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Story behind the sleeves

Published : Aug 26, 2016, 10:09 pm IST
Updated : Aug 26, 2016, 10:09 pm IST

Metallica’s recently released cover for their forthcoming album Hardwired To Self Destruct, featuring four meshed-together faces became a talking point with music lovers noticing that the cover artwo

BHAYANAK MAUT_Age.jpg
 BHAYANAK MAUT_Age.jpg

Metallica’s recently released cover for their forthcoming album Hardwired To Self Destruct, featuring four meshed-together faces became a talking point with music lovers noticing that the cover artwork bore similarities to records by Crowbar and Foo Fighters. We speak to musicians and illustrators about the importance and relevance of album cover art in an age where music listeners increasingly download or upload songs on social media platforms, and where record sleeves seem to be an under-appreciated art form. While some musicians feel that cover art can be an influential factor in a record’s success and choose to release their work inside brilliantly designed packages that make a statement about their style of music, there are others who feel that it is an overrated concept.

Delhi-based electro-rock duo Fuzz Culture comprising Arsh Sharma and Srijan Mahajan opted for a pretty pink cover with quirky artwork for their debut album No. Elucidating on his work in this direction, drummer Srijan, who is also making his presence felt in the music circuit for his photography and cover art, puts forth, “An album cover is very important since it’s the first impression of your music that someone has! It’s imperative to have striking artwork because it draws people towards your music. I’ve been lucky enough to work with a few bands for their cover art/photo-shoots. In the recent past, I’ve shot The Circus for their album With Love, Soul Inclination for their debut E.P. and Curtain Blue for the cover art of his E.P, Unbroken.”

Explaining their selection of cover art for their debut album, guitarist-vocalist of Fuzz Culture Arsh puts forth, “We wanted to get the illustrator, graphic designer and bassist of Delhi groove metal band Undying Inc, Reuben Bhattacharya on board for the artwork but he has always been associated with very dark artwork, so we decided to give him a completely unexpected choice of colour — hot pink — to work with! We knew he would certainly come up with something unusual and unique, and he did.”

When quizzed if picture-oriented cover art stands out more than sketched, illustrated and painted versions, Srijan says, “It all depends on the context and what the artwork/picture is. Bold images like the one on Curtain Blue’s cover stands out even though it’s a simple photograph.”

Album cover artwork is enjoyed by sophisticated music connoisseurs and young listeners alike, as well as those with an interest in style and graphic design, feel visual designers and illustrators. Metal band Bevar Sea’s guitarist and visual artist Rahul Chacko who has designed posters and album artwork for heavy metal band Albatross, old school metal band Kryptos and death metal band Dhwesha, asserts that music bands are gradually warming up to the idea of spending a decent amount on album sleeves.

Describing his creative process, Chacko says, “I prefer listening to music from the band I’m illustrating art for. It is important to understand the feel, the genre and the kind of music a band plays in order to do justice to an artwork that speaks volumes about their music.”

Professional photographer, illustrator and designer Sonali Zohra alias Dangercat prefers a concrete brief from the band on the kind of artwork they want, and then gives it her personal touch. “My creative process is purely based on music. If I like the music, then I listen to the album and then draw to it. Further, I also do some research on the genre of the band and their kind of music to understand their requirement. I think corporate projects that I take up are more structured; I make notes and sketch and they can be very methodical. I like a consolidated brief from the band’s end, and I mostly prefer working towards a deadline,” says Sonali who hand draws most of her illustrations and loves charcoal, acrylics and dry pastels to experiment with her visuals.

From nostalgic and sophisticated jazz covers to the coolest, wildest psychedelic designs of the late 60s — including the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band or Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon — some of the most memorable, groundbreaking images of the last five decades have graced covers of rock albums. Talking about their different album covers Rahul Ram, bassist, vocalist and founder member of Indian Ocean shares, “Traditionally, album artwork served the purpose of making an album stand out among others on a rack. The more striking the cover, the more the chances were that someone would check it out, possibly even buy it and sample the music. In this day and age, physical sales of albums are not significant (when compared to digital sales) and albums themselves are swiftly losing relevance, so album art is definitely an overrated concept. Personally, most of our albums are not high on concept artwork. Our first album (Indian Ocean, 1990) cover was a piece of art that a friend gave us, we were just happy that it was something exclusively made for us. It wasn’t a great cover at all. The second album (Desert Rain, 1997) had an interesting cover with a meaning to it. It depicted a barren, parched desert in the background and all the band members were shown in colourful outfits under a giant umbrella in the foreground. Literally, desert and rain!”

He goes on, “For our third album Kandisa, we had a very derivative cover picture of a giant wave in the ocean. Not spectacular at all, but the album went on to do extremely well. Jhini, 2003 our fourth album is the only album where we invested in the cover art, and had a meaningful concept. A beautiful green and purple fabric flowing from the cover to the inlay to the back resonated with the Kabir Das poetry likening life to a cloth. We were excited, but nobody really noticed — we just heard good things from people about the music, ki yeh gaana bahut achcha laga, us gaane ka guitar part kitna amazing hai or Asheem sounds magical in that song, etc. but nobody talked about the cover.”

Ram adds, “That’s when we collectively realised that the music should be the hero; nobody cares about the cover if the album is good. Black Friday, our next album in 2005 was a motion picture soundtrack, so the cover was more about the film than the music. In 2010, we released 16/330 Khajoor Road, and once again went through a lot of discussions, and finally, picked a cover that all of us disliked the least. For us, what the album stood for was way more important than the art. That album featured all of Asheem’s last recordings with the band, an album through which we bid farewell to our home and beloved friend and band mate Asheem Chakravarty. The name of the album is the address of our practice studio in Karol Bagh, where we spent 14 wonderful years of our musical journey.”

Explaining the band’s current approach towards cover art, Amit Kilam, percussionist, drummer and another founding member of Indian Ocean explains, “We give a very basic brief to our artists/illustrators, and give them the freedom to come up with something unique. We do not interfere or over-involve ourselves in the creative process. For instance, the brief for our album Tandanu (2014) was a difficult one, as the word itself means nothing and we were clear that we did not want the faces of the band or the collaborators on it. Our good friend Vasu Dixit, vocalist of the band Swarathma who is also a brilliant artist, came up with a lovely design that agreed with our sensibilities. We feel that giving space and freedom to an artist to experiment is important.”

Album art has definitely evolved in India, from basic derivative covers to high-on-concept and art covers. “A lot of musicians are actively involved in conceptualising the art and ensuring that it blends seamlessly with the album. Some examples are Dualist Inquiry’s Subterra that used the paper-cut light box concept very beautifully. Bhayanak Maut’s Man had a massive 118-page booklet that came with the album (a pdf version on digital downloads) featuring some really horrific but beautiful art. Nucleya and his Bass Rani cover have become a sort of rage with it adorning graffiti walls, and people getting it tattooed as well!” adds Amit.