We shine a light on a Pär Olofsson work of Lovecraftian art.
Words by Luis (@luis.hoa):
With every passing release week, it becomes continuously clear that metal is one of the most, if not the most, visual genres. There's an intentional approach to delivering comprehensive release cycles that do more than just present great music, but illustrations that expand upon the themes as well for full fledged experiences. Among those who take such approach is ABORTED, a brutal death metal ensemble that excite as much as they do frighten.
Since their inception in 1995, ABORTED have yet to cease consistency and today, we're happy to share that an eleventh full-length is en route via Century Media and well worth basking in for it comes adorned in Pär Olofsson's illustrative prowess. Presenting Maniacult, a marvelous beast that harnesses from the lore of H.P. Lovecraft to touch on varying messages in a horror centric fashion. The ritualistic depiction present on the forefront welcomes engagement on multiple ends, offering much in the realm of immersion. As one could see on the above promo photograph, ABORTED are pulling all the stops to become one with their craft.
With a September 10 release date and no audio samples as of yet, Heaviest of Art is thrilled to bring you an exclusive look at the album's cover illustration, one that proves to be among the band's best yet. We couldn't just stop at a reveal, so ABORTED frontman Sven de Caluwé, bassist Stefano Franceschini, and artist extraordinaire Pär Olofsson join us for an in-depth discussion on their tantalizing new incarnation. Read through it all and guide yourself along the sketches to come face to face with the ceremonial being that is the album cover:
With ‘ManiaCult’ now in the public eye, the anticipation rises for the next chapter in Aborted’s discography. Visually, you two have partnered again for a cover that certainly stands as one of the most unique yet. How has your partnership been since 2014’s ‘The Necrotic Manifesto’? Surely, it has evolved with this now being your third album cover together.
Sven de Caluwé: Thanks man! I think Par is the right person to illustrate the vision we have honestly. We’ve always wanted to work with him for a long time and it was great to first get to work together on ‘The Necrotic Manifesto,’ which he actually did in classical painting on canvas. I believe ‘TerrorVision’ and ‘ManiaCult’ are digital only. We had a rather strict brief for ‘The Necrotic Manifesto.’ On ‘TerrorVision’ and ‘ManiaCult,’ he had much more creative freedom, which is ultimately better for the end result. I think the partnership definitely evolved to where he now knows what we like and want, and we can communicate very easily. He’s a fantastic artist with a great vision for composition and focal point.
Pär Oloffson: The greatest validation that you have done a good job is when a band returns for another commission. You also kind of know, based on the previous collaboration, if it is going to be fun or a pain. When you already know that you won’t have to deal with a bunch of b.s and you have a good working relationship with the client, you enter the project in a good positive mindset. In all cases of working with Sven and Aborted it has been a treat, especially this time when we had such a generous deadline. Another aspect of returning clients is my desire to surpass the previous covers made, at least in a purely technical sense.
Your continued partnership is evident of the genuine camaraderie you've built. Visually, what did you aim to achieve with respect to themes and concepts presented by Sven and the band?
PO: I wanted it to be colorful and have a certain retro feel without feeling repetitive or boring. As I stated before, the goal with doing repeat work for the same client is always to best the previous work, so I wanted to outdo ‘The Necrotic Manifesto’ and ‘TerrorVision.’
Though art is certainly subjective, I'd argue that you indeed surpassed both. Sven, in looking back at that first collaboration, what drew you to working with Par and what keeps you coming back? Perhaps one of his many great covers?
SdC: Obviously he has done many fantastic covers, which is what drew us to him in the first place. I think for ‘TerrorVision’ we had tried something else first, as we wanted to go for full ‘80s vibe in the painting style, but the result wasn’t exactly what we were looking for. We asked Par to pick it up, and he did an absolutely amazing job. I think he had two low-fidelity sketches of ideas, we picked one, and it immediately became the final artwork. After that we just wanted to stay in the same universe and give him much more freedom to do what he wanted. There were some moments with ‘ManiaCult’ where we had some feedback regarding the main figure, to ensure things like his clothing and mask fit the concept a bit more closely, but that’s really it. Once again, he did a phenomenal job portraying the different levels of intricacy in the concept: both visually and conceptually.
There’s much to dissect throughout it all and the beauty of art is that it is open to interpretation. Judging by the album title and artwork itself, it’s evident that ‘ManiaCult’ has a couple of underlying themes expressed through the Lovecraftian form, one being sacrificial and the other being a commentary on mental illness and human control by the governing powers. Where did you and Pär find common ground in terms of conveying the messaging?
SdC: You’re pretty much spot on with that description. The whole album has a serious undertone of mental illness and how to deal with it, be it as the person suffering from it or being in direct contact with someone with personality disorders. It’s an important topic that often gets ignored. The main question was how do we make that fit in the universe of Aborted? We also wanted to introduce a new iconic slasher-type character for the band, hence we created the idea of Wayland the Maniac. How we got to the imagery is basically simple: I briefed Par on the concept roughly, and he came up with some sketches you can see here. It was spot-on right away in terms of concept and composition. He put on canvas exactly what I had in mind, and I am still blown away by the result.
Stefano Franceschini: I really like how the deranged maniac's psychology and the album's conceptual subtext interact with each other and fit into Lovecraft's mind-shattering storyworld. It follows a classic Lovecraftian trope of the incautious individual who comes across some ancient manuscript and, by piecing together seemingly unrelated bits of knowledge, basically opens up a portal to otherworldly monstrosities. That exactly matches what we tried to represent with the artwork. And of course, like Sven mentioned, there's also our take on the negative, mentality-eroding effects of dealing with a toxic, manipulative environment.
The thematic perceptions will of course vary from listener to listener, but again, you excel at providing an entity that welcomes discussion for those who seek it. 'Maniacult' is stacked with detail and vivid color use. Pär, about how long did it take to complete and what tools were used in the process?
PO: I received the first email from Sven in November 2019. We finished in May 2020, after 70 emails back-and-forth. That may sound like a crazy amount of time, it definitely is compared to my usual turnaround time, but there were month-long pauses in between. We were also working on panels for the booklet.
The general idea presented by Sven was some sort of occult slasher film story where there is a cultist/serial killer who is trying to summon Lovecraftian Old Ones. I sketched with pencil on paper and sent early sketches to Sven. When it felt like we were on the right track, I continued painting digitally and sent frequent updates throughout. Since we had plenty of time to work on this the process was very relaxed, which meant we could try some different things. The main character changed appearances a couple of times, but in the end it felt like a guy in a suit was the best representation of evil. The mask was added about halfway through the process, and there were a bunch of different designs on that one as well.
It's good to have these sketches and work-in-progress photos for reference. Your approach to landscapes is truly remarkable and the backgrounds present throughout your covers are testament to the great patience invested into each work. ‘ManiaCult’ is no different and employs apocalyptic red skies amidst a forest ritual. Would you say that these backgrounds are as integral to the cover as the protagonist and main focal points?
PO: In some cases, like this, the background can act as a character. The concept included an ancient Lovecraftian god, and those are typically not small in stature, so it had to be a part of the landscape to allow for a sense of scale. As an added bonus, the saturated red background really made the dark blue suit pop! Regarding details, I sometimes have a hard time to know when to stop painting. I enjoy super detailed paintings, so I assume everyone else does too.
The direction for the cover appears to be cemented pretty early on and it only went through some cosmetic changes throughout the sketches. Were you looking for something in particular when approaching the cover or was this a result of Par’s interpretation?
SdC: The cosmetic changes to the figure were mainly to fit the story and the concept we had in mind. The initial figure sketches were a bit more ‘Re-Animator’ looking, while we wanted something a bit more corporate/government/religious looking—without falling into the trap of cultism and a hooded figure being the main protagonist. The rest is all Par’s fantastic mind. I think we literally said something like “less Doctor West, more Jason” hahahaha.
Going back to the sketches, there’s a notable change in the look of the protagonist as Par briefly mentioned. This protagonist went from being a hooded figure to a professor-esque character to the suited individual we see on the final result. Would you say that the change was made to have the cover reflect what one would consider a “traditional” or “ordinary” individual working an office job? That certainly aligns with the context in my opinion, especially if government control is the interpretation of the viewer.
SdC: Yes indeed, like I said we wanted less professor or Doctor West and something more corporate. This fits better with the whole concept of indoctrination, a religious maniac and all-around lunatic that has had enough. Wayland should be able to be anyone, besides the fact that he is clearly hideously deformed from being up to no good and talking to the voices in his head, murder, sacrificial slaughter and all that. It takes a toll, as we can see! So kids, don’t be like Wayland, stay in school, be cool!
SF: Indeed, it's the universality and anonymity embodied by Wayland that makes him even more frightening! I also think that him wearing a mask definitely contributes to this sense of societal disorientation that harbors and grooms the maniac's most depraved obsessions and fears.
There’s clearly a wealth of influences across music, films, and literature that inspire your horror-centric approach to metal. Were there any works in particular that you harnessed for ‘ManiaCult’, even if subconsciously?
SdC: I think somewhat. I feel there is definitely a strong presence of ‘From Beyond' (1986), as well as all of the good ‘80s slasher villains: something that is sadly missing in this day and age. There is no “big bad” anymore, no unstoppable killing force, no dark sense of humor. These are things we all love in horror and therefore also in our band. We write about pretty horrible things, but always with a sense of humor; we’re a bunch of nerds having fun with it really. That being said, ‘From Beyond’ definitely has that whole mental illness aspect to it that is interesting. Even films like ‘Us’ (2019) or ‘Identity’ (2003) have some weird abstract psychological impact that are different from your standard ghost film. Those have been the trend for the last couple years, and somewhat ironically the zombie trend just won’t die. Can we please kill that trend once and for all? You have to destroy the brains, people!
SF: Totally, and here too I'm with Sven. I mean, should a kid watch ‘From Beyond’ right now, they might dismiss it as a not-too-great movie from the ‘80s and not grasp the utter insanity at its heart; I mean, the scene where Thillingast says “Oh, it's beautiful,” after having his pineal gland “waked,” is priceless. And guess what? That's a movie based on a story by Lovecraft! As far as more recent movies are concerned, I'm definitely a big fan of unsettling, not necessarily straight-up gory horror movies too: my favorites are ‘Get Out’ (2017), ‘Hereditary’ (2018), ‘Us’ and ‘A Quiet Place’ (2018).
Some great choices here! Beyond Pär Olofsson, you’ve had quite the talent present throughout your album covers, ranging from Justin Osbourn’s for ‘Global Flatline’ (2012), Colin Marks for ‘Strychnine.213’ (2008), and Christopher Lovell & Coki Greenway’s killer work for ‘Retrogore’ (2016). What do you look for in an artist when approaching this element of a release?
SdC: Well in the first place, we come up with the concept and how we want to visually represent it. Once that has been decided, it’s really up to finding an artist that embodies that style perfectly. In the case of Christopher Lovell it was quite easy, as he’s a fantastic artist and has always been obsessed with retro horror and toys from the ‘80s, so picking him for ‘RetroGore’ was really a no brainer. Coki has been working with us since, I think, ‘The Necrotic Manifesto’ or even before on merchandise designs. We just keep working with him; he’s sort of the in-house designer for our merchandise. He always delivers great work and is a pleasure to work with. After working with Par on several albums now, I would definitely say he’s the household name for album covers for us. He gets what we stand for and how to deliver.
It's safe to say we can count on more Pär illustrated Aborted efforts in the future. Like 2018’s ‘TerrorVision’, ‘ManiaCult’ expands on the atmospheric end and extends into an illustration that covers both the front and back ends of the physical package, making this a must own on vinyl. How significant a role do the arts play in the full Aborted experience, especially with streaming being the dominant form of music consumption?
SdC: Being a designer myself, I place very high importance on everything visual and art-related. Honestly, being a fan, you need to offer people more than your standard image and make it a collector’s item to get them to buy physical media. This is why we focus so much attention to detail and try to have some insane pre-orders to take things to the next level. The fans know this and know everything we do is very limited. We do this for the fans and because this is honestly one of the most fun parts of being a musician: to bring your vision to life the way you want it, no compromise, and have fun doing it. You get to be like a little kid in a candy store, really. I think it makes all the difference when you put in that extra work for the fans, without whom an artist is nothing. We’re very well aware of this and are eternally grateful to all the maniacs who keep on supporting us and pre-ordering items, making it possible for us to create all these fun objects that tie into the art.
It pays dividends to invest on the visual ends of the music. For example, that 3-D cover for the 'TerrorVision' CD package was great! We're certain that 'Maniacult' will have some neat physical options as well. The cover was essentially completed last year and is finally unveiled for all to see, which is to be followed by music in the coming weeks. In closing, do you feel a sense of relief now with having the information out there, especially given the amount of work that went into ‘ManiaCult’ for fans to enjoy?
SdC: Haha yeah for sure! I always try to work way in advance with art. In this case, we’ve had it for quite a while, so it’s great to finally get it out there. Hopefully people see the amount of detail and planning that went into this record. We had a blast working on the concept, visuals, music and limited items that will be coming your way. Get ready for our most ambitious effort yet!