Behind the Cover: PYRRHON - Abscess Time

Harnessing from vast musical depths for one tantalizing full-length.

Throughout metal's existence, intersectionality among genres has had a significant impact on our beloved genre. Whether it be goth rock, jazz, noise, or shoegaze, bands have been able to pull from external entities to delve into new ventures, yielding great musical results. Brooklyn's PYRRHON have mastered this art. Now entering their 12th year in existence, the quartet have shifted in membership and sound, evolving far from their death metal roots to a band that refuses to latch on to the binding chains of genre categorization. Music aside, artist Caroline Harrison provides equally eclectic illustrations for each of the band's full lengths, the latest being a beautifully intricate cover for the band's forthcoming record Abscess Time.

Arriving on June 26th via Willowtip Records, Abscess Time stands as a maelstrom of sound, bridging a palette of musical elements for one cohesive listen. From the opening drum roll of the title track to the closing growl of Rat King Lifecycle, PYRRHON entertain with a record that rewards those with the patience to engage for it unfolds new layers with each passing listen. Add a new spirited album cover by Caroline Harrison and you have yourself an experience that you'll be revisiting way past release date.

We go Behind the Cover of Abscess Time with PYRRHON frontman Doug Moore and artist Caroline Harrison to learn more about their heartfelt audiovisual partnership:

'Abscess Time' is quickly approaching and quite frankly stands as representative of the growth you’ve all made since first forming a little over a decade ago. Where are you as a band now compared to when this all began in 2008?

Moore: We’re borderline a different band at this point, relative to our original lineup. Half of the membership has turned over with only myself and Dylan (guitar) being left from the early iteration at the band. At that time, we were playing what I would consider to be straightforward technical death metal whereas today, I feel we’ve moved way beyond that sound. We are arguably not even really 100% a metal band at this point. There’s a lot of noise rock, new wave, prog and all kinds of other stuff mixed in there. We’ve had a couple of drummers since then and we’re really just a lot older now too. We’re a lot more sure of what we want to accomplish with the band, which has allowed us to pursue some less idiomatic directions than we were approaching early on.

Pyrrhon was how we grew up as musicians. When we started, I was a 20 or 21 year old and didn’t really know anything about making music. We all kind of learned how to do it by doing it in the band. The people who made those first couple of recordings feel like different people to me, even the ones who are still here.

Pyrrhon has definitely evolved sonically over the years. The record is truly unconventional, bridging varying song structures with several different elements across the metal spectrum in a cohesive manner, which at times can feel forced if done wrong. How does it all come together organically?

Moore: It’s been a long process of trial and error. By the time we were working on the first LP (An Excellent Servant But a Terrible Master, 2011), we’d already realized that we wanted to reach for elements that were outside of the technical death metal framework we started off in. Ever since then, it’s been a process of gradually figuring out how to make those other influences work within the context of our songwriting and just not being afraid to fail or take risks. There’s not really any special sauce to it or anything like that, but a really important aspect of it is that we’re all students of the game. We’re all really big music fans instead of just people who make music.

Cover art by Caroline Harrison

There have been lots of bands who have done interdisciplinary things in heavy music, especially since the 90’s when things started to swirl together and boundaries between genres were respected less. We’re not too concerned about whether it bothers anyone that we’re mixing things that are often kept separate. It’s a lot of work and we’ve worked our asses to try to make something that makes sense out of those distant pieces.

There’s really no way to categorize or fit you in a particular bubble. Was it always the intention to blur genre lines or was this more of a result from your growth and several line-up changes?

Moore: It wasn’t always the intention. At first, we were just trying to make death metal, but it later became something that we were interested in. To me, it’s never seemed like all of these sounds are as far apart as people make them out to be. They’re all some permutation of loud guitars, bass and drums usually. They’ve always influenced each other since the very early days of loud underground rock music.

If you look at the roots of extreme metal, none of that stuff would’ve happened without a lot of the developments in the punk, noise rock and new wave world in the first place. Grindcore was a term that was invented to describe Swans, specifically their old material, which was slow and had a pulverizing, bulldozer kind of quality. It didn’t have anything to do with playing fast. In that same tone, a lot of the stuff that happened in the 80’s hardcore scene wouldn’t have happened without influences from metal. These things have always been intermingled in my mind. The way that people think about these micro subgenres of heavy underground guitar music as totally different worlds just seems artificial to me. Obviously the sound is different, but there are no inherent barriers between them.

Great point, especially seeing as how ‘gatekeeping’ and elitism in the genre is prevalent. I can’t imagine someone listening to metal 100% of the time.

Moore: Yeah, that doesn’t sound great. The social aspect of metal is really what drives that. People like to feel like they’re in their own little club where they get to say who’s allowed in and who’s not. There’s always been an aspect of elitism and 'insiderism' in metal culture, punk culture and really all of the underground music cultures. Aesthetically, there’s really no reason for these things to be super separate. Historical records show that styles and sounds tend to mix with each no matter how much people try to push back against it. It’s going to happen and that’s how progress occurs.

Colin Marston, who has mastered all of your full-lengths so far, seems to understand this with yet another fantastic mixing and master performance. What did this collaborative process look like?

Moore: It’s gotten to be pretty seamless at this point. When you’re in a band like Pyrrhon and are thinking about who you want to work with in the studio, one constraint on who makes a good choice is really finding who will understand all of the touch stones and reference points that you’re drawing on. There’s a lot of moving points in our music and it’s not always super obvious how one would mix it. There’s no immediate one to one point of comparison. There’s lots of engineers who work on metal and other sorts of heavy music, but the number of sounds that we’re playing with is relatively large, so it’s really important to have someone who can really grasp all of the little elements of what you’re doing and make informed choices about how to style them in the mix.

Aside from being a person who’s been around the band since the very beginning, Colin is an incredible student of music who has a very thorough understanding of how all of the various things we draw upon as influences work together. He’s a one of a kind partner for us. There are lots of great engineers out there, but I can’t imagine anyone who could really intuitively understand all of this stuff in a way that Colin does. He’s also a really good personality match for working with us. He’s a silly person who likes to joke and talk shit. For all of the seriousness of our music, the reason we do it is because it’s very fucking fun. This is how we enjoy ourselves and he understands that side of the band. He’s just the natural person for us to work with.

It’s always important to have that level of trust with all of the people working on your record, which can also be said about your visuals. From ‘Fever Kingdoms’ (2010) to now ‘Abscess Time’, Caroline Harrison has been responsible for illustrating every single release. To what do you attribute the confidence and really the relationship that the band has built with Caroline since the beginning?

Moore: It must be mentioned that Caroline and I have been in a romantic relationship since college, which is when we met. We started dating about a year before Pyrrhon formed, so she’s been there for the entire span of the band. As you might expect, that obviously leads me to trust her.

Aside from that, the thing that is really important about the artistic relationship that the band has with her is that she’s always been willing to grow along with us. When the band first started, we didn’t really know what we were trying to do yet. We had some skills, we could play music, but we hadn’t picked a direction yet really. She was kind of in the same place really. She was in her early twenties and had a lot of art skill, but her vision wasn’t totally sorted out. The fact that we were all able to grow together means that we have a really unique bond in that sense.

Another thing that we like about working with her is that she’s not really from a metal background, per say. She’s pretty involved in that stuff now, but she didn’t grow up trying to emulate artists who were popular in the metal scene. As a result, her work doesn’t have the standard thematic elements that you would see in a typical metal record. As I’m sure you know, there’s a lot of metal art that can come off as incredibly generic and interchangeable. With Caroline, that’s just never going to happen because that’s not where she comes from. She’s willing to break boundaries and do things that aren’t necessarily considered to be genre specific.

Lastly, she knows all of us so well and really understands where we’re coming from on a conceptual and personal angle. She’s able to pick up on the mood of the music, especially since we live together, hears early demos and gets to see lyrics as the album is being written. It’s way different from approaching an artist who you’re contracting from and don’t really know too well. Caroline knows way more about where it comes from on an emotional level even before we start talking about what the art is going to look like.

You’ve grown side by side with Pyrrhon over the years, which is visible in comparing ‘Fever Kingdoms’ and ‘Abscess Time’. In looking at both of those paintings, where do you feel you are different as an artist?

Harrison: The ‘Fever Kingdoms’ cover is something I wish didn’t exist on the internet. I was trying to experiment with doing digital painting and I just whiffed super hard and fell on my face a bit. Like you mention, a lot of time has elapsed since then and now. With ‘Abscess Time’, I’m a lot more confident with what I’m doing, to a point. I feel like I trust myself a little bit more with what I’m doing.

Cover art by Caroline Harrison

It’s really just part of the process right? Personally, I feel like you discovered your style with ‘The Mother of Virtues’ (2014), specifically with the anatomical exploration and vibrant color use.

Harrison: Totally. A lot of the work that I was doing wasn’t really public facing. I did art stuff in college and always had a bit of a medical bent. I thought that I’d wanted to be an illustrator and then I figured out what that really meant. I’m not really good at drawing stuff that I don’t want to draw. With ‘The Mother of Virtues’, it felt like a sort of breakthrough for me. All of a sudden, I felt that ‘this’ was the way I wanted to work. It felt like I kind of found my voice.

Cover art by Caroline Harrison

Interesting that you mention that Caroline doesn’t have a particular metal background, visually speaking. It’s always neat to see bands explore beyond the particular metal art style. It makes for quite the unique visual experience which ‘Abscess Time’ has going.

Moore: Absolutely. As far as Caroline’s art goes, it’s true she doesn’t have that metal background, but she definitely has a real interest in bleak, disturbing imagery. She’s able to match the band’s air of emotional severity and intensity with an appropriately disturbing image, however it’s not the usual stuff that you would see. It’s a little bit evident on the cover for ‘Abscess Time’ that she’s really interested in anatomy, the body and unsettling images that can arise from things happening within it. It never feels like a brutal death metal album cover. She’s able to achieve that shocking kind of image without relying on the horror tropes that are often seen in metal album covers.

It’s also important to note that she uses these really bright and intense colors a lot, which is something you see a little bit more of now. It’s something I’ve always appreciated from not only an aesthetic perspective, but a marketing angle. If you’re browsing through a list of album covers, you’ll often see a bunch that are murky, red or black. There’s usually one that catches your eye with bright colors, so there’s an advantage of getting people interested with the sheer loudness of her work.

From 'The Mother of Virtues' onward, you really developed that style and ‘Abscess Time’ is proof that it has flourished. To Doug's point, your art is distinct to that of your typical metal album cover. Where do you feel that you fit in the metal arena?

Harrison: I also didn’t really have that particular background based on the music that I was listening to. Doug and I have known each other since 2006. We met in college and started dating shortly after. One of the things that we connected on was music and I’ve always been sort of dabbled into this more aggressive, dark sound since then. I was really frustrated with sort of where indie rock was going at that point, so a lot of the heavy music that I found came from mixes that Doug would make for me.

It was harder for me to connect with metal art because it’s so clear that so many people in the metal community have such amazing passion for artwork. I never really came from the same general traditions and I didn’t really have this conception of what metal art was supposed to look like. All the Frank Frazetta and Zdzisław Beksiński worship definitely has its place. If you look at my stuff, it’s pretty clear that I love Beksiński. I came from a different scene and wasn’t aware of all that stuff at first.

The beauty of it all is that despite the typical characteristics of metal artwork, there’s really no defined meaning for what it’s supposed to be. There’s a plethora of artists out there that use mixed mediums, vibrant colors, and elements that don’t fall in line with what’s expected of art in the genre.

Harrison: That’s one of the things where my work and Pyrrhon’s sound mirror each other. Their sound draws on so many different influences. There are these weird moments of brightness in all of the darkness. I’ve also been kind of lucky that the band lets me do whatever I want. I’m like “I love bright, pretty colors” and they’re cool with it. As I was working through their most recent album cover (What Passes For Survival, 2017), the bright color thing was also something they wanted to see. It was exciting.

That’s a perfect segue to my following point. ‘Abscess Time’ clearly uses a lot of color and vivid detail, slowly rewarding patient viewers that engage with the music as it speaks to various elements at play within the record. Was the color use something you were all looking for at the beginning or was it something she took on artistically from her end?

Moore: For this album cover, we didn’t really give her a lot of direction. In the past, I’ve come to her with an image and we would talk about how that basic image can be elaborated and turned into a more fleshed out album cover. For instance, on our last record (What Passes For Survival), I wanted a dog that was in a trap with a few other details that I thought were appropriate to be on there. She worked off of that and developed it in a way that she wanted to.

Cover art by Caroline Harrison

This time, I gave her the lyrics, talked about the songs a little bit and she went and took it in her direction. At this point, she’s earned our trust and I respect her vision enough to not feel the need to tell her what to make unless there’s something very specific that we’re looking for.

As Doug mentions, the painting wasn’t particularly guided by the band and was more or less driven by your own interpretation of the material. Visually, what did you set to achieve?

Harrison: I’ve lost count of the number of Pyrrhon shows that I’ve gone to, so I see a lot of the earlier iterations of newer material. I try to get a sense of the overall feel of the record in that way. I was working on the record cover at the same time they were recording it, so I hadn’t heard the full album as it existed.

A lot of the themes that the album explores are things that I’m sort of exploring in my own way in my work, specifically this concept of how disorienting and anxiety-inducing it is to exist now. It’s a little bit more apparent to everyone right now than I really would have wished on anyone. It touches on how oppressive and scary it can be to exist right now, but also that there’s so much beauty that does exist alongside all of this ugliness. A lot of this beauty comes from how resilient human beings can be and resilience is a major theme throughout the rest of my work, so I wanted to bring all of that into the album cover. Pyrrhon is a really aggressive band, but there are some parts in these songs that are just gorgeous and lush. Something stark or black and white would do a disservice to the actual sound of the record.

Which in turn is reflected on the vibrant color use.

Harrison: Exactly. They all love a whole bunch of different types of music. The vibrant colors were something they all agreed on.

In seeing the time lapse you shared on Instagram, there were several adjustments made as it evolved into the final result. It appears that your vision was set from inception, as if you knew what you were doing from the start.

Harrison: Actually, not really. I have a general outline when I usually go into something. I leave a few elements up in the air because as I work, I respond to the way the image develops and leave a bit of room for improvisation. Pyrrhon definitely plays a lot in improvisation, so that synchronicity there is a fun thing to think about. Sometimes I would get really stuck and not know what the fuck I was supposed to be doing. I would stare at it a while and get really mad. I planned a whole bunch of these central images and how they would work together. Making them work together was a process that I wanted to let happen organically.

With regards to developing the general ideas, I went through the lyrics for the whole record right before they recorded and pulled a bunch of images that I thought were sort of rich and interesting. I then thought about what those images made me think of and what kind of mood could work here.

Patient viewers can find something in it from simply gazing at it, which is really the point with these album covers. It’s something you have to sit, appreciate, and let unfold with the music.

Harrison: Album art is really interesting because a lot of times when people engage with a piece of art, they may look at it once or a couple of times. If it’s a record that you listen to over and over, and especially with physical copies, you as the album artist have the opportunity to engage with the listener over and over again. I definitely don’t take that for granted.