Exploring religious fanaticism through a grand audiovisual achieved by three brilliant minds.
Words by Luis (@heaviestofart):
From Mariusz Lewandowski's towering depiction for Cairn (2019) to Zdzisław Beksiński's harrowing imagery for Yodh (2016), Mizmor mastermind ALN has a keen eye for enlisting the right visual representation. January's release of Wit's End was no exception and it now lives beyond its origins as a Roadburn-comissioned project as an all-encompassing entity of grandiose proportions.
Like Cairn, Wit's End sports Polish surrealism at the helm as artist Justyna Koziczak takes on cover duties with an intriguing landscape that offers much in the realm of exploration, the proper face to ALN's profound lyricism. Going even further, the multi-faceted Zev Deans tapped into history and harnessed Albrecht Durer's work for his moving animations. Together, Koziczak and Deans craft a sight so enticing to the passing eye. Before you know it, you'll find yourself enraptured by the disillusionment of religion as you look upon a visual approach best felt in solace. Blackened doom never looked this good.
We go Behind the Cover of Wit's End with ALN, Justyna Koziczak, and Zev Deans to explore the reflective power of the composition's Polish surrealism, religious woodcuts, and introspective themes:
'Wit’s End' is in constant circulation and aside from the moving nature of the music, may I say that it serves as a testament to the power of genuine visual partnership. It’s a strong collective effort from you, Justyna Koziczak, and Zev Deans, all of whom deliver greatly for all to see outside of what was initially exclusive to Roadburn. Would you say that you value this particular component of a release as much as you do the actual composition? You're of course a musician first.
ALN: I am so thrilled with Justyna’s and Zev’s contributions to Wit’s End; also Emma Ruth Rundle, whose photography is featured on the album. It’s crucial to have strong artwork to help bring home the overall esthetic and theme of the music. I don’t know that I can say I value it as much as the actual composition; I think the music is the most important thing on an album. Some folks will only hear the music, out of context of the artwork, and it needs to speak for itself.
The flip-side also matters though - plenty of people listen to an album because they first see the art and are intrigued. There are of course great albums with not-so-great artwork, and great album covers with not-so-great music, but when the two align, it’s so powerful. At the end of the day, the most important thing for me as a musical artist is the music itself - the songwriting, performances, and production.
You make some good points here, and of course, striking artwork is not foreign to the Mizmor discography. You’ve enlisted the work of Zdzisław Beksiński, Mariusz Lewandowski, Blial Cabal, and more in the past, making it a treat to go down your musical output. What do you look for when approaching an album cycle’s visuals?
ALN: I look for a feeling; the same feeling the music gives me needs to be present in the artwork. Often, for me, that is successfully embodied by dark, surreal images like you see when looking at the works of the three painters mentioned above. Sometimes it takes a different tone - a more raw, real, and brutal one - and for that, I love the etching/pen-and- ink style that really lays bare the scene in great detail. I want an album cover to communicate the theme of my music without giving away too much. It needs to be intriguing so the listener wants to know more, to know why this is the image and what it means. It can’t be too on-the-nose, but also can’t be too abstract or unrelated to the content of the music.
It's a great approach to be ambiguous in that way. That said, what drew you to Justyna and Zev for Wit’s End in particular? Her oil paintings carry such an organic feel.
ALN: The choice to work with Justyna was very natural. I found her work online and was instantly drawn to it. I have a thing for Polish surrealist painters and she beautifully carries this tradition on, while imbuing her works with her own special touch. I wanted to continue in the vein of 'Yodh' and 'Cairn', but also do something fresh. The result was her painting, “The Gate”, which I deeply love. I first connected with Zev years ago but we had never worked together until "Wit’s End”. Roadburn Festival commissioned an original song and video from me for their 2021 online version of their fest. Zev was the first person that came to mind, as he is a very talented director (among other things).
I really didn’t know what to expect honestly. I gave Justyna lots of direction and she delivered sketches before painting the final piece, so every step of the way I had a sense of how it was coming along. With Zev, I just kind of set him loose. He shared some ideas with me that I liked and then disappeared into his work until right before the video premiered. All I could do was hope it was awesome, and it totally was! The inspiration he drew from (mostly medieval Europe, the plague, and Albrecht Dürer) perfectly translated the message of “Wit’s End” and stayed completely on brand for me, with that old-school etching style.
They both delivered greatly, that's for sure. “The Gate'' perfectly captures the theme of religious fanaticism and delusional reliance on controlled messaging as we see three individuals worshipping a crimson entry. Beyond that entry is a desolate world. Where did you find common ground when interpreting the album’s themes through the artistic lens?
ALN: I wrote to Justyna and told her my backstory, explaining how I fell away from my faith in Christianity and have been using Mizmor’s music to process that loss for the last decade. She shared her own struggle with religion as a practicing Catholic, repelled from church by the knowledge of the crimes of priests and the overall hypocrisy of the Vatican. Though she still has a quiet, personal practice, she could relate to my story - organized religion being shoved down your throat and not making sense with the world you see. I think she also connected with the emotion in my music, more of a sense of sadness, confusion, and disappointment than all-out rage. I’m actually curious how she would answer this question - it must be an interesting experience to paint someone else’s inner world.
Justyna: When ALN reached out to me and explained me his idea, also telling me his story (which I think is very important to understand his music), I felt really drawn to that project. The experience of losing faith, facing all the feelings which come with that process is a really tough path, and having some doubts myself, I was thinking that it will be very interesting to try to visualize and depict it. Of course, it wasn't the only subject of 'Wit's End' but with our email exchange, I felt really intrigued. The idea for the cover was really evocative, I wanted to take that opportunity to try myself out. Then we exchanged a ton of emails and by discussing every proposed project, we were getting closer to the final effect.
It's intriguing to see how it evolved through the phases, and lucky us for getting to these to the reader. Many already know Mizmor’s work to be towering in scope, but with your cover illustration for ‘Wit’s End’, it becomes that much more grand. How did you look to expand upon the album’s themes through your respective lens?
Justyna: Thank you so much, I am absolutely honoured to be one of the creators for Mizmor's album cover! I also found it really challenging, being familiar with the other artists' works used, so the level was really high. I was aiming to create an artwork which will have a link (at least not very direct one) to the previous covers, which will represent topics of the album's music and will be a good representation of my art as well. Also, I wanted an artwork which will grab viewer's attention, in a subtle way at least. I had a pleasure and privilege to listen to 'Wit's End' while working on the album and I found the music really inspiring during the process. Two very different music compositions, yet making a perfect whole masterpiece made a very interesting and enlightening music experience to me. I must confess that I wasn't too familiar with doom metal before, but because of Mizmor, I started exploring and listening to some other bands of that genre.
What a way to get introduced to doom! Expanding on the experience a bit further, was there anything that you two particularly aimed to achieve visually?
Justyna: My aim was to portray a dystopian world or, to be more precise, a 'mind-scape' – which is the depiction of an obedient and conscious-less human being. Every element has a meaning and I was trying to incorporate as many symbols in the painting, as possible. For instance, the gate itself, apart from being an object of worship, it has a symbolic meaning in many cultures and religions, from some obvious ones like transition or change, to power and domination. By hiding eyes and faces in the gate's structure, I wanted to create a link to 'Pareidolia' - the second song on the album. There are a few more ones, which I would like to leave for the viewers' interpretation. Basically, I wanted to create a structure, which can be unraveled slowly, so viewers can discover more and more, after or while listening to the music.
Zev: My initial plan was to shoot a mixture of live action & miniatures, akin to my work for the band Portal, as I had been talking to ALN for years about a collaboration in this style. I was aiming to make something look like a moving version of Polish Surrealist Beksinksi’s desolate cruel and alien landscapes.
But modest resources call for inventive solutions, and I decided that non-practical animation was the only way to make things work. Considering the thematic leanings towards the Plague and our own recent decent into a new Dark Age, I chose the work of Albrecht Durer as my new source of inspiration, and I began drawing in the style of his religious woodcuts. In some cases, I made my own versions of his work, but a great deal of the drawings are just a summation of my decades-long studying of his linework.
It's amazing to see both of your respective styles come together to visualize ALN's work in this way. Zev, audiences of course saw that for the first time at Roadburn and now it exists outside of that space. How did you look to expand upon it through your respective talent?
Zev: All I had to go on was an early unmastered press of the song, and I took a lot of guidance from the spoken word bit at the beginning, and the sort of slow slogging pace and feel of the music. The whole thing feels like a sort of hermit’s meditation on the darker aspects of life during the pandemic, which to me, felt a lot like a parallel to the events & superstitions surrounding the black plague & the subsequent dark ages.
I started to picture a frail and tired creature trudging across an otherworldly desert, crawling to the slow pace of the rhythm. And then I revisited Voltaire’s 'Candide' (1759) and started to picture this creature as a sort of wise old hermit alone in their tower, writing about their travels across a burning landscape of failure.
You excelled, my friend. You took on every element of the video: directing, animating, and illustrating. Is this level of creative freedom overwhelming at all or was there a sense of direction from ALN with respect to what the goals were? He mentions giving you total control.
Zev: When I’m not shooting live-action, these videos are almost always built by myself from start to finish. The work is at times overwhelming, lonely, and puts me in a bedraggled and exhausted mental state, which seems to aesthetically fit the song’s subject matter in this case. But it is always equally exhilarating inspiring and exciting to see what things bubble out of my subconscious as I move forward without more than a loose idea of where I’m headed.
ALN’s only goal was for me to have it ready on time, and I achieved this within seconds of the moment of truth. 15 minutes is easily the longest runtime I’ve ever clocked for a music video, and when everything in the frame is handmade by just me, I’m going to need every last second to finish the thing.
The album art was initially supposed to be comprised of imagery from my video, but I took so long to work on it that Mizmor began the search for formal album art. And I’m glad for that, as we wouldn’t have Justyna’s excellent contribution here today if it wasn’t for my own inability to work in an organized fashion.
The delay worked in the album's favor thankfully. As we note, a great deal of work went into this endeavor. About how long did that take you to complete? I ask this to highlight the incredible investment that goes into these efforts.
Zev: Oh man, I don’t know, maybe two weeks of nonstop work? I would usually skip a night of sleep every two days, but I’m learning as of late that you get diminishing returns from sleep deprivation (especially at my age). Rather then work myself into an early grave, I’ve actually started sleeping every night only recently. I’m old now, so I’ve got to change my ways.
Rest is of priority! Justyna, from what I understand, the illustration has been completed for quite some time. After sitting on it for so long, has your perspective on it changed at all? Did the direction perhaps change as you exchanged sketches and ideas with ALN?
Justyna: I was taking my time trying to achieve the perfect balance between my vision and what represents my art with ALN's vision. I think I can say that the idea, which ALN had, was portrayed by me in different projects, and each of them was focusing on the different aspect of the topic. The direction or maybe, to put it better, my approach has changed over the time after discussing various options, which I can compare to a process of growing a plant, from a seed to full bloom, with two people watering and caring for it.
That's a great way to put it. Music illustration isn’t really among your day to day work and commissions of course differ in that you’re meeting someone else’s requests rather than pleasing your own creative ambitions. However, “The Gate” exists as its own piece with its own power despite it being created synonymously to ‘Wit’s End’. Was individuality important for you to retain when completing the cover?
Justyna: Recently I made a couple more music album artworks, so surprisingly, making commissioned paintings has become a part of my routine. The most important aspect of working with commissioned artwork is, for me, to fulfill the customer's idea in the way which will speak to me too because the idea which ALN shared with me spoke to me straight away. I think it was only a matter of finding the right visual representation of that vision. Even if the topic of the work wouldn't feel too close to me, I still execute my works in my style and brushwork in which I would retain the link to the previous works of mine. Fortunately, I never had that problem, I've always been blessed with really inspiring and interesting projects for commissioned works.
That's always great. ALN, the album cover of course doesn’t show the full painting, which truly captures the emptiness of this bleak world that Justyna creates. In the background, we see another group worshipping a deity amidst the emptiness, isolated completely from the focus group on the cover. Do you argue that religion, cultism, and conspiracy theorism has contributed greatly to the disconnect between society at large, forcing groups to operate in silos?
ALN: Though I largely agree with that and see the echo-chamber in full effect in our modern world, it was not the intent of the art to convey that. What I wanted to communicate was mankind’s tendency to deify and worship both the natural world and the manmade world. The crimson gate on the album cover is made up some sort of large, mangled tree root, yet takes on the form of a face and is full of eyes. This is meant to be as the worshippers see it; in reality it is just a mangled tree root. Those around the fire have built an idol that they now worship; it is tall, larger than life, and maybe they’ve falsely correlated a pattern between when they make sacrifices to it and the good or bad occurrences that ensue. The two scenes are just meant to serve as examples of the same concept - our inclination to superstition, deifying mystery, and developing a grandiose image of ourselves as ‘god-breathed’ beings (consciousness is a big theme on the album).
Interesting, and after this discussion, it really changes the perspective in which this is viewed, at least for me. With respect to the video, Zev nailed the classic animation and breathes new life into the record’s overarching themes. What was that experience like, allowing your work to live in a new format?
ALN: As I alluded to previously, it was a bit nerve-racking at times. I’m a pretty picky person when it comes to art and I haven’t seen very many extreme metal music videos that I like. An album cover is one thing, it stands alone and still. But 15-minutes of animation... that’s a long time for the visuals to perfectly match the music, a lot of opportunity for mismatched tastes. I reached a point where I kind of had to just let go; whatever was going to happen was going to happen and if I hated it, I didn’t have to use it after Roadburn was over. Zev kept assuring me it was amazing and I would love it, but he struggled to show me progress because of all the attention to detail he poured into it. He described his progress as dominos being set up all in a row; they had to get knocked over for me to really get it. This was hard on my anxiety but I’m happy to say he was totally right and here we are on the other side and I’m using the video on the release, so clearly I fucking love it.
Putting ideas down on paper and seeing them evolve into music and art isn’t always an easy process, but do you feel that it has gotten easier over time? There’s a great deal of emotion and heart invested into every one of your efforts and I’m sure you’ve found it difficult at times to express exactly what you’re looking for on a canvas.
ALN: Yes, I do feel it’s gotten easier over time. You’re right, I pour all of myself into my music. I also wait and allow for thoughts and emotions to naturally arise and inspire me to create, rather than trying to force it. This approach takes time for sure, but I’d like to think I’ve gotten better at it over the course of the last decade. It doesn’t take me as many years to make a full-length; instead of maybe three or four I can do it in two. Once I’ve got the feeling in my chest, putting it on the canvas isn’t hard for me. The hard part is listening and knowing when there’s something worth expressing inside. It takes life experience to inspire this, which you can’t rush, but I think I’ve gotten better at encouraging and seizing those moments.
Expanding a bit further on that point, is it cathartic in any way to invest so much of your own suffering into these compositions and finally see them realized for so many people to consume and interpret in their own ways?
ALN: Absolutely. Mizmor has always been, first and foremost, a personal journal of sorts. I created the project for exactly that - emotional catharsis and therapy, a place to put my suffering that I might help myself grow, process, and heal. Although I know people will have their own interpretations of my music, which is great, I’m most excited by those that take the time to understand the intended meaning, as it is something that I take a lot of time to try and convey via things like lyrics and interviews. The people that really understand where I’m coming from and share that with me really impact me. I’m talking about those who have left their religion or escaped their cult, those who have gone through the pain of changing their mind about core ideas that make up their worldview, identity, family, and social life. So much is stacked on that core belief, so much can crumble. It can ruin a person, at least for a while. Connecting with people about that is what it’s all about. The fact that some people, however small the percentage, are helped by what I do gives my life and work a lot of purpose.
It happens so organically too, which speaks to the power of your art. Whether it be the crimson entrance or the scattered eyes, “The Gate” has a symbolic presence over the three worshipping protagonists, aligning well with Mizmor’s overarching message. Justyna, what do you take from the painting as the creator?
Justyna: Developing the visual idea for 'Wit's End' was a journey of unraveling new angles and ways to depict the subjects (because there is no one, simple topic of the album). The deeper I went, under ALN's wise guidance, the better it was turning out (as it should be). I find the collaboration of two artists really inspiring, a musician and a painter, because our mediums are so different, yet there is a common frequency, which has to be found and shown on a canvas. I can say that because I could relate to the topic, I think it made the process quite smooth. As for myself, I really liked that process.
There’s no shortage of neat nods to past centuries and thematic elements to explore throughout the video. We have plague doctors, courtyard hangings, and a dead Moses traversing throughout the kingdom. Zev, what do you take from experience as the creator?
Zev: Well, yeah, there’s a lot of very blatant nods to our current times, superstitious persecution on all sides, piling bodies from disease exponentially exacerbated by ignorance, and the feeling that a simple walkabout can feel like a dystopian journey. But I also found a way to represent the artists and their secret ways of communicating with each other amidst hordes of the uninitiated. I use Henbane as a sort of talisman in this video, for the coded discourse we engage in with each other across the world.
Thank you both for such great insight on your visual contributions to the record. In closing, 'Wit’s End' uses the Great Filter within the Fermi Paradox as a driving force, which also serves as a proper entry point for those seeking to learn of the perspectives you layer within. ALN, is 'Wit’s End' insular or is there a very direct intention behind the audiovisual approach you present?
ALN: The intention of 'Wit’s End' is a zoomed out one. Instead of talking about myself and Christianity, I am talking about mankind and faith in general. It’s a call to embrace the meme of the scientific method and reject the meme of dogma (by meme I mean idea or way of doing things). The mind is created in the brain by a conglomeration of ideas that get lodged within. Why an idea sticks doesn’t have to do with whether or not it is beneficial to the host. Memes are subject to natural selection, just like genes, and some will be good at replicating even if they are harmful to us. In this sense, some ideas, or memes, are more valuable to us than others. I want to encourage people to press into science as a way of doing things - changing your mind when new, contrary evidence comes in - and discourage people from pressing into faith/dogma as a way of doing things - doubling down on your belief in spite of new, contrary evidence and just having faith it will make sense one day (because God works in mysterious ways). The problem isn’t Christianity, that’s just an example; the problem is a dogmatic, faith-based approach to understanding the world and making predictions about it. This becomes problematic when it rejects reason, logic, and evidence-based thinking to the point of harm, which can be observed through the ages across all the world’s religions in cases of medicine, technology, and human rights. It’s regressive, delusional, and unhelpful in my opinion.
Wit's End is available now via Gilead Media. Order your copy HERE.