Detailing the visual makings of a contemporary death metal force.
Words by Luis (@heaviestofart):
For the past several years now, death metal has been one of the most, if not the most, consistent metal subgenres of the bunch for it continues to undergo a Renaissance period of quality released from bands both new and established. Like the music, the accompanying album cover and merchandise artwork doesn't fall behind and does right by the records they represent with exquisite visual styles that astound. Rochester's Undeath are among the leading forces of genre's young blood and with their sophomore record, It's Time... To Rise From The Grave, releasing on April 22nd via Prosthetic Records, the band brace for another spike in the acclaim built by their 2020 debut, Lesions Of A Different Kind. For those wondering, It's Time... is every bit as deadly as the predecessor.
Undeath drummer and artist Matt Browning was once again in charge of cover illustration and delivered a piece that both encapsulates the madness of the composition in its entirety and serves as a statement of his own artistic growth. Where Lesions found the protagonist figure decapitated by another oozing being, It's Time... explodes his head entirely with a lightning blast that strikes upon the altar. It's the kind of insanity that you expect from death metal artwork. What you see is what you get and Browning's gruesome approach comes rich with detail, akin to that of the musicianship of the band's bludgeoning death metal. Having an artist among your ranks is certainly a unique feature that a small percentage of bands have the privilege of having, and with Browning having a foot in both the visual and musical areas, the results yielded from this dynamic work cohesively, and we're thrilled to highlight that today.
We go Behind the Cover of It's Time... with Matt Browning to learn of the painting's twisted creation, the neat lyrical nods within it, his artistic trajectory, sketch evolution, and more:
The upwards trajectory you’ve experienced since ‘Lesions’ is astounding and well warranted. With that considered, in what mindset does this find you all coming into a sophomore release this highly anticipated?
Matt: I think it’s interesting because by the time we finished recording ‘Lesions’, we had already started writing the new album. We had a lot of it almost done by the time ‘Lesions’ came out. In a weird way, some of the songs on this new album feel old to us. We’re already thinking forward to the next album even though this one hasn’t come out.
Would you say that’s the representative of the work ethic present in a lot of the young bands, like yourselves? Instead of sitting on the success of a record and touring for several years in support of it, you’re already looking at the next chapter. Perhaps it’s a byproduct of having so many new eyes and pressure on you for this new album?
Matt: It’s natural to have some thoughts of what people are going to think of the new album’s songs, the art, and the entirety of the thing. It’s impossible to not consider that at all, but we tried to be fairly confident. We’ve listened to it hundreds of times by this point and we like it, so we stand by it with confidence. We like it, we know what we want to do next.
Undeath is what we like to do. All of us of course have day jobs, but as soon as I’m off work, I’m coming home and I’m already thinking about going to practice, messaging the rest of the band, and writing. It takes up a lot of our time, but it’s what we love to do.
It truly shows, and audiences are in for another good one this time around. Taking the conversation to the arts, your cover of ‘Lesions’ certainly sparked a great deal of conversation amongst the fandom and the metal community as a whole. ‘It’s Time’ did too. As the drummer and visual mind behind the band, what significance do you feel the arts bring to the death metal genre? One could say that great covers and death metal are synonymous.
Matt: Logos, cover art, and visuals as a whole are so important to the genre. We’ve always felt that way since the start of the band. An album’s sound is almost perceived if the logo or the artwork looks cool. When you go in and listen to it, you already have a general idea for how it’s going to sound, at least in your mind.
We’ve always tried to talk about the art in a way that also ties in a lot of different lyrics and parts of our songs to create little nods that someone reading the lyrics might notice. That’s very much intentional.
There’s a few connections I can point out already. What were you envisioning for the cover this time around?
Matt: The process of doing it was pretty similar to the ‘Lesions’ one. I was working on it at the same time as we were writing some of the songs. Kyle, who comes up with the lyrics, would talk to me about ideas for the art, which is where the idea of a cemetery scene came about. One of the earlier songs we had written was obviously “It’s Time To Rise From The Grave”, so we decided on that as the album cover with the cemetery scene and a skeleton army rising out of the grave. We talked about it taking place at night, but ultimately, I went with the more sunset kind of look.
There’s also the book that is referenced in a different song. There’s the song “Head Splattered In Seven Ways” and the person’s head is being exploded into seven parts by the lightning. All of the songs are referenced somewhere in the art and that’s typically how that comes together. As I’m working on it, I’m throwing progress pictures at the band asking for feedback. It’s collaborative in that sense.
The music and the art exist as one with them being created simultaneously. What I’ve seen is the most common approach is presenting song titles and lyrics to a third party artist and allowing that to inform the creative direction. As the in-house artist, you’re grounded in both elements of the release. The development happens in real time.
Matt: I can’t speak for what it’s like to have it a different way, but from my experience, I feel a lot closer to the entire process with me being in the band and playing music in the band. The art and the music are like you said, being created synonymously.
Not all bands have an artist among their ranks, so this is always cool to see. There’s some more of your original artwork within the physical release too, correct?
Matt: Yeah, there’ll be an insert with a different painting of mine.
Nice, a little extra bonus. Looking back at how your role in Undeath has developed, was it a communal decision to officially make you the band artist? I figure if you have someone with that skill set in the band, why outsource right?
Matt: Right, and it all kind of happened together. Kyle hit me up and we had both been looking to play in metal bands for years and years but had never met anyone. When you live in certain areas or don’t have certain connections, it could be kind of difficult to find people you mesh with who want to play metal. At the time Kyle hit me up, I was working on a castle drawing, which ended up being the Demo ‘19 cover. I was working on that on my own and had started to experiment with that style of pen drawing. We were also broke, so obviously I’m not going to outsource and pay someone to do art when I already had this drawing finished. I showed it to him and we thought it was pretty sick, so we went with it after doing the demo. I just had to do a logo.
We’ve actually had three different logos at this point: the first Demo ‘19 one, a second one that was never really used on a release, and the current one. The second one was similar to the one we have now, but I redid it with more skulls and made it crazier. I had never really done a logo before, but again, we were broke, so I did the logo as we self-recorded the demo. When it came to the next one, ‘Sentient Autolysis’ (2019), we had a pretty good response from people liking the art and the logo, so why not keep doing it?
Definitely, and your visual contributions to the band have also served as a growth process for you, not just musically but visually.
Matt: Yeah, and I’ve been painting and drawing before Undeath. When I did the ‘Lesions’ art, it had been a minute since I'd done a full painting with that kind of detail. I’d done a painting a year or two prior that was kind of like a start to that style. From there, I was just making it up as I went.
On the new one, I feel like I had more experience going into it. I used a lot more thought and technique, layering of elements, and just really built on the experience from doing ‘Lesions’.
Compositionally speaking, it’s evident. Do you come from that sort of art school background or is it more so a DIY thing that you picked up as a passion?
Matt: After High School, I went to a community college, but I didn’t really do much art there. I think I took a still life drawing class. Growing up, I’d been doing art my whole life on my own just drawing on my notebooks and whatever. I really love doing pictures and stuff too. I’ve never taken a class, but I have a point and shoot camera and go crazy with that.
From the community college, I transferred to an art school for a couple of years. I was doing some photo and education stuff initially. I took a painting class too and they wanted me to do oil painting, so I tried that. I did some acrylic painting, but honestly, I feel like I didn’t really learn that much. What I’m getting at is that I did go for a couple of years and took an array of classes on education and painting styles, but the kind of painting that I do now is totally different.
I don’t believe they teach death metal artwork in art school.
Matt: Yeah, definitely. So like on the ‘Lesions’ cover, it was an entire learning experience. I do have a history of learning and doing art, but I tend to go into things and make it up on my own, even if I totally don’t know what I’m doing. I can make things look how I want them to look somehow.
You have complete creative freedom too, which is freeing. This style that you developed is now definitive of Matt Browning as an artist. Even though art school didn’t truly impact you, surely there was a death metal cover, band, or event that informed your work as it is now?
Matt: I could do all of the classics when I was a kid. My dad had Iron Maiden tapes and as with a lot of people, I remember seeing that and just loving the art as a kid. As I got older, listening to music inspired me to want to paint certain things, if that makes sense? I didn’t necessarily try to draw or copy exact album covers from a different band, but putting on some of my favorite albums and drawing as the music played definitely left an impact over the years. Listening was certainly more impactful to me than anything. Seeing album art, especially Derek Riggs’ art, are some of my earliest memories in a way.
It’s a core memory, for sure. With audiences as interested as yours, this new cover will generate the same level of dissection as ‘Lesions’ and we’re happy to provide a perfect platform for those interested in doing so. Jumping back into this new cover, was the art direction cemented early on or was it something that developed after feedback?
Matt: The focus and art direction was defined early on. What wasn’t defined is how that would actually look like, as you’ll see in the sketches. I was trying to find how that should look so that it’s good. One of the earlier renditions was much flatter and there was so much ground behind the guy getting his head exploded. I wasn’t sure what to do with that. I then went through a couple of different iterations that led to the final version we see now. This final one looks up a little bit as if you were at the bottom of the stairs.
I like painting from reference photos, so we went to a cemetery and there’s this tomb that curved into the side of a hill. It’s kind of like the one on the cover, which you can tell was a direct inspiration. All of the elements and ideas were cemented early on, but the execution did go through a few sketches.
I’m glad to have these sketches here for readers to look through. Touching back on the engagement that the ‘Lesions’ and ‘It’s Time To Rise’ covers generate with audiences gravitating towards wanting a vinyl copy or a shirt on the art alone, what does it mean for you to have eager eyes on your work? Perhaps there’s a sense of pressure to deliver?
Matt: It’s great, especially because I’ve spent a lot of time working on it. I’m definitely not the fastest painter or artist in general, depending on what I’m making. I’m busy playing in the band and writing music, in addition to holding down a job, so it did take me about five months from start to finish. Starting from sketching it out and getting the board set up, it was a long time. It’s cool that people like it as much as they have.
There’s always people who don’t like it, which is cool too. I like it and I think I did better than on the last one. I learned a lot from doing this one, and on the next one, it’ll hopefully be even better, at least to me. That’s what I try to keep in mind. Sometimes you get caught up on wondering if people like it or if they notice a mistake. My painting style isn’t classical, oil, Renaissance-esque. It’s not totally abstract, but it’s not super realism. Sometimes I see stuff that’s super realistic, like oil paintings, and I have these thoughts where I wish I could do that, but then it wouldn’t be me doing it. It wouldn’t be a signature to myself. You kind of have to go with your own thing.
It’s more about pleasing yourself rather than others, which is a great approach to have.
Matt: Totally, and I actually just had a thought. When we were talking about Iron Maiden, I just made a funny connection that I just thought of now. For the Undeath covers, we definitely decided to always have a central figure of some kind. ‘Lesions’ has the guy getting his head cut off and this new one has his head exploding. The demo has the alien thing coming out of the portal.
It’s funny how these details, especially the little details, get picked up by listeners. I remember seeing a comment once questioning your decision to put skinny jeans on the guy on the ‘Lesions’ cover.
Matt: There was literally no reasoning behind that. I just figured, “What color would make sense for the pants?” He’s wearing jeans, so blue I guess. I didn’t think people would pick up on things like clothing colors because I didn’t even put much thought into it. The things that I look forward to the most is hearing stuff like that, people noticing things that I didn’t even think about. I care more about this than what people think of us and our music.
It's Time... arrives on April 22nd via Prosthetic Records (Order).