Bringing Kristofer Strandberg, Erik Engstrand, and Blake Armstrong together for a full-fledged discussion on the expansive visual identity of the band's anthemic hymns.
Eddie (Iron Maiden), Snaggletooth (Motörhead), Vic Rattlehead (Megadeth), Knarrenheinz (Sodom), and the multitude of other metal mascots over the years have played a significant role in the visual development of a band and the genre's expansive image. From t-shirts to album covers and live stage backdrops, you see them everywhere as an extension of a band's persona. Though one might dismiss these figures as mere marketing elements, they provide an outlet for engagement and further immersion into a band's conceptual undertakings. This is the case for today's subject: Eyes Wide Open.
Today, the Swedish unit release their latest full-length chapter, Through Life and Death, via Arising Empire, which sports a new rendition of the masked mascot first seen on And So It Begins (2017). This figure, now grown, comes illustrated by multi-faceted Blake Armstrong (Spaceboy Comics), known by many for have done covers for In Flames, Carnifex, Kataklysm, Starset, and more recently, Hypocrisy. His striking color palettes and attention to atmosphere brought the Eyes Wide Open experience to new life with an exquisite use of the masked protagonist through different landscapes and poses, all of which stand firm as great album covers in their own right. Armstrong and Eyes Wide Open's multi-cover approach is every bit intentional and one need only pay close attention to the lyricism layered within their bombastic hymns to see where it all coincides. It becomes the norm for every band's subsequent new album to be hailed as a "step up" or their "best yet", but Eyes Wide Open live up to the words in an audiovisual sense by delivering their most ambitious effort yet. This melodeath hybrid is every bit as fun to hear as it is to look at, and for a band who's quickly climbing the metal ranks, it's an achievement worth basking in.
We go Behind the Cover of Through Life and Death with the band's own Kristofer Strandberg (guitars), Erik Engstrand (vocals), and artist extraordinaire Blake Armstrong to learn of their mascot's significance, evolution, partnership, creative integrity, and more:
‘Through Life and Death’ is here! It’s what I’d consider your strongest record yet. Visually, you’ve partnered with Blake Armstrong who took on a new rendition of the masked character first seen on ‘And So It Begins’, which was done by Kristina Kister. What drew you to Blake’s work when undergoing the process for ‘Through Life And Death’?
Erik: The thing is, we’ve been looking at Blake’s artwork for quite a while actually. It happens to be that a friend of ours has a really close connection to Blake, so we asked him really nicely if he could contact him for us. We really love his artwork.
You and I both. From there, it evolved into this multi-part concept with Blake doing more than just the cover, but additional single artworks as well, expanding upon the album’s larger themes and concepts. One could say it’s episodic in a way, each telling a different story. Was this always the intention or was it something that came about as discussions were taking place? It has been neat to see.
Erik: Exactly. Me and Blake had a think session of sorts, trying to figure out what to do. He was actually the one who was thinking in terms of using our old mascot, or however you want to put it. He wanted to renew it a bit and make it seem as if he’s in some Eyes Wide Open kind of world. He really did a lot for this artwork, he didn’t just draw it. He created a theme and together we put it together with the lyrics.
Kristopher: It really felt like he took it to the next level.
Absolutely, and it speaks to the intentionality about Eyes Wide Open as a band. To be honest, the single artworks that Blake created are better than a lot of other album covers we see on a daily. Blake, what did you aim to achieve upon being contacted for the project?
Blake: With all album art, I want to achieve a visual world for the sonic experience to reside in -- so that when you hear a song and see the art, you are transported. It's always fun to marry the two things and try to make it work. I always like to start by diving into the band's music and getting a vibe -- which was easy for EWO because I love their stuff and have for a long time. On top of that, as Erik notes, a dear friend of mine, Andreas Werling, was also close with the band and asked if I could maybe help out on a few ideas. So, it was a perfect match through and through. I listened to their previous records, absorbed the artwork, and then took off painting.
There's an extensive use of the masked character as he's become somewhat of the band's mascot and you've certainly done him justice. Was the goal always to create a visual continuity for the character as a symbol of sorts?
Blake: I personally love mascots when it comes to heavy bands. My day job is as a creative director in movie and television key-art, so branding is always a huge thing -- you always want something for the audience to hold on to -- and having looked at their previous album covers, I really responded to that character and thought maybe we could take it further. It's such a cool design and I love what we were able to do with him. I think the world of this character was able to grow and that's exciting to me not only as the artist but as a fan.
I'm particularly fond of the artwork you did for their 'End of Days' single. How would you characterize the collaborative process with the band? Seeing as you nailed the cover and single artwork without much revision, it would appear a common ground was established early on.
Blake: The guys in EWO are so great -- it truly was an ideal experience creatively. I knew their music and loved it and they knew my work from In Flames and other bands - so we all came into it being fans of each other. It was a love fest from the first Zoom call. After that, we just talked through the record, they sent me some tracks, and we were off and running! They had some minor notes here and there but it was incredibly smooth and fun. I wish more projects were like that!
Let's hope this is only the start of a long term partnership. Great art results from great understanding! As an artist who's involved with projects of different mediums (film, music, TV), you know firsthand the importance of approaching the visual aspect of a release very carefully. Do you feel as though this is more important now than ever, or equally important, because of the big shift to streaming and digital media?
Blake: At the end of the day, we just want something cool that we'd be proud to hang on our wall or that we would stop and really look at when we're browsing records. The beauty of social media is that now we can really take that art and get out there in ways beyond just a physical cover or poster. That reach is wonderful and really puts the pressure on us artists to make something that will stand out. I think we were able to create some really stellar pieces that will keep people coming back to this record.
Touching further on that point, would you guys say that you value the visual component as a critical component of the band’s messaging?
Erik: We’ve been thinking a lot about that actually because I would always tell a lot of independent bands to invest in these kinds of things. If the music is good and the packaging is too, the chances of new listeners coming in are much higher. We have a studio here in Sweden. We always tend to tell others to invest in themselves. Invest in your music and not only the production of it, but the visuals as well. It's important. If the packaging is not good, it’s not going to translate well and it won’t be out there for viewers and listeners to react to it how intended.
Kristopher: It feels like the packaging and artwork gives the music a chance. If a record has crappy artwork, the general audience probably wouldn’t even give it a chance.
It’s the face to the record, and the identity of the band. It has such a significant impact, even if subconsciously. Touching a bit more on the masked figure, ‘The Upside Down’ (2019) saw you skip the use of the figure for an apparent homage to the Stranger Things series. To what do you attribute the skip? The character returns once more as if you have a newfound embrace for it.
Kristopher: The idea was to only use this figure for the first EP and the two first albums. After that, we felt like we needed to go into a new direction. As we said, Blake wanted to bring it out of retirement and use it again.
Erik: He looked back at our previous characters and said, “This is good. You have a good character and it has potential to be something greater as a mascot.” He’s like our superhero or supervillain or something. It was an easy decision to let him do some mockups and see what he was planning.
Kristopher: I don’t think we would’ve gone that direction if Blake hadn’t suggested it.
Erik: We didn’t intend to have this figure be our poster boy from the start, but Blake and I had some discussions and just felt it was needed.
He has a lot of experience as a comic artist with so many movie posters and concept art under his belt, so it felt like a natural fit I’m sure.
Erik: Yeah, and he’s very passionate about these things. He’s like, “You’ve got to have this mascot of yours that people want to see. They want to have something to care about in your band beyond the music, like a mascot of sorts. You already have one, we just need to reinvent it a bit.”
He elaborated on the character well, putting him in these different scenarios of your world. Beyond just being a marketing aspect or visual identity, the character sports the mask as a facade that blinds one from the turmoil and terrors of the injustice one tends to undergo. At least personally, I see it as an opportunity for introspection in my interpretation. Would you say that the character, because of the mask and where it fits in your world, allows for a certain kind of relativity to the listener?
Erik: I think so. It can represent a lot of things. He could be the demon inside your head or it could represent you putting a mask on to disconnect yourself from the world. It’s open to interpretation of course, but for us, he does a lot of things for us in this sense.
We’ll leave it to the viewer to form their own connection. Jumping into the music, Sweden holds such a special place in metal’s rich history, specifically in the death metal field. On this album, you create a hybrid of sorts that blends that with contemporary metalcore and a more anthemic, more arena-esque set of songs. Seeing as you bridge vocal versatility with these crowd pleasing song structures, was there any particular intention with how you wanted to approach the composition of this new record?
Erik: We don’t plan ahead like that. If I or Kristopher have a riff or melody, we come together and make a song out of it as a foundation. On top of that, we start working out what the mood is and what the theme should be. It all basically starts with a riff or a melody.
Kristopher: It felt like we found our sound on the last record, ‘Upside Down’. It felt like we were searching up until that album. With this new album, we took it to the next level instead of trying to find something else. It feels like Eyes Wide Open is about sound diversity: the heavy riffs, catchy choruses, the big parts.
Erik: And the catchy riffs, the melodies, and so on. We wanted to expand upon the diversity of the songs. We went a bit harder and a bit softer on some songs.
You establish a fine balance between it all, delivering something for everyone to love.
There’s a variety of sound influence throughout, a more prominent one being In Flames as far as I can hear. What records or bands in particular would you cite as being either direct or subconsciously involved in the making of ‘Through Life and Death’?
Kristopher: Everyone in the band came together because of the Swedish melodic death metal scene. Erik showed me In Flames back in the day, which was the band that brought us together as musicians. On every album, we have new influences. You always have to renew your thinking and your musical taste too for it to be interesting. It has to be interesting for yourself when you’re writing.
Erik: We’ve evolved in our own music tastes over the years. At first, we were very into thrash and melodic death metal. Now, we’ve slowly been enjoying the metalcore scene with bands like Bring Me The Horizon dropping new stuff that isn’t quite like their old stuff. We get inspiration from that. We have so many inspirations, even if subconsciously. The base influence will always be Swedish melodic death metal.
Kristopher: One thing that helped us find our sound was Erik and I built a studio together. That helped us definitely because now, we produce everything ourselves. It feels good to have full control being the control freaks we are.
Erik: I used to be a rhythm guitarist, so since 2016 when I started singing in the band, it has helped us a lot. We are the two main composers or writers in the band. Before, we used to write the foundation and had the singer come in from another place to write the lyrics and actually sing. He didn’t really want us to take part in that. Now, we have full control. As soon as we write a riff or a chorus, we can directly start experimenting vocally. We build the whole song instead of spending a lot of time waiting to process it.
I actually just spoke to Wolves In The Throne Room recently who also have their own studio where everything is self-contained. Is it freeing in a sense to get to this point in your career where you can do whatever you want because you know what you want?
Erik: For us, it’s been really freeing to have these opportunities. It’s been way easier to write the music because we can try so many different things here. We have our own studio. We pay the bills here, so it’s no problem. Otherwise, we have to buy studio time and be really certain about what we want to do in the studio. Here, we can try different stuff every day to see what we’re feeling and not feeling.
Kristopher: Like you say, it’s really freeing. The first song we produced, mixed, and mastered ourselves came very naturally. It was a test run and it worked out so well.
Judging from this new record, it’s evident you’ve hit a sweet spot. As we’ve noted, Eyes Wide Open has experimented and gone through some sonic evolution over the years. We mentioned Bring Me The Horizon, a band who took a big leap in terms of changing their sound to fit a new audience. Is there ever a sense of pressure in risking to alienate your original fanbase by pleasing your creative ambitions? Or is it more important to you all as a band to strive towards reaching a point where you’re satisfied with your creative abilities regardless if it loses some fans along the way?
Kristopher: If you don’t go your own way, you will lose interest in yourselves as a band over the years. We’ve been a band now for 10 years and if we hadn’t gone our own way, I don’t think we would’ve been doing this still. After 10 years, we’ve formed a sound and have kept it as a foundation, but we’ve expanded upon it.
Erik: Our sound is so wide, if you want to put it like that. We already have the softer songs and the harder songs with harsher elements like screaming vocals. I think we have a lot of wiggle room and our fans have been incredibly supportive of it. An old school old death metal band wouldn’t have that much wiggle room. If they put a synthesizer somewhere or start going post-rock, everything would go sideways. They wouldn’t be “true” anymore.
Yeah, I can’t imagine any of those old school bands changing their formula anytime soon. You have your own studio, so it’s freeing and you can play with the structures as much as you’d like. Lyrically, you carry a very reactive message that inspires and sparks a sense of motivation towards handling either an inner conflict or creating awareness of a larger one. As discussed, the mask that we see on the cover protagonist is in a way a self-made facade, as if oblivious to the injustice. Where do you feel that this message resonates in the contemporary time?
Erik: The lyrics have been a lot about inner demons and striving for a better day. A better day is always coming, but it’s an important fight to take. We want people to be inspired to take that fight. ‘Devastation’ has a more exterior perspective where the world is on fire, lyric wise, which is also a message. People feel isolated, not just because of COVID, but in every sense. When stuff begins to go south, people tend to feel isolated because of an apparent impotence to changing the situation. It’s a struggle we as humans have to live with and take on.
Absolutely, and the conversation to this day remains about the pandemic, which has had a big impact on bands and their lyrical approach. Music is a driving force to persevere through these obstacles. ‘Through Life and Death’ is of course your Arising Empire debut, a true testament to the growth and connectivity you’ve built and continue to build with audiences across the world. In looking back at where this all began with ‘Revelations’ (2012), do you feel as though this is what you’ve been striving for since then? Sonically, this is obviously your most grandiose yet.
Erik: When we started with ‘Revelations’, we were five guys who had a vision of getting to the top. Starting a band has its struggles. Every band struggles economically, especially when it comes to recording, producing good material, commissioning artwork, and so on. We had a pretty good start being a local band with attention mostly from Sweden. That made us more excited about the future and made us want to strive for more. That’s how it works for everyone I guess. You take small steps every time you release a new album and go on tour to see your audiences grow from 25 to 50 headbanging people. Eventually it gets to 100. It’s definitely not a sprint, it’s a marathon.
Kristopher: This album and all of the backing we’ve received for it makes it feel like our biggest release so far. I hope that reflects with all of the tours and festivals that we’ll have coming up.
With the support of Arising Empire and a rapidly growing fanbase, you’re on the right course. Touching further on that point and really your trajectory as a whole, where are you all now as a band compared to those early ‘Revelation’ and ‘Aftermath’ (2013) years? You’re nearing your first decade and ‘Through Life and Death’ is really what I’d consider Eyes Wide Open at its best.
Erik: I think we’ve evolved very much. We’re more secure with what we can do and can’t do.
Kristopher: In 2016 when Erik took over vocals, it felt like a new start. It feels like there was Eyes Wide Open 1 and an Eyes Wide Open 2. The latter has been going for 5 years now and it’s what it’s all about.
Erik: Definitely, and as I mentioned, we’re a lot more secure about everything that we do from our artwork to our videos. We’re planning bigger stuff for live shows, so an exciting future is ahead. Every band always wants to take things to the next level, and so do we. We’re not finished here and we have a long way to go still. It’s an always evolving machine.