Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Inside Album Artwork (Guest Post)

Guest post by Penny Hines

My name is Penny. I have an undergraduate degree in History of Art; my specific areas of interest are Georgian furniture and classical architecture. I am currently studying for an MSc in Museum Studies at Glasgow University.

My favourite tipple is a G&T. I'm from Cardiff, and I know Joel through his girlfriend Sarah.

But why am I guest blogging for The Album Wall?

In this blog post, I hope to address an often-overlooked aspect of the album: the artwork. This was Joel's idea, but he's passed the joy of this exploration over to me.

Dislcaimer in advance: I know very little about music - Joel sent me a selection of album covers to look at and I'd only heard of half of them, so please bear that in mind as you read this.

Reflektor by Arcade Fire (2013)

Reflektor is a double album and the fourth studio album by Arcade Fire, released in October 2013.

The focal point of this cover is an image of Auguste Rodin's sculpture of Orpheus and Eurydice, currently in the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art. The statue is made of marble, and it was carved in 1893.

Orpheus was a legendary musician, poet, and prophet in ancient Greek religion and myth. After the death of his wife, Eurydice, he travelled to the Underworld, where he used his music (common consensus states that he played the lyre) to soften the hearts of Hades and Persephone, who agreed to allow Eurydice to return with him to Earth. However, Hades stipulated that Orpheus had to walk in front of Eurydice and not look back until they both had reached the upper world. They set off, Eurydice following Orpheus's music, but as Orpheus stepped into the upper world, he turned to look at Eurydice, forgetting that both needed to be in the upper world first. She vanished again, this time forever.

(There are several variations on this story but the above version - which belongs to the time of Virgil - is the most well-known.)

This sculpture was originally modelled for The Gates of Hell (Rodin's monumental sculptural group work that depicts a scene from The Inferno, the first section of Dante's Divine Comedy), and intended to illustrate a poem from Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du Mal. This group was abandoned by Rodin in the final version of The Gates, and was attributed to Orpheus's story under the present title, which can explain some of the liberties that Rodin took in its execution.

The album cover only shows a partial reproduction of Rodin's sculpture, showing us only the figure of Orpheus and the torso of Eurydice. The sculpture is in a sphere of black, which is then surrounded by a marble-effect border that spans out to the edges of the image.

On close inspection of the album cover, you can see that Orpheus's legs are in front of the marble border. So the blackness of the background could be seen as a replication of the Underworld, with the line of the grey border meeting the black as a point of transition between that and the Overworld where Orpheus stands. The marble itself duplicates the stone that has been removed in the replication of the sculpture.

As noted earlier, this is a double album, and after a perusal of the album's Wikipedia page (my professors would be horrified) it seems that this is an album of two halves, or two worlds, tying in again with the multiple symbolic representations of the upper and lower worlds.

"Splitting it over the two halves enables you to get into the different worlds of the records."
- Win Butler, 2013

Lyrical inspiration is said, by the band, to have come from the 1959 film Black Orpheus (which reflects upon ideas of isolation and death) and from Søren Kierkegaard’s essay The Present Age, in which Win Butler read themes of press intrusion and alienation.

You could interpret the album art as having been literally inspired by the film's title, but considering Kierkegaard's essay, it was likely chosen to reflect the album's lyrical themes as well.

Seventh Son of a Seventh Son by Iron Maiden (1988)

Immediately, you know that this cover isn’t meant to be visually appealing. The gruesome imagery is the main component and - after the iconic lettering - it's the first thing the eye is drawn towards.

First, however, I want to address something less immediate: the uncomfortable colour juxtapositions. When only the three primary colours are used, they normally contrast starkly against each other, making pieces look bright and modern (used to great effect by Mondrian), but the washed-out nature of the colour and the blurry lines make this a difficult image to take in. Rather than striking and sharp, the colour balances in the composition leave the image with a slightly awkward, ungraspable quality.

To the design, then. According to Rod Smallwood (the band's manager) the brief given to Derek Riggs (the band's then-regular artist) was, unlike previous albums, to create "simply something surreal and bloody weird”, a brief also confirmed by Riggs.

As always, the album cover features Iron Maiden’s mascot Eddie (the on-fire torso thing), whose concept was based on a papier-mâché mask that was used as stage backdrop. He was latterly incarnated as their mascot after an illustration by Derek Riggs, and has been used on album covers since the band’s self-titled debut. Eddie assumes a different guise depending on the themes of individual albums and their corresponding world tours, and has appeared in various sci-fi and historical guises.

The concept of the cover’s design is said to have come about after Bruce Dickinson (Iron Maiden's lead singer) showed Riggs a Gustave Doré piece depicting traitors frozen in a lake of ice in the ninth circle of Dante's Inferno. This description could refer to either of these two Doré pieces, though I am inclined to believe it was the first.

The imagery of the first print is very similar to that of the album cover, but in a way, I am inclined to feel that this is the end of the relationship between the two pieces - I'm not sure that the album cover itself was directly inspired by the Divine Comedy. However, there may be a link in the title: Seventh Son of a Seventh Son is a concept album based in the mystical figure of the seventh son, therefore addressing familial relationships. A feasible connection could be drawn to the ninth circle of hell (the circle of treachery, which is defined in Inferno 11 as fraudulent acts between individuals who share special bonds of love and trust.)

Having said this, Bruce Dickinson has stated that...

"…it was only half a concept album. There was no attempt to see it all the way through, like we really should have done. Seventh Son... has no story. It's about good and evil, heaven and hell, but isn't every Iron Maiden record?"

So the idea of an intentional link between these works rather falls apart.

In contrast to this, Riggs says that Dante was not the inspiration but indicates instead that he wished to escape from the imagery of the cityscape.

Really, my primary observation about this album cover is the way in which it exemplifies the importance of the Iron Maiden's branding. The font and the imagery of Eddie, which are both used for every IM album cover, create a formalised and recognisable design for the band.

Why not follow Penny on Twitter? She just joined and needs to be convinced that this was a good move. Her handle is @BetweenTheHines.

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