One of black metal's strongest audiovisual pairings has another compelling entry.
"Art is not what you see, but what you make others see." - Edgar Degas
For as many purposes as art can serve, at the core of it all lies an insular intention driven by covert means yet serving very overt roles. It's the byproduct of an artist's lives and understanding of a particular subject matter, a subject matter perceived in a myriad of ways by the diverse audiences dissecting every element to it. Though their intentions are far from forcing a certain perspective, Dutch black metal outfit Meslamtaea and artist Maya Kurhuli provide a disheartening view of life in the future. These bleak portals into a dystopian world began with 2019's Niets en Niemendal, further strengthened by 2020's Geketend in de schaduw van het leven, and now, the band's newly announced record, Weemoedsklanken, drives home another engrossing foreshadow of post-apocalyptic society. As the Edgar Degas quotes entails, Meslamtaea and Maya do more than provide a staggering image. They provide a canvass for thought and come February 25th, Babylon Doom Cult Records will give way to Weemoedsklanken for all to experience.
For our first Behind the Cover of 2022, it's a thrill to focus on Weemoedsklanken and welcome Meslamtaea frontman Floris Velthius and Maya Kurhuli to a discussion exploring their harrowing imagery, the synchronicity of their partnership, visual intention, and more:
For bands, there’s no shortage of great artists to choose from, each of which has their own unique style and niche. I’m always curious to know, prior to your initial collaboration for ‘Niets en Niemendal’, what drew you to Maya Kurhuli's work?
Floris: Indeed there are dozens of artists offering their services. We regularly receive offers on social media, but for us, it is important that we ‘click’ with the artist and the artist's style should appeal to us. That is a condition for cooperation and that can't be a random anonymous person. Since Meslamtaea makes rather special music, we had a clear vision about the artwork and not every artist can make that. We know Maya from her art for Cultus and her own band Blackdeath. She works as an illustrator and creates images for fantasy and science-fiction books.
Since the themes of Meslamtaea are often about a bleak future and it's loaded with melancholy and sadness, I found that style very appropriate. That's why I contacted her and the interaction felt good. The artwork had to deviate, confront, excite and get under the skin. Maya could identify with that. The brainstorming process with Maya for 'Niets en Niemendal' went very smoothly. It seemed like she could see inside my head. We thought the result was incredible!
I'd agree! That said, to what do you attribute such a great and continuing partnership? This new record is now the third consecutive cover you collaborate on and though it’s quite early to tell, the cover for ‘Weemoedsklanken’ is likely to be among the best cover illustrations of 2022. It’s a testament to your talents and deep investment into the themes and concepts that you both deliver.
Floris: Never change a winning team, right? The illustration for 'Niets en Niemendal' fit perfectly with the music. We couldn't imagine another artist who could better visualize the intended atmosphere than Maya. The art provoked some extreme reactions...Some people thought this was the best artwork ever, but I also read some reactions from people who didn't even want to listen to the music because of the art. Well, I think that is great! The 'love it or hate it' aspect suits Meslamtaea. I'm intrigued by records that form a series, just like Ulver's trilogy or Yes' earlier albums. The upcoming album 'Weemoedsklanken' is the third in a row illustrated by Maya, but each cover has a slightly different theme and yet it fits together at the same time.
Maya: I think from the very beginning, we just found some mutual understanding and built a joint work in the right way. From the first to the last cover, the band had a clear idea of it. The work always began with a detailed description of the cover concept from the band: this is not the only (some musicians just let the artist listen to their music and the artist draws what appeared in his head from listening - it also can work), but the most solid way to get the wholeness result. My task as an artist is not to make a cool picture itself, but to make a visual imprint of the music. I believe that the author of music usually (not always though) knows and understands his music better and he knows better how his music should be presented in visual form. Strictly speaking, I only visualized their ideas, adding a little of my vision of how to develop the idea, offering options for adding some details to the overall concept, but the concept and the scene itself were invented and proposed by the band.
It all came together quite nicely. Jumping back into ‘Niets en Niemendal’, this was where you established a visual foundation that slowly flourished into what I’d consider one of the best sets of cover illustrations from recent years. Where did you two find common ground when exploring the visual direction for ‘Niets’?
Floris: After seeing confrontational wartime photos of kids playing in the playground wearing gas masks, I got a clear vision for the cover art for ‘Niets’. I made a mood board and Maya came up with a lot of added ideas of her own. Finding common ground actually was not difficult, we were instantly on the same page. Maya sent a lot of sketches and she was completely absorbed in the small details.
The lyrics of 'Niets en Niemendal' are inspired by the nuclear disasters. It frightens and fascinates me at the same time. Humans are playing with forces that are beyond their control. If it goes wrong, it goes wrong! 'Niets' paints a post-apocalytic future and the cover art reflects this: a child with a gas mask on a garbage dump under the smoke of a burning nuclear power plant. A crystal snow ball with a dancer symbolizes the past, and the innocence of the child who has to live in a world that has been destroyed forever. Even the glass is broken. The dancer will never dance again. There is no more hope.
Maya: In accordance with the scheme of work that I described above, the very idea of the cover "a baby with crystal ball" and what kind of atmosphere the drawing should convey was proposed and described by Floris right away. As with the following pictures, I made a few quick sketches to show different versions of the composition, different angles, and the band chose the most appropriate option that better reflects the idea of "the beauty of youthful innocence, but completely destroyed".
In the next stage, I did a liner drawing with some additions and all the details complete, then do the hatching. I showed the band all these stages and we discuss what else can be added, but it seems from the very beginning we managed to find the right direction and the work went smoothly.
Exploring that a bit further, how do you feel you've been able to expand upon ‘Niets’ into what became ‘Geketend in de schaduw van het leven’ and of course ‘Weemoedsklanken’?
Maya: Not sure "expand" would be the right definition. In my view, these three drawings are not lined up as a kind of continuing story (even so you can also translate it that way), but rather three faces of one cube, three episodes of being in a post-apocalyptic world, three variants of combining opposites, mixing the living and the dead.
Floris: This process happened naturally. Each album has a slightly different point of view and Maya knows how to translate that into a good looking graphic image. She thinks of the smallest details and that makes each of her images a journey of discovery! I think that the mutual enthusiasm also has contributed to the fact that she always goes one step further.
Showcasing multiple perspectives of one central theme is a great way of putting it. For ‘Weemoedsklanken’, I don’t even know where to begin with the amount of detail and references layered throughout the cover. Visually, it’s a continuation of sorts of the previous two records where a demise of contemporary society is at the core. An older gentleman walks along a toddler through a ruined metropolis, looking at a billboard promoting a simpler time where a cabin could be found amidst the natural beauty of pine trees and mountain ranges. What was the goal this time around?
Floris: There is a red line through all the artwork. There is always a look back to the past. A past that has clearly come to an end. This is symbolized at 'Niets' with the broken crystal ball. On 'Geketend’, you see a man who is addicted to oxygen from a precious tree, but the tree drops its leaves, it's almost over. On ‘Weemoedsklanken’ you see an old man walking into the rotten future with his grandchild. A broken billboard from a sunny holiday resort here is the hint to the beautiful past. ‘Weemoedsklanken' is Dutch for the 'sound of melancholy'. The album tells the story of a mankind far removed from her source, her past. That inner void is filled with plastic, concrete and steel. None of Meslamtaea's recent album-covers give a glimpse of hope for the future.
What you both achieve on these covers is truly striking. 'Geketend' in particular is incredibly powerful. It’s amazing to see the new cover evolve from the rough sketches to the grandiose final result, which we’re happy to be showing here today. Would you say that the direction for the cover was established early on and didn’t need much revision? It appears to be consistent throughout the sketches and all the way to the finalized cover.
Maya: Yes, you are right, the direction of the cover was set at the very first stage and did not require any special adjustments. The main stage is the stage of searching for a composition, when the right composition is found, it remains only to add some small details that will enhance the image. In the case of 'Weemoedsklanken', the idea of a billboard depicting a world from the past was proposed from my side and accepted by the band before the first sketches were made, this was the biggest addition to the original idea, and when the concept was fully defined, I only had to draw it following the logical scheme of work "quick sketches-linear sketch- tone sketch - hatching".
Maya, from sketch to end result, how long did the illustration take to complete? As mentioned, it’s jam packed with detail!
Maya: In this case, I can name the exact time - apart from the first rough sketches (I usually don't count the time I spent for searching the idea of composing), the drawing itself, starting from the linear sketch to the final version, took me 66h20min.
That's quite a while, but as we note, it’s distinct from the standard black metal cover art and metal cover art in general and offers much in the realm of messaging. It could very well be part of a series at a gallery or museum somewhere. Do you feel as though it was significant for Meslamtaea to stray from the expected conventions of metal artwork to fully realize your vision?
Floris: Meslamtaea makes the kind of music that is not for everyone. The art reflects that. When you see the artwork, you know this is not your average extreme band. Conventional cover art wouldn't fit here.
Agreed. It’s a striking commentary on the industrialist, hyper capitalist world we live in today, which will without a doubt have a significant impact on the lives of our future generations. What role do you feel that this cover and art as a whole has in contemporary society, especially as it pertains to addressing global concerns?
Floris: Meslamtaea's music and art brings the listener face to face with the ugly facts. Unfortunately, industrialization and capitalism are so widespread that it is difficult, even impossible, to reverse this system. It is woven into the core of society and this is only getting bigger. I'm under no illusion that our music, nor the cover art, will change that, not even a little bit, but art in general is a good tool to make people think.
Maya: Art does not solve problems and does not create the future, it reflects existing things and meanings that are already exist (a good illustration of this will be the text of the Laibach "We Are Time", it says everything about the essence of any art). All that art can do is to show things and ideas more clearly and sharply, sometimes to pull out something that is just maturing, but is already in the air. In this context, this particular cover also reflects the existing agenda - one facet of which is a wary attitude towards the future, maybe even a panic fear of it, and as a result a desire to freezing time where everything is at least more or less known and understandable to us.
It's a byproduct of our surroundings in a way, but it doesn't have a covert message, rather one that is meant to be experienced distinctly by one's own viewpoint. Though you’ve done a variety of art for your own Blackdeath and Nuclear Cthulu, the art for Meslamteae diverges from the standard black metal cover art and metal cover art in general, as we note. It’s very much by design. Do you feel as though it was significant for you to stray from the expected conventions of metal artwork to fully realize your vision?
Maya: Hmm...I must say that I never try to especially follow any conventions in the design of metal and adhere to some styles adopted in metal. I proceed from the concept of the "balance" of my drawing style for a concrete project. Of course, for Blackdeath, the pictures are more obtained within the roots of black metal cannons because the style of music here is more canonical for sure - on the other hand, here I act in two roles at once as an artist and a band member, so it's easier for me to realize my vision of music and art as a wholeness here. Meslamtaea have their own specifics and a different ideological load, so, the design style here turns out to be different by itself. I do not perceive the album cover, as well as the book cover, as a separate piece of art (let my colleague artists curse me) - the task of the cover is to visualize what is embedded in the product itself. A music album or a book with an unfit cover art is a kind of deception of the consumer. I can't judge how I actually manage to embody this concept of "balance", but my aspiration is exactly to manifest this concept.
Going back to the museum comment, I'd actually argue the album cover to be a separate piece of art despite the synchronicity to the record. It holds a great weight. Despite being a harrowing foreshadowing of the future, it is melancholic and draws towards human empathy, as if to use sadness as a conduit for change. Is there a message here? Perhaps encouraging us to enjoy and maintain the lives we have in a much more equitable and just manner?
Floris: The lack of any hope makes the music and the art messageless, I think. Embrace the end, that's what is says. Of course, that is not the message that I personally want to convey as a human being, but that is my way to deal with negative thoughts. Inflate the balloon with negativity and pop it! That feels uncomfortable and is confrontational. but it is necessary for me. You wouldn't believe it, but I am really a happy and social guy in daily life! However, there are always negative thoughts lurking beneath the surface and I can be extremely cynical. Black metal is the perfect instrument to express thoughts and write them off me.
Maya: The question about the message must be addressed to the band for sure. I can only speak for myself and it can be quite different from the band's way of view. I have no melancholy touches in my worldview, at the same time I have an "artist curiosity" to make something different, sometimes even opposite (like the picture which bears melancholy and sadness atmosphere), empathy as a way to find something useful for myself, not for the outer world, which mean as an artist I don't create here any exact messages to someone. And you can see the same picture in a different angle - looking at the poster with a lovely village landscape, can you be sure that it bears something real good, do you know what was happening under that cozy roof?... it could be something more ugly than that destroyed (but in its way pure) world where the child and old man is staying.
We'll leave that up to the viewer. As you’d agree, great art strikes a chord and creates a feeling of discomfort to spark deeper learning. Meslamtaea's lyrics are poetic, unpleasant and confrontational. Where do you feel your lyricism coincides with the art as one unified being?
Floris: The aspect of ‘feel’ always played a major role in art history, even to the point that the ‘concept’ in art is even more important than the technique itself. This is often the case with modern art. Music can be considered as art as well, but music (and especially contemporary pop music) often aims to make the listener feel good, to dance. I don't think that's art: that is a consumer product. Art may hurt, it may be unpleasant, at least that's how we approach both the music and lyrics for Meslamtaea. The cover art fits in with that.
Maya apparently understands our music and knows how to translate that into an image. The cover art for 'Weemoedsklanken' is perhaps the most confrontational yet, simply because the whole fantasy element has been left out and it is recognizable and realistic.
Maya: I really hope that this art coincides with the band’s work, at least that was a task. I didn't read the lyrics, but during hearing music and discussing the whole concept I think we are succeeded with this task.
It truly does coincide, and 'Weemoedsklanken' becomes one all-encompassing effort as a result. Though some might view color use as a mere aesthetic choice, it plays a critical role in the overall picture and helps set the tone for what listeners will hear within. That said, this cover continues Maya’s masterful use of the black and white tones, which was also used on the previous two. Would you say this was intentional, as if to represent the bleak reality that is depicted in the subject matter?
Maya: Yes, I can say it was intentional - we agreed from the beginning that the picture would be made in black and white tones. This way it better reflects the atmosphere of the album - dark, nostalgic, dreadful, and sad. In addition, the black and white manner reflects the dualistic concept included in each of the three covers - the contrast between beauty, nature, innocence, naivety --> ugliness, mankind, cities, industry, nuclear threat. Speaking generally, I don't think there is any real aesthetic choice between color or black and white, watercolor or pencil, drawing on paper or computer graphics - what fits the exact case is prevails.
Floris: A black and white image gives a very different atmosphere than a colored image. For example, for my other bands Asgrauw and Schavot, we used oil paintings with much color for cover art. That fits that style of music that is full of energy and anger. Meslamtaea is much more on a dejected, negative vibe. There is no hope in it, no pride, no ego. The atmosphere is grey and bleak. That's why we opted for black and grey tones, although I can imagine a drawing with one color, for example red.
Black and white is most definitely ideal, but now I'm curious to see it in red. Musically, it’s a wondrous and well-layered approach to black metal that toys with the conventions of the genre. It’s part jazzy and progressive and utilizes a good mix of effects created through vocoders and brass instruments. Where did you look to take this?
Floris: The style influences for Meslamtaea date back to the mid-nineties. At that time, the 2nd wave of black metal arose, like Ulver, Satyricon, and Emperor, but also progressive death metal like Death and Cynic, and experimental bands like Fleurety and Ved Buens Ende. I am also very interested in fusion jazz such as Mahavishnu Orchestra and Pat Metheny. The latter often has quite a melancholic charge that you will find in Meslamtaea. Finally, I find psychedelic 70's music like Yes or Mike Oldfield interesting, and post-rock like God Is An Astronaut. Throw all this in a blender and you get Meslamtaea.
The experiment is not a goal in itself. The atmosphere is always central to the composition, but we like to play with unusual instruments, such as tongue drum, saxophone, ebow, Flugel and vocoder. Izzy even bought himself a Theremin that we could use in the future. Even though Meslamtaea is labeled as black metal, there are no boundaries for us when it comes to styles. On the new album, you’ll even hear a bit of dark soul with a Rhodes piano sound. If that contributes to the intended atmosphere, why not?
Needless to say, listeners are in for a treat. Maya, beyond just album covers, you of course do sci-fi, horror, and adventure book illustrations among a plethora of other things. That said, you understand firsthand the significance that an illustration could have on a view, perhaps introducing them to material they wouldn’t otherwise engage with. Is this now more important in contemporary times where media is largely consumed digitally?
Maya: I don't see that something in the perception of art has changed dramatically in our time - intangible things (music is also not quite a material thing to some extent), ideas, concepts, religion, philosophy, literature have always needed visualization for better understanding and dissemination. I don't see that the culture of mass media has essentially changed over many centuries - in the digital age, only the tools have changed, that is, only the form, but not the content. In the early years of the distribution of the Gutenberg printing press, mainly religious pamphlets, sheet music, and pornographic pictures were published - the same three topics we can observe with the spread of the Internet, as a kind of analog of the printing press, equally revolutionary for its time. Art only reflects the era and those themes that take on certain forms in this era - so I can't say that illustration in our time is more important for representation, it just has always been that - an assistant, seducer, commentator.
The methods have changed but the purpose has not. Appreciate your viewpoint, Maya. Floris, with the album now fully unveiled and the release cycle underway, is there an intended reaction you wish to invoke? We spoke greatly about messaging.
Floris: Meslamtaea is not intended to bring a message, but everyone can get their own message from it. If it makes people think, that's a good thing, but above all, we just like to be musically active. We notice that there are a lot of positive things happening in the field of music. Certainly, the experimental category of black metal is on the rise. We want to contribute to this with Meslamtaea.
Weemoedsklanken arrives February 25th via Babylon Doom Cult Records. Order HERE.