An insight into the ballache/creative process behind the artwork for Krupskaya's 2017 split release with Germany's Wojczech.
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As concluded in my previous post detailing the creation of Krupskaya’s artwork, The Psychological Annihilation Of Us All very much marked a restart for the band – to the collective dismay of anyone with functioning ear drums.
That record was ‘turning the key’ to fire up the proverbial car engine after some five years of it laying dead on the creepy neighbour’s drive way.
Conversely, this split release with Wojczech was to be the initial push, the ground-shaking thrust that would propel said locomotive back onto the freeway, colliding with and ejecting elderly pedestrians spinning into the stratosphere, their zimmer frames a veritable whirling dervish of metal and high-octane carnage.
I mean, sure, there’s a chance that it would barely lurch forward before rolling backward into a state of absolute, permanent disrepair, but that’s not got quite the same inspirational vibe to it – and Krupskaya is all about positivity.
In that respect, only time will tell. For now – the design process.
Swallowed by a nightmare
We’d initially planned to release a split with Wojczech back in 2008. While I’ve frankly no idea as to why that didn’t come to pass, we did get as far as producing artwork for the front cover; which is why we never delete things, kids!
I’m working purely from memory here, which as my better half will attest to, is not the safest or most reliable of resources – given my tendency to confuse it with imagination.
I do remember, quite distinctly, that I wanted people to feel like they were being swallowed by a nightmare when they stared into this. Engulfing the listener in a tornado of bleak, cold violence was where the music was generally heading at the time, so it made sense to encapsulate this visually, also.
This helped me determine that in contrast to our back catalog, this front cover would benefit from a centralised focal point.
Defining the underlying structure
None of our other releases had done this (with the arguable exception of Failed By The Angel Of Mons), so incorporating something different at such a fundamental level would help distinguish the final artwork from others.
I also knew I wanted to take a more mathematical approach (there’s a good chance I’m using that term completely out of context, but it sounds right) with this one, comprising a greater use of symmetry and angles which would help create a sense of you looking into something, rather than sitting back to view a scene.
Staring into the abyss, rather than watching it from a deckchair, if you will.
I created a few images like the above, just to get a sense of space, perspective and layout.
I take use this approach more often than has probably been suggested in previous case studies (even if sometimes it is subconsciously), but I would say it’s absolutely vital in any piece of visual work. It doesn’t matter how cool or detailed your image is, if it’s missing a fundamental sense of perspective, depth and focus, the overall level of engagement is inevitably going to be compromised.
While these worked well to give me a general direction to work in, there’s only so much you can achieve with lines scattered across a surface.
At this point, I knew what I wanted to achieve with the perspective. But beyond the safe assumption that misery would feature liberally, I was yet to identify any other themes or visual elements that would effectively reflect those of the music.
I was also yet to determine the components needed to ensure that the final piece felt consistent with other artwork from across our discography, something I’d failed to do before, on one particular occasion:
Remembering to plan ahead… for once
Failed by the Angel of Mons is a good example of us executing an artistic concept, but not really elaborating on the core principles enough to make it cohesive with our wider discography. It achieved its immediate objective, but I didn’t feel it integrated as cleanly as it should’ve with our broader visual palette, noise-ridden and depressing as it is.
I was conscious of that going into the development of this artwork, so decided it was important to determine the key visual elements and aesthetic atmosphere/tone as early on as possible, so they too could grow with the developing structure.
At least, that’s what I think I did… looking back, that does sound uncharacteristically well organised and forward thinking, by my standards.
Meh, I’ll give myself the benefit of the doubt on this one.
This approach was manifested in the use of artwork previously featured in the booklet for Clouds Over Pripyat. Specifically, it was for the song Norilsk is the world, which was centred around themes of mass-industrialisation along with its effects on people, communities and the environment.
This was one of my favourite panels from that album. You get an immediate sense of there being a pre-existing narrative, it’s bloody grim to look at and on a purely aesthetic level, the way the barbed wire dissects the image feels especially uncomfortable.
To be honest, I wasn’t overly happy about the prospect of re-purposing an old piece of work. On a superficial level, it felt cheap, lazy and even To Die Unburied And Unborn, which I was far from happy with, had avoided this approach.
But if there’s one rule I hold above all others when it comes to design and even life in general, it’s trust – your – gut.
This felt like the right direction to take. Something about this image spoke to me and I felt that with the right approach, it could give birth to something completely new and inventive.
So with all that in mind, I took this base image and chucked together a few rough layouts, combining it with the composition sketches I’d experimented with previously:
Some of these were shockingly useless, but one in particular really stood out as not sucking entirely:
This was around the time that Alex (vocalist) got involved, as we generally approached the artwork as a pair. He agreed that what we had here was the right foundation – no small miracle, in and of itself.
With that in place, it was time to start layering in all the grim, bleak, predictably depressing visual elements and thematic overtones that would elevate this piece from being a bit of glorified toilet roll, to something people might actually pay money for.
Bones of pure decay
While I was busy handing myself the Turner Prize for what I’d created so far, the less deluded half of my brain immediately acknowledged that beyond the core composition of this piece – it was, in general, painfully boring and had nothing work looking at.
Like my face.
Before we worried about making it grim, the underlying image and visual structure needed addressing, ensuring there was a skeleton for the depressive flesh to cling on to.
Effective use of stark contrast worked well on Contaminated Dead Atmosphere, breaking up the image and suggesting the existence of a living, breathing entity beneath all the horrendous grim stuff.
Texture was also put to effective use, enhancing the main shapes rather than conflicting with them, which I made a conscious point of remembering.
Since I really wanted the ‘pit’ at the centre of the image to be the absolute focal point, I elected to remove the vast majority of the finer details and re-positioned some of the larger elements, to more effectively draw attention to this area.
Yes, very pleasant
The removal of those finer details from the original image just opened everything up, affording me enough room to introduce other elements with plenty of variety, while not detracting from the overall sense of perspective.
That said, as much as the strong use of symmetry contributed to this sense of being swallowed, it was admittedly making the image feel a little too unnatural. To explain…
As much as Krupskaya is about the removal of humanity (literal and philosophical), a sense of and association with ecological naturality is key to that absence being powerful. In both music and art, we’re always incorporating elements which keep things from feeling absolutely mechanical. The minute presence of humanity, is a far bleaker prospect than it not existing at all.
I felt it was important to question how this would be achieved before progressing too far forward. The answer came in the form of inverting the latter half of the image, then overlaying the original on top, creating a faint outline around all the lower details.
Now it almost felt like you were looking across a lake at a distant horror, its mysterious, sinister underbelly reflected in the cold, unnervingly still waters within which you stood.
Sure, I had originally wanted to avoid this approach entirely, but good, responsive design is about iteration and acknowledging when diversions from a predetermined path will better serve your end goals.
Furthermore, this incorporated that natural element I felt was important, but didn’t compromise that underlying sense of being swallowed that I can neither cease repeating, nor find an alternative means of expressing.
Note to self: buy a Thesaurus.
Structurally, I was happy with this as a basis onto which I could start chucking some texture and finer details.
Alex, felt differently.
Alex, wanted to introduce his (evidently) favourite insect.
Aint no flies on me!
Yep, Alex wanted to add some flies.
Now, I write this in a somewhat dismissive tone, but it was a smart suggestion.
Primarily because a visual element of such tiny scale and comprising organic shapes/forms, would stand as an absolute contradiction of the vast, mathematically precise industrial landscape within which it would reside.
From a design perspective, this would serve a similar purpose to the use of inverted colours in the bottom half of the image. Where they contradicted the colours/tone of top half, these contradicted the thematic, narrative elements.
Furthermore, the association between flies and death/disease felt like an almost sarcastic way of breathing some literal life into the image. They would contribute a greater sense of this being a living, existing environment, rather than a piece of purely abstract expression, bringing it closer to home in the mind of the viewer.
I suppose you could just as well argue that it was actually a pretty dumb idea, which I invested more time into rationalising than finding a suitable alternative for. Such is life of creative endeavour.
I bought a few stock images, experimented with placement/sizing but eventually settled on the ‘less is more’ approach.
Two poses, two size variants, two in the top half, two in the bottom… I admit, that could’ve been worded better.
Incorporating narrative and texture
I was satisfied with this as our base image, but not with it being our final one. I mean sure, we could have added more foreground and background elements to give even more variety and depth, just like we could have left it just like this and gone for something absolutely, undeniably bleak.
But each of these felt like a sidestep around a preferable option – one that incorporated a sense of pain.
I was confident that the initial goal of making the viewer feel like they were being swallowed had been achieved. In this respect, the art reflected the music nicely.
What the artwork didn’t reflect however, was the uncompromising sense of discomfort and endless pain that we’d endeavoured to encapsulate in the music. Just as any nice, well meaning individual would.
I believed the best way of achieving this would be through texture. We didn’t need to interfere with the underlying image, that was serving its purpose perfectly fine. We needed any areas of flat tone to become volumes of noise, to comprise layers upon layers of harsh, cold, three dimensional chaos.
Sadly, I didn’t maintain staged versions of my development files at this point, so all I have to hand are the following three images which demonstrate the first and last few steps of this process:
A touch of frost
A key element also introduced at this stage, was colour. Not much, as I didn’t want to detract from that feeling of having an image burned into your mind that you get with pure black and white. Some subtle blue tints here and some very faint reds there, worked well to add a hint of temperature and bring back that connection to nature.
Both bands were happy to use this artwork as the front cover, so the only question remaining was where to put our logos.
There was only one place this was ever going to work – either side of the central focal point. This worked perfectly with the pre-existing sense of perspective, but the dark background also meant the names would leap off the design.
One panel down, three to go!
I felt that I hadn’t really given the back cover and inlay panels on the Sandokhan and Foible Instinct split releases the time or attention they deserved, so did want to address that with the remaining artwork here.
In short – Ed, stop being lazy.
The front cover was done and looked great. I felt the principles we’d employed and visual styles developed in its execution provided me with enough of a toolkit to create something distinct for these remaining panels, that would nevertheless be consistent with the front cover.
Honestly, I don’t really remember how I arrived at this. I do know that I wanted to both maintain the approach used on the front cover, while also ‘somehow’ reversing it.
I recall creating a series of images which experimented with layering, overlay styles and more image reflection, essentially taking everything that worked on the front cover and turning the dial up, way passed the point of common sense.
This resulted in an image that had all the key elements from the front cover, but combined them with a completely different approach to colour and texture.
When printers attack
Annoyingly, the first few versions of this which featured the song names and label logos were returned, as the printers believed they were too small and may not print properly.
I maintain that we’ve printed text at far smaller sizes on far more chaotic artwork before, but these guys are the experts in their field so I wasn’t about to contradict them.
As a result, the back cover is one I’m not totally happy with on a personal level, as I do feel that excessive legibility of the text and labels does come at the cost of the mood and strength of the actual artwork.
Overall though, it’s still one of the better back covers we’ve done, so I’m not going to whinge too much.
Next were the inlays, where each band essentially gets a side to say thanks, give credit and share lyrics… if they have any… which I don’t think we did, on this one.
Anyhow, I quite liked how the back cover image featured such a large, dark hole at its centre and felt this would be the perfect area for each bands’ portion of text.
As both Krupskaya and Wojczech comprises four musicians each, the surrounding quarters of the image provided ample room for a picture of each.
Finally, came the record labels. The central area of both the front and back covers worked perfectly within the available space and kept the labels feeling visually consistent with the rest of the release.
I could try dragging out my rationale for these a little bit longer, but respect you far too much than to waste your time.
They are, what they are.
With the issues we’d had with the printers and the sheer amount of noise featured throughout the design, I was prepared that the final product might not line up completely with the submitted visuals.
Well, it turns out I was a moron for doing so – they absolutely bossed it.
Really happy with the results, all the subtle, multiple layers of noise really came through and the whole sense of perspective we were going for just gets multiplied when you’re physically holding it in front of you.
Adapting for film
The label behind this release, 7 Degrees Records, had asked that I put together a teaser video, similarly to what had been done for the Foible Instinct split.
I was more than happy to do so and felt that the general pacing of that teaser worked well and would do so again here. That being said, I absolutely wanted to avoid repeating myself in terms of general tone, style and visuals.
I’d taken an entirely different approach to this artwork, compared to that of The Psychological Annihilation Of Us All, so it was important that the same be true of the video.
I made the use of symmetry the centre point of my approach, incorporating patterns, motion and sound cuts from the record that almost felt therapeutic, only to make the sensory assault which followed ever more devastating.
With that in place, the remaining segments simply needed to sit back and allow the music to stand front and centre. I took snippets of video from a show we played together, mirrored them and then overlaid sections of artwork to keep them feeling consistent.
Reviews have been really positive, but for one that insisted what we were playing isn’t possible – that’s kind of the point, bro.
We recently completed a short tour across Germany, Holland, Czech Republic and Slovakia, where a few more people than I’m probably used to, were intrigued enough by the artwork to ask further questions about its construction.
Above all else, it was nice to wrap this one up after being planned for almost ten years.
Progress is progress.