly form. Also, the pose of the main figure in the drawing was a bit too fantasy-like with the robe and all, and maybe not so easy to relate to. The impression should be that of an archetypal human being and not “wizard”, ha ha!
I didn’t keep track of the time, but the execution of the front cover probably took around 40-50 working hours, and there was additional time spent listening to the songs, making sketches, reading the lyrics and discussing the concept. The layout work also was a bit daunting, with several different packaging versions all providing their own challenges. In addition, I also made a couple of t-shirt adaptations of the artwork.
More than just being a great cover illustration, the painting immerses listeners into the world that Dark Tranquility have crafted. In browsing through some of the band’s social accounts, it’s apparent that the illustration struck people as much as the music did. Where did you and Mikael find common ground when approaching the project?
Sundin: I have to admit that I’m very flattered about how the cover was received. D.T. has a broad fanbase with varied tastes, so with every new album there’s usually a portion of people commenting that they think that the artwork should have more in this or that direction - which is totally fine of course. For “Moment”, I haven’t seen any negative comments at all. I’m sure that they exist, and it’s not like I’ve looked through every single social media comment like a lunatic, but all in all the response has been truly great. As for common ground, it was just a matter of thinking and talking about the concept until there were enough ideas to start sketching.
Was the illustration purely conceptual or was it driven by the music in any way?
Sundin: Both. I listened to the early pre-production demos to get a feel for what the band was aiming for in terms of songwriting, but the bulk of the inspiration came from the lyrics and Mikael’s vision about the overall concept. Everything sort of clicked when he mentioned that “Moment” was one of the titles that he was considering, and that gave birth to the idea of portraying a sort of cataclysmic and defining event, where things reveal themselves as they truly are. I thought that it’d open up for an interesting illustration, where one can use a different style of drawing in the “beam” that represents reality.
You can’t help but be amazed by just seeing the preview pictures of the art booklet that comes included with the physical release. Seeing as this is a scenic continuation of the story told on the cover, where did you and Mikael want to approach this from a creative standpoint?
Sundin: It comes down to wanting to provide an immersive experience, and wanting the “story” not only to be told on the front cover but also in the booklet as well. The additional artwork is a way of “zooming in” on the landscape and expanding on the world that the front cover portrays. I’m also creating the live animations for the band (they’re used a video backdrop on most shows for many years), and these extra images will translate well to that format. I don’t think that every album necessarily needs to have a lot of additional illustrations - sometimes a strong cover design and a stylish layout with good typography is optimal - but for a band like D.T. where there’s always a need for a lot of merch designs and video backdrops, it definitely helps.
With the masses turning to streaming for their method of music consumption, how important was it for you to immerse listeners into this experience through this visual companion that is Sundin’s album illustration?
Stanne: Things used to be different since everyone used to buy CDs and LPs. Now, it’s a different story. Not everyone cares about those things. However, people like me love that shit. We want to embrace it and want to feel it and hold it in our hands. We want to unfold the gatefold and truly get a feel for it, so we wanted to provide that. It all comes down to a matter of personal choice. I’m not a dedicated record collector but I love buying the stuff that I really love because I want to hold it and support the band. I want to hold the best version of an album, the version that looks the coolest and has the best vinyl color and extra everything. Things like that excite me. 50% of all the stuff I listen to is streaming and the other half is vinyl.
I feel you there, and I’m the same way. You can’t deny the benefits and accessibility that streaming provides, but it must be said that the full painting for ‘Moment’ is one that is experienced better on vinyl with the gatefold showcasing it in full glory. Though fans could simply view the image online, do you feel that some of the magic is lost for those who choose not to get a vinyl copy?
Stanne: Of course, but again, it’s not that important for everyone. Some people glance at it and then blow it off. For those who do, it’s there. We actually did a super special edition of the album that we printed here in Gothenburg ourselves. It’s sold out now, but it’s a totally different press. It has a different cover paper and packaging. It has an art print and poster. That version was the one to get. We hadn’t even printed it yet and it sold out. Making that ultimate version of the album where we can go as far as we can without considering the cost was such a satisfying thing. This is how I wanted people to experience it. I want people to sit down on their sofa, put the vinyl or headphones on, and really dig into it.
Sundin: As someone that grew up with vinyl and enjoyed studying large gatefold covers while listening to albums, I’d definitely say yes. The experience deepens when the music is combined with a good visual presentation and when you have the tactile experience of a physical album. From a design perspective, LP’s are definitely more exciting than CD’s, and a small thumbnail on Spotify is obviously very limited.
With that said, I also believe that since music itself is a non-physical medium, anything extra that gets attached to it is sort of redundant, at least in principle, and it’d be a bit presumptuous of me to criticize people for only consuming their music via streaming services or online. If that’s how they prefer to listen, I don’t want to be the old man yelling about how the kids today don’t get it. Also, the new music landscape allows for other design work that also can be fun; I’ve just finished making some Spotify “canvases” which are looping animations of 3-8 seconds that play whenever people listen to songs on their smartphones. It’s very far from opening up that gatefold LP for the first time, but it’s another way of enhancing the experience.
Aside from Dark Tranquility, you’ve collaborated with Green Carnation, Solium Fatalis, your own Mitochondrial Sun, and more. Is illustrating for other bands distinct in any way than illustrating for Dark Tranquility?
Sundin: It’s a bit different. With other bands, there is more of a typical client/artist relationship - not necessarily more formal, but perhaps a bit more strict in terms of picking an idea from sketches and sticking to it. Even if the process is similar, it’s probably inevitable that I invest more of myself when it comes to visually representing something that I’m a part of (Mitochondrial Sun) compared to when working with outside clients. In some ways, it can also be more difficult since I’m already so entangled in the creative process. This differs from time to time; some D.T. illustrations (like “Character” (2005)) were very difficult projects with a huge amount of revisions, and some have been very smooth.
Mikael, as evident on your Century Media ‘Record Store Feature’ video from 2016, album covers have had a significant impact on your musical trajectory. Mandatory question for us here at Heaviest of Art. Do you both recall a time when an album cover struck you from the beginning and made you pick up a record?
Stanne: Oh yeah, many times actually. The first time was definitely “Iron Maiden” (1980). I remember hearing Iron Maiden on the schoolyard when I was about 11. I saw that record cover and thought, “yup, I’m buying this.”
At the same time, I was listening to a lot of pop stuff like Eurythmics. I remember the cover for “Be Yourself Tonight” (1985) being very evocative. It was on a big poster at the record store where I bought records, which is where I actually still buy records today. It struck me as super cool.
I think I mentioned this in the video you mentioned, but “Close To The Edge” (1972) by Yes was displayed over the door of the record store. I looked at that cover and the inlay, which has this sort of ‘edge of the world’ display by Roger Dean, and thought this was the coolest. Covers were just so important back in the day, especially the early death metal releases that had Ed Repka and Seagrave paintings. You judged records by their covers just like you do books.
Sundin: This happened all the time back in the day. For a long time, the album cover (and to some extent the song titles and record label) was the main clue to knowing what to expect from the music. It’s probably hard for younger people today to understand how little information there was regarding album releases in pre-internet times, but back in the late ‘80’s there was no way of finding out what a band sounded like unless you or one of your friends bought the album. There were magazines of course, but they were hard to get hold of and were usually pretty outdated by the time they reached Sweden.
Helloween’s “Walls of Jericho” (1985) was a blind buy, Scanner’s “Hypertrace” (1988) another. Darkthrone’s “Soulside Journey” (1991) as well (even though I was already familiar with the band), with that kind of expressive and very atmospheric painting being pretty different for the genre at the time.
You may not be “officially” part of the band, but in a sense you’ll always be, especially given your ongoing visual contributions and relationship with the members. Though you now play in a different role in Dark Tranquility’s ongoing legacy, where do you see ‘Moment’ as a testament to the growth you’ve all made since 1993’s ‘Skydancer’?
Sundin: It’s hard to analyze since I was a part of the band for nearly 30 years (and have known most of the members since early childhood), and one tends to listen to music in a completely different way if being part of the songwriting process. I never could enjoy D.T.’s music solely as a listener before, since the analytical part of the brain always was activated, so it’ll take some time getting used to it. I’d say that “Moment” is a very strong album that most D.T. fans will enjoy, and that the band managed to keep the core sound intact and add some new elements to the line-up change. As for growth, it stands with one foot in the “Atoma” sound while also bringing back some of the vibe from older albums such as “Haven” (2000) and “Projector” (1999).
In jumping towards the post-release plans, tours with Obscura and Nailed to Obscurity were taking shape for next year aside from the live stream but have recently been cancelled given the pandemic. What do you have to say for those waiting for the live opportunity?
Stanne: I’m just hoping that those plans eventually happen, given the ongoing issues of course. I’m in our rehearsal room now actually, since we’re starting to rehearse some of the songs. Whenever we get a chance to play, we will do it. We decided to be constantly rehearsing and be ready for it so that the day we get offered an opportunity, we will do it, like the live stream. We are ready when the world is.
Moment is available now via Century Media. Stream/order your copy of the record HERE.