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Behind the Cover: Harm's Way — Common Suffering

Highlighting the moving universality of the band's culminating release, the likes of which sports a bleak yet invigorating visual representation.

Words by Luis (@HeaviestOfArt):


"Our human compassion binds us the one to the other - not in pity or patronizingly, but as human beings who have learnt how to turn our common suffering into hope for the future." - Nelson Mandela


There's power in unity, and as many examples of revolution and public demonstration have shown, it's that our struggles aren't always that unique. Whether it be music or any other art form, one's ability to find commonality with the artist's conduit for expression speaks volumes of the human compassion that binds us, as Nelson Mandela's words suggest. Chicago's Harm's Way embody said compassion and use their art as a freeing call to overcome our shared struggles. The band's new album, Common Suffering, has therefore become a musical representation of triumph.


Posthuman (2018) was a turning point in the band's upwards trajectory, one that found the band connecting with a global audience on a deeper level, which is expanded even further with Common Suffering — a welcoming listen (and sight) that is truly cathartic. Arriving on September 29th via Metal Blade Records, the experience of Common Suffering all starts with the art of Corran Brownlee — a master of the black and white. With his excellence in using light and shadow in his compositions, Common Suffering's cover provides the ideal entry point for the hard-hitting listen that awaits. Brownlee's Dome painting plays the introductory role, depicting thousands of individuals falling from an abyss that takes the shape of a human brain. Few times has hardcore looked this good.


We welcome drummer Chris Mills, who spearheaded a large part of the collaborative process, and Brownlee to discuss this grandiose new chapter, its visual significance, the band's self-awareness, and more:

 

It’s been several years since the seminal “Posthuman” — an album that found you on creative, trailblazing highs. Much has passed since then and with each album cycle being representative of a band’s state of mind at the time, where does “Common Suffering” find you?


Chris: After heavily touring on “Posthuman” for over 2 years, our record cycle came to an abrupt end due to the pandemic. Over the last 3 years, we have all experienced personal struggle and tragedy in our own ways. Our personal and collective experiences as a society during this time shaped the both the dark narrative and introspective themes of this album. The lyrics touch on inter and intrapersonal conflict, political injustice and turmoil, as well as feelings of nihilism and existentialism. The album title encompasses all that we went through as a band and the shared experience of suffering that we all can relate to as a society - especially over the last 3 years.

harms way posthuman, harms way, hardcore, metal
Cover Artwork by David Altmejd

It's a fitting title, very much representative of the heart that is present throughout it all. Upon the announcement of ‘Common Suffering’, audiences were taken aback by the cover illustration, that being Corran Brownlee’s “Dome” painting. The record itself breathes new life into this work, which was of course created prior to the album’s inception. What drew you to Corran’s work for this album cycle, and particularly “Dome” for the cover?


Chris: I’ll never forget the day I came across Corran’s work and immediately feeling a sense of anxiety, panic, unease - specifically with his work on the “Dome” piece and several others that carry a similar theme. I could literally feel weight on my chest…

corran brownlee, harms way, hardcore, common suffering
"Dome" Artwork by Corran Brownlee

The collective nature and shared distress in these specific pieces immediately drew me to it and felt it hit so many of our album’s themes. There was a beautiful synchronicity between the album and Corran’s work.



I sort of took a leap of faith and reached out to Corran to share the admiration we had for his work and the honor it would be to be able to utilize his labor and creative eye for our album. Luckily, he was on board and the rest was history. I can’t say it enough, but he is truly a remarkable human and it’s been a privilege to work with him. He seems to have a lot of integrity and a strong set of values, which we made sure mutually aligned as artists. I can’t praise that enough given where we are currently at in our own respective creative spaces.


Talking to you both, it's evident that the respect and admiration is mutual. Corran, what was your immediate reaction upon being contacted about the painting’s use on the cover, especially seeing the appreciation that the band’s fans had for it? It's a magnificent piece that now serves a new purpose, for the band at least.


Corran: Thanks! I’ve been getting nice messages about it. I’m really stoked for those guys! I’m actually somewhat new to Harm’s Way. My buddy Freemz spotlighted them on his Twitch stream a couple of years ago and I was instantly blown away, so it was a nice surprise when they reached out.


Luckily they were looking to use some of my existing artwork because the timeframe was a bit too tight to come up with a new one - sometimes these images take weeks or months to finish - I thought the images they picked worked really well with the title though.


Looking back at when you first approached the painting’s creation, what did you look to envision? Has that perspective changed now that you have seen what it became?


Corran: I started making these human shape images in 2019. Originally, I was exploring online culture and the exploitation of user data and algorithms by corporations, politicians, and marketers, and the divisions they’ve caused. Over the years, the series' scope widened to the real world, generally symbolizing our behaviors and anxieties caused by our good ol’ buddy capitalism. The perspective hasn't changed but individual pieces will focus on different aspects as I keep scratching at it.

corran brownlee, black and white art, harms way
"Dome" Sketch by Corran Brownlee

The few works that you've done utilizing the sea of human figures is quite astounding. Jumping back to you, Chris, what role do you feel the visuals play in conveying your message through Corran’s lens? Would you say that visuals are key in completing the experience?


Chris: Visuals play such a huge role in conveying our message and adding to the overall experience for a listener. It’s hard to have one without the other, in my opinion. For as long as I can remember, album art and visual aesthetic was something that drew me into music - especially aggressive and alternative music. From the art itself, to the layout, and physical packaging - it added and meant so much to the overall vibe of an album for me. It totally affected and impacted my personal relationship with a record and that was always something I feel we tried to captivate as well through every Harm’s Way release.


I know I touched on this with more depth above, but with "Common Suffering", Corran’s work just felt…”right”, if that makes sense. I listened to the album over and over, while studying his pieces and felt a strong visual and emotional connection. I can’t not hear specific songs from "Common Suffering" when I see “Dome” or his other works in the layout (Sorry, Corran!). But this is what I mean…the connection between sound and visual design is everything - and it’s our hope to create a connected experience for a listener between the two.


You achieved that, in my opinion. The audiovisual synchronicity is 100% there. Where David Altmejd’s “Posthuman” cover was more minimal and symbolic, Corran’s work is vastly detailed and large in scope, depicting a sea of individuals in each illustration utilized, which is fitting for the universality of the “Common Suffering” album title. Was there a particular intention for this album’s visual identity?


Chris: We were very intentional with our choice of album art and overall approach with the layout/design. You actually hit it quite well…the universality and collective experience of pain, distress, and suffering was something we were striving to convey for listeners and anyone interacting with the visuals overall.


Corran, is there perhaps a sense of realization that you get when seeing how the band found commonality with “Dome” and “Common Suffering” despite the two having distinct inception periods?


Corran: I think even if someone isn’t suffering in some way right now, then they know someone who is, and if they don’t, then they’re not paying attention. I think a lot of people are feeling it and a lot of artists are tapping into it. Or getting therapy. Or both.


Agreed, and art is an amazing outlet for release. Beyond just “Dome”, a new painting comprises the inner gatefold of the physical release while the “Volcano” painting fills the back cover. Where did you two find common ground when discussing “Common Suffering”?


Chris: I actually really like this question and it reminds me of a conversation Corran and I had prior to committing to work together. We talked - and I shared aspects of the album with him and overall individual/collective themes found within it. We totally found common ground on it and agreed that his work aligned quite well. The conversation continued and, again, before we could really cement or commit to anything - Corran asked our stance on a number of sociopolitical issues, such as LGBTQ+ rights and BIPOC equity/equality, etc…and this led to a great conversation that I respected the hell out of. You know, your work represents you and who you collaborate with has that potential as well. We needed to make sure our values aligned and that our work respected/captivated those values. We found common ground not only on the album themes and visuals - but the ethos behind our work.

corran brownlee, black and white art, harms way
"Hole" Draft by Corran Brownlee

Corran: Yes, one of the images they were interested in is a digital drawing called "Hole" -sometimes I called it "Tunnel" because I have a bad memory but I’m pretty sure I settled on "Hole"- I had a work-in-progress version on Instagram at some point but sadly I lost the original version in the great iPad crash of 2020. There was an oil painting version in the works, but over the years it has morphed into a different shape that I’m still messing around with it to see where it leads. So, I thought this would be a good opportunity to finish the digital drawing by using the old Instagram image as a base and drawing a high res version over it.

harms way, common suffering harms way, dark art
"Volcano" Artwork by Corran Brownlee

As far as finding common ground, I dunno, I feel like all the pieces they chose work so well with "Common Suffering" and interconnectedness and heavy ass tunes that it was sort of a no-brainer.


It's always amazing to see how it all comes together. Again, it's truly a complete package. Overall, your work built the visual identity for the “Common Suffering” album cycle despite the paintings not being developed for this particular purpose. What does it mean to you as an artist to have your work be synonymous with a pivotal entry in a band’s discography? It certainly speaks to the power of art.


Corran: It means a lot honestly. What more could you hope for? I spend a lot of time working on these images and I hold them up when I’m finished like “Anyone? Does anyone vibe with this? No? Yes? You at the back, here you go, that one’s for you." I've had some touching messages over the years about how people relate to my art, which makes me feel like I’m still connected. It's good to know that it’s not all for nothing. I think a lot of people are going to connect with this album and I get to hitch a ride on their coattails, which is cool.


I agree. How would you describe the collaborative process with the band? Music illustration and commissions in general aren’t your day-to-day work, so the experience is of course unique to this project.


Corran: It was a very chill process. I normally turn down album covers because I’d rather be a hermit and not deal with it, plus I get nervous about my art being attached to other people’s image, but something felt different this time. I don’t exactly know what it was. It wasn't just that I liked their music, there was something about the general vibe of the band and the way Chris Mills approached me that made me feel I could trust them and be open with them. Chris was the one I mainly chatted with. The rest of the band got the decision-making done before coming to me, so I was always clear about what they wanted. There was a lot of mutual respect and courteousness. Also, I think Ridge Rhine’s final layout is absolutely perfect. I had no doubt it would be.


That's great to hear, and shoutout to Ridge Rhine who did excellent layout work that does justice to the artwork. Chris, Finn O'Connell’s video for ‘Silent Wolf’ was also amazing, capturing the extreme sense of urgency felt through the same black and white color palette utilized throughout the promo photographs and physical release. Speaking on that video, how would you describe the collaborative process?


Chris: A big part of our decision to work with Finn had a lot to do with the collaborative approach he was open to taking to direct our videos. We had several conversations leading up to making that decision and really loved what he wanted to bring to the table, in addition to working with our ideas. Shooting with Finn was like working with a friend or 6th band member who owned the equipment necessary to document the stuff we wanted. Overall, It was a pretty wild ride and our guitarist, Nick, and bassist, Casey played a big role in helping create and capture the imagery in the overall video. They were incredibly driven and committed through that whole process. It was great to have the ability to experiment, try stuff on the fly, and trouble shoot as much as we needed to really capture what we wanted. Editing was also pretty collaborative as well, with Nick and Casey also assisting in many ways. It was a cool learning experience for all of us and definitely our best and most meaningful video work to date.



"Silent Wolf" is just one of them too. "Undertow" was another fantastic sight. “Common Suffering” overall is raw and personable, especially with there being an introspective element to the songwriting as well as an outward facing one that comes influenced by the sociopolitical complexities of American society. For you, would you say that those two factors intersect?


Chris: I feel these two absolutely intersect. Makes me think about both our public and private experiences as humans/individuals. We can’t have the public without the private…as our public experience is so intimately informed and dictated by our private/introspective experience - and vice versa. You see this balance throughout the album through James’ lyrics and story telling.



You’re insular in that you aim to please your creative ambitions first and foremost, but sometimes one doesn’t think about the reciprocal effects of your work as musicians, which creates a sense of realization once you see how many people are connecting to it in so many ways. Does that create a sense of pressure for you all where you’re realizing the reach and responsibility that you have as musicians is greater than what you perhaps thought it was?


Chris: I feel we’ve tried to continually maintain this band as a vehicle for personal expression and an emotional outlet - because without it, I can confidently say it would be hard to continue to do and invest in. This has been the approach since day one. It’s been wild to watch the band and our reach grow to such a wide audience…which in turn has led to some feeling of responsibility that we never imagined. We definitely saw this really come to fruition with our last 2 LPs, "Rust" (2015) and "Posthuman" - specifically with the relatability to James’ lyrics and the personal struggles he openly shares. To be honest, it’s heavy but a gigantic privilege to be able to connect with an audience and fan base on a deeper level. It’s morphed the mission of this band to be that of not only personal release and catharsis, but also those on a collective/shared level beyond just us.

harms way, hardcore, metal blade records
Photograph By E. Aaron Ross

There's power in that. Corran, the album’s use of your art introduced it to an entirely new audience, an audience that perhaps wouldn’t otherwise have been exposed to it. For those who will be seeing your work for the first time, what message do you hope & “Dome” and “Volcano” conveys?


Corran: Funnily enough, I don’t know if I’d say it’s an entirely new audience. Last year, Derrick Green from Sepultura came to my exhibition at Show Gallery in LA and posted some pics on Instagram, which sent some of his followers my way. I also have quite a number of tattoo artists following me after a showcase of my work at The Circle in London in 2019, and we all know those motherfuckers love to rock. I’ve been orbiting that world since I was a kid listening to Black Sabbath and drawing demons in my catholic school textbooks. For those who are seeing my work for the first time, I dunno, I hope they get that I’m smart enough to be anti-fascist but also too dumb to contribute anything to the fight other than some cool drawings.


There's a good array of metal and hardcore listeners among your followers now. With an extensive career in film and television performing a variety of roles, what do you take from “Common Suffering” as an experience? Does it fulfill the intimate connection you long for with an audience?


Corran: I love the thought of people putting this album on and reading the lyrics written over top of my art. I love that these images found a good home. I dunno, I kinda wish I could tell people I’m in the band now. I wonder if they’d be cool with that.


I think they would, but maybe Chris can answer that. We've had a great talk here and I thank you both for your insight on such a great audiovisual package. In closing, what role do you feel the arts play in the larger scope of the human experience, especially in contemporary times?


Chris: To me, it’s everything. Whether it’s music, painting, sculpture, photo, or video - I find the arts to be such a powerful and essential medium that can be used to contextualize the human experience and create/understand one’s own reality. I look back to my own experience getting into art driven subcultures, like punk, hardcore, skating, photo, video, etc…and what that was able to unlock - and continues to unlock for me going beyond spoken language. I think it’s especially powerful in our current cultural climate, where so many individuals and communities are exploring ways to communicate and process their experiences and needs.

 

Common Suffering is available September 29, 2023 via Metal Blade (Order).

harms way common suffering, dark art, hardcore, corran brownlee
Cover Artwork by Corran Brownlee


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