A blackened punk call to living by one's own means.
Audiovisual collaborations that stem from genuineness tend to result in noteworthy records, as many would agree. In the case of MIDNIGHT frontman/founder Athenar and artist William Lacey, the two abide by no limitations, due in part from the confidence each has with one another. Like Derek Riggs and 80's IRON MAIDEN, the two creatives have been bound by their work, each seemingly dependent on one another.
When January gave birth to Rebirth by Blasphemy, listeners were introduced to the latest chapter in Athenar's blackened punk musical journey, again properly fronted by William's artistic process. The witch-goat hybrid before your vinyl copy of the record is as twisted as the rambunctious jolt of energy that Fucking Speed and Darkness instills, forming one seamless package.
Heaviest of Art went Behind the Cover of Rebirth by Blasphemy with William Lacey and Athenar to learn more about the making of this blood-curling piece:
New decade, new label, and more importantly, new Midnight music. As we enter this new era, where do you see yourself now as a musician and band compared to when this all started over a decade ago?
Athenar: This definitely wasn’t part of the plan, to take it this far. When it first started, the plan was to make a record. That was it, so I was happy with that. You can’t stop doing what you’re doing in life, so it just keeps going. It’s definitely different than what I would’ve thought for sure.
Well, Midnight’s trajectory definitely speaks for itself, amassing a large cult following across the globe who, as you can probably tell, don’t shy away from tearing shit up during the live show. Seeing as this is an immediate reaction from your stage presence and music, what does it mean to you to have this effect on the listener?
Athenar: I can’t help what I do. I’m just that type of person. I can’t force something out. I can’t make up a song that sounds like you as a listener would want it to. If someone could relate to what I’m relating to, then the world is really fucked up and going down the shitter really quickly. Maybe it’s a good thing, that they can listen to the music and get whatever it is that they need to get out through the live gig rather than terrorize armed people in the street.
You’ve been working with Athenar for almost a decade and four consecutive full-lengths now, indicating that there’s trust in one another’s work. What’s your relationship like and how has it evolved from your first collaborative project together?
William: Athenar and I are friends but we don’t spend much time together. We catch up when Midnight comes to NY. The most time we’ve spent together was when Midnight and my band Battletorn toured together for 9 or 10 dates in 2007. The relationship is good, it doesn’t really need to evolve. I don’t know, does it?
Art is as much about emotion as it is about creativity. With Rebirth by Blasphemy, Athenar encourages perseverance and self-determination, further cementing the DIY attitude of the band. How much of this is a reflection of the growth you’ve both made since your initial collaboration?
William: I’m not sure about Athenar but I don’t feel that I’ve grown that much since 'Satanic Royalty'. I’m still just a pervert that likes to draw nasty stuff. And that goes all the way back to seeing great horror artwork as a kid. Metal albums, VHS covers, comics, book jackets, the work featured in Thrasher Magazine’s 'Pus･Zone', the list goes on and on.
Throughout your existence, visuals have really been a key part of the Midnight experience, from the album covers to the mysterious entity you’ve built. You’ve enlisted William Lacey on the artistic front from the very beginning. What sparked this collaboration and what keeps you two working together this long into your career?
Athenar: Well first thing, he’s a pretty mellow dude. He has a twisted mind too. He understands where to come from artistically without painting just a generic heavy metal skull and propping a logo on it. His art is something that is kind of perverse, twisted, and interesting to look at because it really doesn’t make sense at first glance. He doesn’t try hard to go extremely over the top or get banned. It’s just what naturally comes out. He does a great job of representing the music that’s on the records.
I like that you mention that he doesn’t put together pieces that are simple and understood at first glance. His paintings have always required a bit of analysis and listening to fully grasp. How important is it for you to have that particular artistic element to your records, given the ongoing vinyl resurgence and interest in album art?
Athenar: It’s very important. We can only make so many of the Beatles’ ‘White Album’ or ACDC’s ‘Back In Black’. That shit can only go so far, unless you’re Kraftwerk or Neu! You want an album cover to go with the music. It’s part of it. If you don’t put the two together, then it’s a waste of an extension of art, whether visually or musically. The two should always complement each other.
Though you’re trust in one another is solid at this point, were there any parts or artistic elements of the painting that required revision or further discussion between you and Athenar to fully reach the intended result?
William: When I sent the finished artwork for him to review, he said that someone told him the witch looked like she was holding a carrot. I assured him that people would see a knife, not a fucking carrot. It looks like a knife. Even though the image is surreal, contextually it made no sense. In the end I didn’t change anything because he saw a knife too.
'Sweet Death and Ecstasy' definitely involved the most revision. My initial concept was to have two girls engaged in a kind of super horny ritual suicide pact. Sort of enjoying themselves one last time as they bleed out. After Athenar saw it, he wanted them more rotten and sick with supernatural elements, so I added the nipple tongues and the millipede and crows and it became something else entirely.
Delving even further back, Hell’s Headbangers made their own revisions to 'Satanic Royalty' and 'No Mercy for Mayhem' after they were delivered. Some of it I pushed back against and some of it I let go. 'Satanic Royalty' was originally black and white and someone at the label added the blue tint (in Photoshop I guess), but I thought that looked sick.
'No Mercy for Mayhem' got flipped around and they colored the arm red. I wasn’t crazy about the arm being red because it made me think of a Coop devil or something, but it wasn’t a huge deal. But I contacted Athenar the second I saw the flipped art in a promo pic online. A big part of the design was that it was all about left hands, the left hand path, so I didn’t like that they had become right hands. Nothing had gone to the plant yet and they flipped it back around for me which I really appreciated.
From Satanic Royalty to Sweet Death and Ecstasy, your album covers have never been simple or gory without an underlying meaning, as Athenar states. Whether it be the lust or the Satanic imagery, they’ve always required a double take as if to provoke a reaction. Is this intentional? Or is it something that comes with the nature of the elements you include in the painting?
William: I think that goes back to not wanting to be too literal. If I had painted some kind of demonic corpse king on a throne for 'Satanic Royalty', it would have gotten the job done but it would’ve been really boring. It wouldn’t tell any kind of story. It’s more fun to hint at some filthy rich member of the aristocracy performing a dark ritual—engaging in orgies with demonic sluts compelled to lick his blade. I’m glad Athenar didn’t like the first version of 'Sweet Death and Ecstasy' because that pushed me to make it wild.
As the album title indicates, this record is a rebirth, one that signifies a new direction and label for the band. How did you approach this concept from an artistic standpoint?
William: I knew it had to be dark but I wanted to stay away from concepts that have been done to death. We’ve all seen covers with things emerging from putrid lakes or a rotten hand reaching up out of the depths. Can a witch joining with a goat to become something new represent a form of rebirth? Sure, why not.
Having read through lyrics and listened to the tracks in advance, were there any particular elements or lyrical themes that stood out as something you’d want to include in the painting? Or was your idea for the cover already cemented prior to having listened to the music itself?
William: Athenar sent me the title track but we had already discussed my idea for the cover so I didn’t really take anything from it for the painting. It was still very cool to have somewhat exclusive access to a then unreleased Midnight song!
Visually, what were you looking for in the album cover when you first approached William with the concept for ‘Rebirth by Blasphemy’?
Athenar: The only direction I gave him, which I always give him, were the song titles. He just comes up with stuff from there. I thought the last one (Sweet Death & Ecstasy, 2017) was so Rambo II and Terminator II over the top that I didn’t want to try and make him go over that. That ‘Sweet Death & Ecstasy’ was just fucking great. There’s no other artist that can do something like that.
I think it’s just fucked up. To put something like that on the album cover was just fucked up, and fucked up in a good way, not just fucked up in like a ‘Yeah, look at this brutal nun get fucked by a goat’ kind of way. There’s plenty of albums with brutal goats getting fucked by nuns and vice versa, or whatever the hell. The only other direction I gave to him besides the song titles was just to not try and outdo ‘that’.
Midnight’s album covers are more than just a compliment or added element to the record. They serve as part of the record, completing one audiovisual package. Would you say this is a result of the strong collaborative process between you and Athenar?
William: There is a collaborative process but Athenar likes to step back and let me work. He’s never had a concept for what the covers should be and I’ve always asked. It’s the first thing I do! He tells me the titles and then I take some time to think about what to paint.
There’s definitely a good level of artistic freedom on both ends then.
Athenar: Definitely. Even for the ‘Sweet Death’ cover, he gave me the first version and said 'there it is'. I just made a small suggestion, he made a couple touch ups, and that was it. For the most part, I wouldn’t tell him what to paint. Even though he asks and wants some direction at times, I would never tell someone what to paint just as I wouldn’t expect him to tell me to play a F-sharp rather than a G.
Is that the way your collaborative process has looked from the very beginning or is it something that went about the more you became comfortable with his work?
Athenar: No, I’ve always been confident in his work. That’s always been the way. Since the first thing he did (Satanic Royalty, 2011), I liked his style. It’s not easily definable. It’s not just something you can say ‘oh that’s heavy metal artwork’ or ‘that’s punk rock artwork’. It is what it is.
Thank you for specifically touching on ‘Sweet Death & Ecstasy’, which actually leads to my next question. Whether it’s the scissoring on that album cover or the chain sucking on ‘No Mercy for Mayhem’ (2014)...
Athenar: Is it chain sucking? I always thought that she was vomiting a chain. I thought the chain was coming out of her stomach.
That’s the beauty of art.
Athenar: Yeah. It all depends on how you look at it...
At first, I thought she was maybe sucking on the chain and it’s just being held by the hooded figure’s hand. I never saw it as vomiting, but hey, here we are.
Athenar: See, I thought she was giving birth out of her mouth to a chain.
I can definitely see that now.
Athenar: In ‘Airplane 2’ (1982) I think it is, when the woman is giving birth to eggs out her mouth, that’s what came to mind. That’s just my look at it. Maybe she is sucking on a chain, I don’t know. That’s probably something on the black internet, the dark side of the internet, whatever you want to call it. Chain sucking videos.
I wouldn’t doubt it. Going back to the scissoring and chain sucking or vomiting, you and William have never been one to shy away from censorship or any other limitation. Though Spotify did of course black out part of the ‘Sweet Death & Ecstasy’ cover, there’s still boldness on both of your ends to proceed whereas Cannibal Corpse and others were forced to change their covers decades ago because of said censorship. How important is this level of creative freedom to you? To work with William and both be on the same level of insanity to do whatever it is you want?
Athenar: That’s really what it is. That’s what art is about, to get what’s in you, out of you. If you like painting this or drawing that, or whatever it is that you want to do, then do it. If someone can’t handle it, they don’t have to look at it. It’s a simple concept that should be applied more often. If you don’t like to listen to something, then don’t listen to it, sheesh. If you don’t want to look at something, then don’t look at it. We’re lucky enough to have ability and the choice to look at or not look at things. Just think of people who are blind and don’t have the choice to look at things, fuck man. We should be happy. Be thankful you have vision.
Tell that to the person always complaining about particular things showing up on their timeline.
Athenar: Be happy that you have vision, person. Be thankful you have vision.
If one were to analyze your paintings from the start, it’s clear that you’ve never set a limit on yourself based on societal or industry standards per say. How important is it for you to have creative freedom when working with musicians like Athenar that have no bounds to their creativity?
William: Having at least some creative freedom is always important to me. That’s the difference between making a painting that includes some of your identity and just doing a job for someone. I just lucked out that Athenar is a fellow creep.