Navigating through decades of filth for one gruesome and daring new landscape.
The human mind is an incredible entity often sparked by unique stimuli. Flashing lights, vivid colors, symmetry, shapes and more have the ability to turn us onto to things we wouldn't otherwise pay much attention to, as science can explain. In the case of THE BLACK DAHIA MURDER's Trevor Strnad, it was the sadistic, flowing nature of Dan Seagrave's fiery underworld that would turn him onto one of the greatest death metal records of all time, DISMEMBER's Like An Ever Flowing Stream (1991). The rest is history.
Harnessing from that memorable discovery is Verminous, the brand new record from THE BLACK DAHLIA MURDER set to arrive on April 17th via Metal Blade Records. To further stimulate those who bask in the band's razor sharp riffs, the band have enlisted Spain-based artist Juanjo Castellano for a cover that that will bring you back to the golden era of Swedish extremity. Like the intricate details scattered throughout the painting that fronts it, Verminous that unfolds with every moment of engagement, enticing one to revisit the record time and time again.
We go Behind the Cover of Verminous with frontman Trevor Strnad and artist Juanjo Castellano to dive deep beneath the malicious world they've created for us all:
The band is nearing two decades in existence, traversing through different eras and shifts in the metal with Verminous marking what you refer to as the biggest ‘evolutionary leap’. Who are you now as musicians compared to when this all started in 2001? Trevor: I feel like we have made a mission statement to stay within the blueprint of Black Dahlia Murder at the beginning. We’re still straddling the line of doing what we set out to do on Unhallowed (2003), but also being a bit selfish with it. As we get better as musicians, we’re always cramming more technicality into the songs and the songs are just getting increasingly difficult with every album. There’s something about playing those songs live though. When we play Nightbringers (2017) songs, they’re more satisfying than the other songs. It’s kind of a masochistic want in a way. We’re just way better songwriters than we were as kids. We’ve learned so much from each other and I feel like we’ve had the formula for a Black Dahlia Murder song down for a long time. It’s really in the minutiae, in the small details, where you can really inject into a song. That’s what we’ve been playing with in recent years. In those terms, the new record is the most ambitious we’ve ever done. It has the most variety from song to song, I’d say.
Touching on your point about the formula of a Black Dahlia Murder song, what does that constitute for you in terms of structure? Trevor: They’re usually very rock-based, even pop-based, very verse-chorus-verse-bridge. Usually, the solo comes after the chorus, but we’ve changed that up a bit. They’re usually about 3-minutes and usually the chorus happens 2-3 times. I feel like we learn songwriting tactics from all over the place, not just metal, especially by paying attention to all kinds of music, even pop.
I think that’s the beauty of Verminous. After listening through it a few times, tracks like Godlessly (a personal favorite), Removal of the Oaken Stake, and The Wereworm’s Feast stand out because they fire on all ends and really incorporate different melodies and tempo shifts. How do you bring in said external elements (pop, rock) into the Black Dahlia mix and make it work comfortably for you all? Trevor: We’re always straddling the line and dabbling with new stuff. This record is a bit more rock-based. Wereworm, for example, is a bit King Diamond-esque at times. There’s times in the record where we closed the hi-hat. We’re always very excited to try new things. I feel like the band is in a creative high right now with this lineup. Brandon coming into the fold was really exciting for Nightbringers, but he’s really spread his wings even further with this record.
We have a running list of different things we want to do. The other day, we were listening to Eddie Money and in the chorus for one of his songs, there’s a repetition with the drums dropping out and containing just guitars and vocals. We were like, ‘Yo, we should definitely do that in a song.' We have a running list of different things like that in terms of songwriting. We’re always trying to do something that has more technical chops, kind of like a selfish want to play more and play better. We’re always growing on that front every 2 years. The guys have just gotten so much better. We play so many shows and absorb information by seeing other bands or listening to music together. A lot can happen in between albums at the rate that we move. We’re on a very accelerated schedule, we always have been.
The current iteration of Black Dahlia is clearly a different band on all levels, especially due to the never easy lineup shifts. After many throughout the years, it’s safe to say that the current ensemble is truly a unit that thrives on mutual support and understanding with Nightbringers and Verminous being an example of that. Trevor: Definitely. We have a really great lineup right now and we’re all great friends. It’s a very relaxed and creative atmosphere since Brandon came into the fold. We learned to trust him really fast. In spite of being very young, he’s really intelligent in the studio and knows his way around a mix. He had a huge hand in the mixing of Nightbringers, which led to him being at the recording helm for most of this record this time. We tracked the guitars, vocals and bass at his home studio in New Jersey, which gave us added control over the fine details. As I said before, that’s what makes this record stand out. It was a conscious effort on my part to make the album less dense lyrically, and not cram as many lines in as I normally would. The music breathes a bit more than Nightbringers. Nightbringers is really just ‘attack, attack, attack’ the whole time and the new one is easier to grasp onto with more simplistic parts. I tried to sing clearer and bit more slowly in an effort to make it catchier. Those are some minute changes. It’s definitely noticeable. Each track bounces off one another very seamlessly with each one being its own entity. It does speak to the amount of creativity you packed into this. Trevor: In the press release, I said that there’s Easter eggs in the songs. Little turnarounds and little technical flourishes happen in each song, which happen only once. There’s also lyrical Easter eggs tucked in there too, nods to metal classic records. The first song for example, Verminous, has a nod to Where The Slime Live (Morbid Angel) lyrically. I’m always tucking in little things like that in hopes that the fans catch on. We’ll leave those surprises for the fans to check out and turn over to the artistic side of things. Throughout your discography, you’ve worked with the likes of Kristian Wåhlin, Nick Keller, and now Juanjo Castellano for the new record, so clearly there’s a strong investment placed towards the visual end of your records. How important is that for you and the band when approaching a new album cycle? Trevor: It’s so important. I see the excitement that a good album cover creates right out of the gate. It has a power and gives life to music that people haven’t even heard yet, making them curious in imagining what it’s like. I feel like we’ve had a good legacy of incredible artworks, so I feel a sense of pressure in finding the right person for the job. There’s just so much great art and so many killer artists in metal right now, so it’s hard to choose and it’s so competitive. If you don’t have good artwork on your shit, you’re going to suffer. That initial excitement won’t be there for people. People will be filled with doubt and not take you as seriously. We try to have a strong color for each record that would represent each era, which trickles into the music videos, merch, and obviously the onstage scrimmage. I really like that aspect, being in control of the artwork. I have been since the very beginning of the band. It’s something that I take very seriously and have a lot of pride in. Juan is someone I’ve had my eye on for a while. He does a lot in the old school death metal realm. The first things I saw that caught my eye were some Revel In Flesh albums that he did. I feel like he’s part Seagrave and part Necrolord. I just knew he’d be the right guy to do a classic looking record cover. I’m always shooting for that, something that represents what I like about death metal, what drew me into death metal and what made me stare at death metal covers in the record store before I even heard it.
We’re such a gateway band for people. We’re a lot of young people’s first extreme band, so I try to represent death metal in a tried and true way with the artwork. There’s definitely references to some classic records with this new one, specifically with Dismember’s Like An Ever Flowing Stream and Clandestine. I wanted the evil place and the ruins, but I wanted it to have a sewer twist. I was really driving home how I wanted the slime to be striking in color because slime is a recurring topic in the record. I love how it came out and I’m actually looking at the LP right now. It’s striking, very classic, very BDM.
As Trevor mentions, Entombed’s Clandestine and Dismember’s Like An Ever Flowing Stream are visibly a big inspiration to particular elements in the painting. Were there any other external factors or influences that played a role in the development of the painting?
Juanjo: These two classic paintings were mentioned from the beginning...the boy has good taste ha. But it is clear that the cover includes very personal elements that Trevor suggested to me. All these fecal waters, repulsive insects, viruses...all this gives a personal touch to the work that clearly differentiates them from Seagrave's work. Besides it, there is a strong Juanjo Castellano touch on the painting of course.
Death metal just seems to be your bread and butter when it comes to cover artwork. To what do you attribute this gruesome endeavor? Juanjo: Well, I've always been a metal fan in general. I am 48 years old, and depending on the time, I enjoyed the 80's, 90's, and all the styles that were emerging. Heavy Metal, Thrash Metal, Death Metal, Black, Doom...of all these styles, without a doubt, Death Metal is my favorite, and without a doubt, this may be the reason why most of the bands I work with are Death Metal acts. You always try to do what you like the most and the dark, gloomy and brutal topics of this style is my favorite when it comes to working.
You’ve really mastered the art of creating evil worlds, packing vivid detail into skies, architecture, and overall atmosphere. Verminous is no different. From a visual standpoint, what goes into the creation of these landscapes? Juanjo: They are without a doubt my favorite topics when working. Desolate landscapes, normally adorned by ruins, twisted shapes, creeping beings, dead nature...this last point is essential for me because nature (preferably alive please ha) is something I need in my life. Going into a deep forest, listening to music, alone, has always been an excellent way to be inspired...the TBDM cover has a lot of this.
It’s an apt representation for sure. As mentioned to Juanjo, he excels at really creating these vivid worlds, which is something you see throughout Black Dahlia’s records. The covers have been widely scenic, transporting audiences into new worlds. Verminous is no exception. Is there an intended reason for this artistic direction? Trevor: It’s going back to what really excited me in looking at death metal records, seeing Left Hand Path for the first time. I just like the evil place, I call it the evil place. It’s not based on characters really, it’s more about what you said, atmosphere. I like the foreboding challenge for you to enter it, this evil place. It’s definitely just a tribute to the old ways, trying to stay the course with that. Like I said earlier, it’s about representing death metal to a young kid checking us out.
That’s what makes this cover so great. If I recall correctly, wasn’t there a cool looking slime vinyl variant for the record? Trevor: Yeah, there’s only 50 of them available to the public, so we knew we were assholes right out of the gate. It was mostly to drum up some excitement, and it really did. Artwork is just so important in that regard. Being able to do a little accoutrement for your pre-orders that revolve around the artwork is cool and helps set you up for victory in a world that made it hard to sell physical copies anymore. We got lucky with the slime vinyl making a big splash, and also with doing the whole role playing game offshoot, which has its own dedicated art inside of it that is different than the art on the album. That has also made a lot of waves recently.
How did you conceptualize the ideas that Trevor presented and interpret them in your own artistic manner? Juanjo: It was very easy. Trevor wrote me an email with all the ideas for the art, and I thought, "Hey man, this is just ideal for me." When I get a job like this one, all I need to do is relax, put together a good number of classic records to listen to, and work in a very natural way.
There are bands who are sometimes heavily involved through the creation of the art, making recommendations and changes throughout the way. There are other bands who prefer to leave the duties strictly to the artist, instilling their trust in them and maybe making minor tweaks along the way. For Verminous, did you find yourself letting Juanjo take it in his direction or was it particularly guided? Trevor: I try to make the description be exciting so that they get into it right away and I kind of let him go from there. This time, I was like ‘yes, green and black’ and used a couple album covers as references like mentioned before. I didn’t see it until it was done. I saw a sketch, which I approved. The only time I was too hands on with a record was Deflorate (2009) and the album cover suffered for it. I should’ve let him (Tony Koehl) do his own devices. They know what to do better than I do, that’s their thing. For the most part, I try to make the initial description of the album cover all the bases that I want out of it. I definitely trusted Juan with this. When I saw it back, I was very happy and the band was very happy with me.
The amount of detail and effort put into the cover is truly incredible, requiring a lot of patience I’m sure. From inception to completion, how long did the cover take to create and what tools/techniques were used in the process? Juanjo: Absolutely, if I remember correctly, it was just over three weeks of work. The cover was created digitally, but in a very traditional way, very similar to working on canvas. You start by making a sketch, then you start to define shapes, a first color base, and then the hardest part, the completion of all those details, infinite to say the least, that require even working at 200% of the image on the screen. That in terms of digital work is crazy, but if you want to get that level of detail you have to do it. I'll end up crazy someday, no doubt about it ha.
Just zooming in on the hi-res copy of the cover, you notice rotting skulls to insects and oozing sewage, everything just sprawling with detail and really representing the music well. This is definitely a must own on vinyl.
Trevor: Those details are insane. You can find something new every time you look at it. The hopes are that the music does the same thing, having people sit there and play the music while staring at the record cover like you did when you were a little kid. Sticking to one color scheme is something that you typically practice across your work with other bands, and something Trevor and Black Dahlia do as well. How did you approach the layering of the different shades of green with the many different architectural elements? Juanjo: Usually, I do a lot of paintings using a unique color. In this work, the idea of the general green color was clear from the beginning. The idea is to play with different shades of the same color to try to enrich the work. The upper parts capture some blue light tones due to its proximity to the outside and due to the cloudy sky close to dusk. The range of tones is excessively saturated in all the fluids that appear in the scene. This generates a more than interesting contrast and that was already something that Trevor was looking for.
Trevor mentioned to me another painting I did for the USA death Metal act GOREGANG. The album is called Neon Graves and it has this style too…..more blue of course, but it was definitely a good example to start.
Though the band entrusted you and remained hands off for the most part, were there any parts or artistic elements of the painting that required revision or further discussion to fully reach the intended result? Juanjo: Well, the truth is that everything was very easy, really. Once I understood what the band was looking for, I presented a quick sketch for the cover, of course trying to recreate a bit the scenes of the ENTOMBED and DISMEMBER albums. I have to say that once I had the sketch ready, I was sure that the band was going to like it, since I really liked it. I was super excited. I had a great feeling and its something really great. I just wanted to have the sketch approved to get into the cavern and work out such a challenge.
You’ve worked with numerous bands, including Carnation, Solothus, Varathron, Unleashed, and Coffins to name a few. How was working with The Black Dahlia Murder any different, if at all? Juanjo: Yes, I have been working on the scene for 17 years, with more than 300 albums edited with my art. I had the opportunity to work with all kinds of bands, some more important than others of course. For me they are all special. It is clear when bands like THE BLACK DAHLIA MURDER want to work with you, it makes you feel very excited. This painting is among the best I've worked with for sure, not only because of the importance of the band, but also because of how well the whole process worked, and of course for the final product.
And another very positive thing is the incredible reaction from many of the band's fans. I have not received any negative comments so far. Looks like people really love the work and it's just fantastic to be honest. Tons of incredible comments that undoubtedly make this Verminous artwork something really special for me.
Your Metal Injection playlists would indicate that you listen to a shit ton of music, of which exposes you to plenty of killer artwork. Do you recall ever being captured by an album cover that perhaps made you pickup a record on that alone or even changed the way you engaged with it? Trevor: There’s been tons of death metal records that I’ve bought just based on the cover. A lot of it goes back to that initial evil place, evil environment. Shadows of the Deep by Unleashed was one I remember buying blindly. There’s tons of ‘em. I checked out Dismember for the first time because of the Seagrave cover from the first record. That was back when Blockbuster Music was a thing, and they would let you open any CD in the store and let you listen to it at the counter. I used to just sit there all day and punish the hell out of them.
Upon putting the brush down and completing the painting, what did you take from the cover as both a fan and an artist? Juanjo: When the work was finished, what really attracted me the most is the old school essence that the painting transmits. It’s a work closely inspired on old stuff. Some of the areas where the insects are recreated are the best I have done in my opinion. And just like a fan, I only hope the album will be something very special as well. The best album of the band perhaps? Is that possible??
With folks hopefully staying home and listening to music, it allows for one to really appreciate the art, musicianship, and really the honesty that gets put into these compositions. We’re just days away now from the release of Verminous. What do you intend for audiences to take from the gruesome listening experience you’ve set forth with the record? Trevor: I hope that it feels like a ride. I hope that they enjoy the ride, like a rollercoaster with ups and downs. I hope the dynamics and personalities of the songs are very apparent. It’s our most ambitious record in that regard. I hope that it resonates with people, and you know what, I think it will.
Verminous is out on April 17th via Metal Blade Records. Pre-order your copy HERE.