Behind the Cover: Mortuous — Upon Desolation

Diving headfirst into the flames from the death metal unit's latest endeavor.


On September 16th, Carbonized Records gave way to another gem from the heavy depths of San Jose's metal stronghold, that being Mortuous' sophomore album, Upon Desolation. Once again graced by the visual prowess of Marald van Haasteren, Mortuous deliver from the jump and astound from the moment listeners gaze at its visual persona, further emphasizing its strengths from the opening Carve and onward. Its predecessor, 2018's Through Wilderness, was already a feat in death doom that set a high bar for any follow-up, but Upon Desolation injects experience and sonic maturity into the mix for one grandiose outing that treads many ends of the emotional spectrum.


We go Behind the Cover of Upon Desolation with Mortuous guitarist/vocalist Colin Tarvin and artist Marald van Hasteren to learn of the album's audiovisual creation:

 

In the four years since ‘Through Wilderness’ (2018), you’ve toured across the world and have put out a variety of material with more than just Mortuous, which of course comes with many lessons. As we near the arrival of ‘Upon Desolation’, how have these jam packed years informed the development of this new record?


Colin: We have picked up lessons over the years, but most of what happened for this record was really organic. While the rest of Mortuous was busy traveling and playing shows, Mike Beams (guitar/vocals) crafted many riffs and ideas on his own. Over Covid, Mike and I worked together on some arrangements and lyrics. Since Mike can’t play live anymore, I really wanted him to have a footprint with Mortuous, an album he can call his own, especially since he’s been in Mortuous for over 10 years.


All the songs he’s contributed over the years have been some of my favorites. I wanted to show the world the dynamic song writing of Mike Beams. When it came time to record, we all made sure we were as tight as can be to represent his vision as best as possible.


Continuing on that point, ‘Through Wilderness’ was a standout debut that set the course for a busy set of years that followed Mortuous. In what mindset does this new record find you in? It is perhaps something we can see reflected in the lyricism and thematic elements of ‘Upon Desolation’.


Colin: I feel this album represents the evolution of the band with themes regarding destruction of the earth and a bleak dystopian outlook of the future, especially now that as a society we seem to normalize this. For example, yearly fires getting worse and worse, the more frequent occurrence of natural disasters, and the general moving backwards of ideologies to make it seem like we’re heading right where we were 50 to 100 years ago, but worse, because history is being ignored and therefore repeated but on a drastic monumental scale.

Cover Artwork by Marald van Haasteren

That messaging extends into the album's visual identity as well. Marald, it is been four years since your collaboration with Mortuous for their debut album, ‘Through Wilderness'. Now that you revisit your partnership with Colin and the band for ‘Upon Desolation’, how would you describe your relationship to Mortuous, Necrot, Scotty (Tankcrimes), and that whole Bay Area scene over the years?


Marald: A very fruitful collaboration based on shared ethical backgrounds would be a way to describe it, but doesn’t fully capture it. There’s also a shared drive, passion to push for the best result, which makes it very stimulating to work together. There’s a mutual trust, respect & admiration in everyone’s expertise. You could say: we are fans of each other’s work, all willing to walk that extra mile, support each other & love to see everyone succeed. A short answer would have been: friends!


Camaraderie plays a huge role! The band has certainly grown both in musicianship, as have you in your use of color, detail, and more. Do you see that same level of growth for yourself as you look back at your decades of illustration for bands?


Marald: 'Upon Desolation' is the number 1 DM album of 2022 for me, I’m very proud to have been involved and am very excited to see what the album will bring for the band.


About myself; there’s definitely a growth but also still room to improve. Right now, I’m way more confident of my capabilities than when I started out. Although that nagging inner voice of self doubt occasionally rises up, I’ve learned to accept it as an asset to keep me on my toes & push myself. I’m very pleased that I’ve come this far and it is through working with bands have I've had the capability to evolve my art without losing my artistic integrity. Working with different bands keeps things fresh; I’m well aware of the trap of repetition.


There’s a difference between having a recognizable style & just simply making variations of the same imagery. Having the luxury to turn down projects, is probably my biggest achievement & safeguards the wonderful experience of making album art. It never ceases to amaze me to see a finished LP sporting my art.


It's a great feeling I'm sure. When we spoke about your cover for Necrot’s ‘Mortal’ (2020), you were in the process of going through eye surgery — a time that severely impacted your ability to perform. Now that you’ve recovered, did the surgery perhaps help you view your talent through a new perspective?

Marald: It made it clear that art is vital for me: being somehow able to make art during my recovery time, helped me in so many ways. I’m very grateful that I’m still able to do art and although my loss of vision has made it more difficult, I do think my art maintained the same quality, if not improved. My drive has certainly increased and I feel the urge of squeezing out every drop of talent I have, way more than before.

Inner Gatefold Artwork by Marald van Haasteren

On a mental level, I still need to fully accept my new handicap and deal with the emotions of loss in all its forms.


It's an ongoing process I would imagine, but you got this! Jumping into ‘Upon Desolation’ and your partnership, the cover is ambiguous and could be interpreted in a few distinct ways. Is that the intention here, to invite a curious listener or viewer to immerse themselves within the composition? Personally, I feel that the best art offers you only a small piece of the puzzle while encouraging viewers to finish it in their way, which you’ve done here.


Colin: I do feel the art very much represents the album, and the cover displays much of the themes in the lyrics, but also leaves a lot of the deeper meaning up to the perspective of the interpreter. I really do appreciate when art can make you ask yourself, “What does it mean?”


Marald: I normally look for a striking image/composition, to get that initial interest & then draw the viewer in & let them immerse themselves in all the details. I agree with you, that leaving room for interpretation is the best way to keep the viewer interested. However, I think the art on 'Upon Desolation' is pretty straight forward, I don’t see a lot of room to interpret it in different ways but I would love to hear people’s opinions.


Colin, you had a greater part in the artwork’s development compared to other bands who simply pass on the duty to the artist, which is completely fine too given that the focus is the music. What drove that strong level of involvement?


Colin: I love to collaborate. Even in the writing of the album, I would tell Mike what I liked and what I didn’t like, honestly and respectfully. I like to be involved but without taking away from creativity. I only ever try to add something that could possibly help elevate the collective vision, not hinder.


How did his involvement inform the work, Marald? I’m sure it is a refreshing thing to have a varying set of opinions leave an impact. It certainly creates good friction, I feel.


Marald: It is very important for me to have the art be connected to the music: it is the first thing people will see, when they pick up the album, the actual introduction to the music. Most of the album art I work on is based on either the lyrics or a general theme, concept provided by the band. I always like it when bands push me in directions that I haven't thought of and it helps improve the imagery.


This album art started from 2 set ideas: 1 from me & 1 from Colin. It took some time to settle on a compromise. It was very difficult for me to let go of my initial idea & get passed the composition sketch stage, more on that later.


Where do you feel that the art and music intersect on ‘Upon Desolation’? It’ll differ for some.


Colin: Personally, I feel like the art and music both represent the blind ignorance of humankind.

Inner Gatefold Artwork by Marald van Haasteren

Nicely put. There’s plenty of neat details scattered throughout the painting, all of which is symbolic for themes found throughout the record. The posture of shame (or grief) of the protagonist, demons radiating from the mind, and the body burning in infernal hell are but a few. What did you both envision for the cover upon beginning discussions?


Colin: Originally, I pictured the similar themes in Mortuous with trees, but I wanted the trees to be devastated by fire, fire in the form of demons. Marald wanted to have a powerful focal point to draw your eyes to something other than the the surrounding landscape. Some ideas were bounced between us, and we landed on the burning figure covering their eyes to bring mystery to the piece.


It was also an idea we borrowed from my old band, Deform, for a release that was never recorded that would have been titled 'What Lives In Shadows'. I asked one of the remaining members, drummer Mike Churry, if we could incorporate this theme into the cover art. Marald took this theme and made it his own.


Marald: The band provided me with the lyrics before they hit the studio, so I had the time to let it soak in and come up with a striking composition. Having to follow up on the 'Through Wilderness' art, which I consider to be one of my best pieces, was not only a challenge but also a good starting point. My mind works pretty fast and I generally have no shortage of ideas, so my work process mostly starts from an image that “popped up” in my head and then I go look for reference pics. I normally make a photo folder to help me get the level of realism and detail I want.


We briefly touched on this earlier, but the initial design for the cover, which we’re sharing here today, also carries a profound emotional depth, symbolizing our connection with nature, blind dominance, man as animal, etc. Where did you two compromise in terms of direction?


Marald: I compromised a lot. Basically, we just kept the background imagery and changed the main figure. This was very hard for me, since to me it felt like a step back: I was so convinced of the quality of my initial idea, that every other take, felt like a let down.


The initial sketch was a continuation of a headless figure (like the one on 'Through Wilderness') but now seated/melted to a dead horse, symbolizing our connection to nature and referring to an archetypical rider of the Apocalypse. Man was depicted as an animal, headless, emphasizing our overstated intellect & symbolizing our blind dominance. A burning book was above the chopped neck, as our collective history and all the meaningless treaties, scattered in the fire. Arms are raised in praise, triumphant, or clawing in agony.

Initial Sketch by Marald van Haasteren

Colin wanted to not use the headless imagery but proposed to base the main figure on an unused concept for his old band Deform as he mentions: a figure covering the head with their hands. Although I wanted to stray away from a centralized composition. It took a couple of tries to come to a striking figure we all liked: the flames turned from antlers of light to flaming demon faces and the lower body became more disintegrating, which let to showing the pelvic bone.

Revised Sketch by Marald van Haasteren

I was really holding back the demon faces. Colin wanted evil faces in the flames, smoke, and agonized faces in the trees. We settled on demonic faces in the flames and having the agony, suffering shown in the actual forms of the trees.

Revised Sketch by Marald van Haasteren

The “no face” figure renewed the concept of man as being speechless, sightless, and blind ignorance. The pelvic bone showed both the birth of this disaster as well as the inevitable death at the end. It renewed my enthusiasm for this project, although I still believe in the strength of my initial sketch.

Revised Sketch by Marald van Haasteren

Among the aforementioned details is a glimpse of vulnerability, sorrow, and self-destruction (in my view). Andrea Morgan’s elegant violin contributions certainly capture that. Is there something to be learned from having these moments among an otherwise brutal record? It all flows organically.


Colin: One of the tracks Andrea plays with us is called 'Nothing', and this song is so organic there are riffs of which don’t even repeat. Something about vulnerability and sorrow that makes those moments that much more powerful or tragic would be the beautiful moments. I feel that the beauty and sorrow influence each other, and make those moments so much stronger in knowing and appreciating both.


Agreed, and it's a beautiful track. Putting ideas down on paper and seeing them evolve into full fledged compositions isn’t always an easy process, but do you feel that it has gotten easier, especially having released a variety of distinct material over the years?


Marald: Like I said before, my mind works pretty fast and I have yet to encounter a creative block. So, a shortage of ideas has never been a problem for me, it usually is just finding the time or the platform to work them all out. I’m very lucky that most of my clients trust me & give me total artistic freedom, although I will always ask for guidelines to make sure the art is connected to the music.

Work In Progress Photo by Marald van Haasteren

For me, the hardest thing is to try to work with people who do have set ideas. It is way more difficult to transform their ideas into imagery that is undeniable from my hand. It is something I usually avoid & give a hard no to but has in some cases proven to be worth the extra effort.

Work In Progress Photo by Marald van Haasteren

That said I do understand the need for control from a band’s perspective; it is their album but then again I don’t tell them how to write their songs……

dark art
Artwork by Marald van Haasteren

Colin: I feel like over the years we’ve gotten better about making ideas come to fruition. The first few years were always a bit harder because we just wanted to get ourselves out there. Since the first album, we’ve gotten better about our focus and direction. There’s always a lot of work involved, but there’s a lot of joy in that process.

 

Upon Desolation is available now via Carbonized Records (Order).

dark art, death metal
Cover Artwork by Marald van Haasteren