Album Art Aesthetics

Great album art is incredibly powerful, but I feel as if it’s often overlooked by consumer and producer alike. People take it for granted, thinking of the physical representation as just a means to deliver the real product, the music. However, I would argue that the music is only half of the product, and that the music itself is almost entirely defined by its presentation. I’ve always been fascinated by the wide variety of art styles on album covers, but my passion was recently reignited when I saw the album cover for the new Flume mixtape Hi This Is Flume. It grabbed my attention and didn’t let go; the vivid colors, the straight lines and framing of the picture, and most importantly the beautiful painting on the hood of the car. Even though I knew who Flume was and didn’t mind their music, I never really cared for it much. However, I listened to the entire album right when I saw it, that’s how intrigued I was by the cover. My point: it’s all about first impressions, just like meeting a new person. Sure the music is important, but nobody will listen to it if you can’t get their attention first.

Hi This Is Flume – Flume

Beyond being eye-catching, I think an album cover has the power to enhance the music and add an entirely new element to the project. It sets a certain mood and interpretation for the album; you listen to it differently than if it didn’t have an album cover. For example, when I listened to the Flume album I expected it to be interesting and experimental, just like the album cover. As a result, I interpreted it through that lens and ended up loving it. I honestly don’t think I would have cared for it much if I wasn’t already expecting it to be different and experimental. I’m not saying the music isn’t good, I’m saying that the aesthetic of the cover opens up your mind to the music before you listen, and then continues to contribute to the overall feeling of the album. A lot of great albums use this to their advantage (such as the ones in the header image), and it makes a noticeable difference. It really ties the project together as a whole, and turns the album from a collection of songs into a musical journey. When I think back on an album that I loved, the first thing I remember is its aesthetic; the feeling and tone of the album that makes it entirely unique. It’s the album art that always determines this, because it’s the album art that gave the first impression.

Looking towards the future and the increase in purely digital music raises a lot of concerns with me. There’s something to be said for being able to hold the music as a product, and experience it in more ways that just auditory. If you’ve ever listened to a vinyl record or a cassette tape, or even just looked at one and admired its ingenuity, then you know what I’m getting at. Not only does digital music lack these things, I’m also worried that album covers for purely digital projects will more often be overlooked. It’s no longer a work of art that you can hang on your wall or collect; if you’re lucky it’s a thumbnail size image with good resolution. Obviously physical forms of music will always be around, and I’m sure there will still be artists such as Flume who continue to realize the importance of presentation, but I also think that we should all take a minute to appreciate the unique artistic medium of album covers and realize their importance in the art of music.

The Double: An overlooked film and novella

The Double is a short novella originally written by Fyodor Dostoevsky, first published in 1846. If the name sounds familiar, you’ve probably read Crime and Punishment, arguably one of his most popular works. If it doesn’t sound familiar, you aren’t alone: his writing style is notorious for being dense and tiresome to read, meaning you won’t find his works on any coffee tables. The novella was adapted into a movie of the same name, which was released in 2011 and stars Jesse Eisenberg. I actually saw the movie first, which inspired me to read the book, so I’ll be discussing them in that order.

The first time I watched The Double, I thought it was complete nonsense. It was weird, the ending didn’t make any sense, and it was so boring that I almost fell asleep. I was disappointed, considering the concept looked interesting and it starred Jesse Eisenberg, who I’ve always loved in other movies. I wondered what I was missing; who would be pretentious enough to pretend that they liked it? Evidently it festered in my mind, because I ended up re-watching it over a year later when I saw it on Netflix. This time it was a completely different experience; I don’t know if maybe my tastes had changed, or if I was just paying more attention, but I absolutely loved it. It was entirely unique in every way; incredible acting, visually interesting scenes and filming, an absolutely gorgeous soundtrack which I highly recommend listening to, and an atmosphere that kept you on the edge of your seat. Out of these, I want to focus on the strange atmosphere that the film has, since I find that to be its most unique and defining element. Now if you’ve been reading my last few posts, you might have a feeling of where this is going: Surrealism. This movie is a prime example of Surrealism in film, and is a testament to the power of film as an art form.

I recognize this film as surreal because it has the same atmosphere as any other surreal work of art: a dense fog, a feeling of semi-nostalgia and anxiety, and an unexplainable otherworldliness. This is developed in the movie mostly through the use of its color palette, which includes yellows, browns, beiges, and other grimy colors. It’s odd to say the least, and it makes this universe seem like some parallel universe where everything is drab and lifeless. Also contributing to this surreal atmosphere is the vagueness of the whole movie. I can’t really say what time period it takes place in, what the setting is, or what the main character does all day. Every place seems so disconnected, which is so contradictory to normal life. The closest thing to experiencing this is going to North Campus after 9pm on a weeknight and walking to a bus stop. The towering brick walls, strange architecture, and the complete emptiness of life is similar to some abandoned dystopian parallel world, much like the universe of The Double. Another key element of the surreal atmosphere is obviously the story; the idea of the doppelganger, somebody who is identical to you in almost every way, induces anxiety in itself. Watching the main character Simon as he falls into madness at the hands of his doppelganger is terrifying, and it defines the universe of the movie as much stranger than ours. Finally, I think even the soundtrack contributes to this atmosphere, much more than your typical movie score. It’s mostly composed of string music and piano, with dark and heavy chords that create a tension throughout the film. Listening to the soundtrack by itself induces anxiety, and in the context of the film, it is the soundtrack of madness. Overall, this movie is a work of art in almost every way, and is fascinating to me as a lover of surrealist art. It’s just an unforgettable, personal experience that challenges what you think about traditional media.

This brings us to the novella, which I read promptly after finding out that it inspired the movie. It was the first thing I ever read by Fyodor Dostoevsky, and I can definitely understand why people say his books are a challenge. After forcing my way through it however, I was glad I did: not only is it an incredibly well written story, it is a great companion to the movie. While they aren’t exactly identical, as they aren’t meant to be, reading the book further revealed the true genius of the movie. The movie perfectly matched the atmosphere of the book, so much that it’s eerie. Maybe I was influenced by watching the movie first, but the book is a work of surrealism itself: it has the same bizarre atmosphere, which is developed through the writing and the events of the story. The way Fyodor Dostoevsky writes is so dark and heavy that it creates the same feeling of anxiety and fear, which is absolutely fascinating. I highly recommend watching the movie and reading the book, although I don’t suggest any particular order. I’d love to hear other people’s thoughts on it to see if people see what I see, or if I just sound completely crazy.

(Image Credits: Google Images)

Juice WRLD and the Rise of Emo Rap

On March 8th, rap artist Juice WRLD (who gained popularity from his single Lucid Dreams) dropped his latest album, called Death Race for Love. The album cover is what caught my eye; it’s in the style of an old PlayStation 2 video game, which made me feel a major sense of nostalgia for the older days. I gave it a listen, and I was surprised to find that it started off strong, with catchy hooks and simple instrumentation. And then I realized there were 22 songs on it. Who in their right mind thought it was a good idea to make an album with 22 songs? Not to mention some of the songs are incredibly short, and the average is about 3 minutes, which is nothing to boast about. Needless to say, I got bored around the halfway mark; I couldn’t distinguish one song from another and I couldn’t even tell you the names of them. It got me thinking though; what is the appeal of an album like this? How is it supposed to be listened to? And that brings me to the recent trend of emo rap.

The pioneers of this movement were XXXTentacion and Lil Peep, who have both passed away within the last two years. They were known for simple, melodramatic music, but more importantly for their personalities and presentations. They both gained a large musical following, and their deaths were incredibly tragic. However, rappers like Juice WRLD have carried on what they started. Namely, music that combines the simplicity and lyricism of rap with the themes and ideas of emo culture. Emo culture is a topic in itself entirely, so I won’t try to engage that too much, but basically these rappers appeal to the sadder side of people.

Taking this into consideration, it’s easier to see why Death Race for Love is so long and uninteresting musically: the emphasis is on developing a gloomy, mournful, and emotion heavy atmosphere. It’s something you put on in the background when you’re feeling a little down, or on a rainy day when you’re stuck indoors. It’s consistent and without surprises, which makes it perfect for background music. To me, this is a shame; no music should just be reduced to background music. Music is art and should be appreciated as the center of attention. However, viewing the album in this way helps me better understand its appeal, and actually enjoy it. I can’t say there’s anything inherently wrong with Death Race for Love, or really any other emo rap album that has this appeal. They have a purpose and they achieve it well, even if it’s a bit self-deprecating. In the long run, I don’t think these albums will be classics, they’re just too forgettable. But I do think they’re part of a unique movement, and I’m sure it will only get more interesting in the future.

(Image Credits: Google Images)

The Appeal of Visual Surrealism

Have you ever seen a work of art that looked like it came from another dimension? As if it was a fragment of your worst forgotten nightmare? Most likely it is a surrealist work of art. The Surrealism movement began around the 1920s, and culminated with famous artists such as Salvador Dali, Max Ernst, and Rene Magritte, just to name a few. If you don’t recognize those names, I guarantee you aren’t the only one. Although Surrealism was a significant movement in the art world, it has remained relatively fringe to pop culture. Its avant-garde style is not as palatable as other art, and as a result, it takes a certain curiosity and taste to explore. However, it is by far my favorite art movement; not only has it produced some of the most visceral and intriguing works of art, it also evokes an entirely unique feeling in the viewer.

Plaza (Piazza) – Giorgio de Chirico

Imagine being a kid again, playing hide and seek with friends. You’re in a small cupboard, the perfect hiding place. You hear the seeker count down, and eventually they shout “Ready or not, here I come!” You can’t help but laugh on the inside: thinking about how they’ll never find you, and how impressed they’ll be when you win. Gradually, however, the darkness of the cupboard intensifies, until it’s as black as oblivion; a dark, empty void. You have no sense of time; it has wandered into the darkness and gotten lost. Has it been seconds or minutes? Maybe even hours? You can’t hear anything; no voices, nobody wondering where you are. The claustrophobia starts to set in as the cupboard shrinks. It’s hard to breathe, there’s not enough air. They’ve forgotten about you, they’ve stopped looking hours ago. Panic and anxiety run through you like electricity, you can’t stand it anymore: you have to get out. You burst out of the cupboard and take in a breath, like a drowning man breaking the surface. You hear voices coming towards you and suddenly your friends are there. They can’t believe you hid in there; they say they never would have found you. You won, but you can hardly enjoy it.

Son of Man – Rene Magritte

For me, surrealist art evokes that same feeling. A mixture of anxiety and some primal fear of the unknown, just like being in a dark, claustrophobic cupboard. I think this feeling comes from the unusual color palettes that surrealist works share, the strange juxtapositions and oddities that defy reality, and some third thing that can’t be explained, but is linked to the unexplored subconscious of the viewer. Surrealism is based on the concept of the dormant subconscious, and surrealist artists attempt to explore it through art; the result is a small glimpse into the bizarre and sinister underworld of our minds.

Atavistic Ruins After the Rain – Salvador Dali

Salvador Dali was especially known for his unique method in conjuring strange images. He would often sit in a chair and begin to fall asleep while holding a metal spoon. Right when he fell asleep, the spoon would drop from his hand and startle him awake. He would then paint the surreal images he had seen before slipping into unconsciousness. When looking at his works, I often feel like I’m in a waking dream: nothing quite makes sense and everything is a little off. It’s like waking up from a vivid dream that you can’t remember, and then realizing you’re still dreaming. You jolt awake, and you can’t stop wondering if you’re actually awake this time, or if you’re still dreaming.

(Image Credits: Google Images)

Zaba: A Surreal Concept Album

Zaba is the debut studio album of the band Glass Animals, and was released in 2014. It is also an incredible work of art and a testament to the power of concept albums to create an entire universe inside a single musical space. This album is especially unique in how it pushes the envelope: from the samples used to create the rhythms and flows to the abstract lyricism. The “concept” of this album is fairly loose, and that’s part of what makes it so surreal. It focuses on creating a jungle setting by using rich bass backgrounds and a variety of plucky leads, along with animal samples, such as bird calls, throughout. It accomplishes this effect so well in every single song that it’s almost uncanny: listening to it you almost feel like you’ve entered a parallel dimension, where colors swirl and drums pound from all around you. The drums and pounding rhythms contribute a large part to this feeling, especially on songs such as Wyrd, JDNT, and Psylla. You can’t help but sway to the music; it has an almost hypnotic effect. However, as you’re caught up in the incredible atmosphere of the album, you’ll miss the other unforgettable aspect of it: the surreal lyrics.

Now the lyrics are probably my favorite part, and really sets them apart from other strange bands. Once you start listening, you’ll realize that most of it is well-formatted gibberish. A few sentences of coherent thought, maybe a single linking thread between them, about something vague and shapeless. The magic of this album is getting lost in its universe, and the lyrics are essential to that: they disconnect you from reality; they lull you into different state of mind. Surrealist art often focuses on the subconscious, exploring the dormant world beyond our conscious minds. Often these works use juxtaposition to startle the viewer and contradict their reality, evoking a feeling of uncertainty and creating an atmosphere that simply can’t be described. In much the same way, I think Zaba embraces the surrealist mindset and brings it to the world of music in a startling fashion. The lyrics transcend traditional music and challenge the listener’s reality; the production is hypnotic and unearthly; the singing is soft and seductive; and the jungle atmosphere is so convincing and strange that you’ll get lost and never be able to find your way out. All in all, it’s an incredibly memorable album that has endless replay value, and I highly recommend giving it a listen. It stands alone as a truly atmospheric concept album, and I think it’s a great example of how powerful concept albums are as works of art.

(Image credits: Google Images)

Twenty One Pilots Peaked with Vessel

Somebody has to say it: Twenty One Pilots isn’t as good as they used to be. After listening to their newest album, Trench, I was taken aback by how synthesized and monotonous the band was sounding. The band I loved made cutting-edge music with clever lyrics and interesting instrumentation; this band was boringly consistent with repetitive lyrics and a choppy delivery. I started to wonder what happened; where did they go wrong?

This question brought me back to the best album they’ve ever made: Vessel. Released in 2013, this album features classics such as Ode to Sleep, Guns for Hands, Car Radio, and House of Gold, which show off the genre-pushing ideas the band was capable of. From the almost symphonic layout of Ode to Sleep with it’s grand transitions and build up, to the simple and wholesome House of Gold, featuring an iconic ukulele (which didn’t make it into Trench), the band was unique in almost every way. The lyrics were often clever, and although they could be dark and introspective, they never tried to be edgy; they were sincere. This album brought a large amount of well-deserved attention to the band, and their next studio album was an even bigger success.

Released in 2015, Blurryface gained popularity due to catchy and rhythmic songs like Ride and Stressed Out. As a result, the band entered the mainstream culture and was even played on the radio (ironic when you listen to Fairly Local). At first I couldn’t stop listening, but this album certainly didn’t age as well as Vessel. I noticed it the more I listened: the songs were formulaic. A majority of them featured prominent electronic melodies, edgy lyrics, and stripped down instrumentation. They were pushing the envelope for sure, but in the wrong direction, not to mention the lyrics were much more repetitive than those in Vessel. I wasn’t really upset about Blurryface, just disappointed. I figured they were just trying to appeal to a more mainstream audience and I couldn’t blame them for that. However, by the time they started releasing singles off of Trench, something had gone too far.

These songs were so ridiculously edgy and cliche, it was almost unbearable. From the constant references to death and depression, to the empty critiques of “culture”, you could tell they had lost their original spirit. Most likely, they saw how popular their darker songs on Blurryface were and they ran with it, essentially filling the void of the “edgy” band. In the short-run it’s no big deal, but I guarantee Trench won’t have the same longevity as Vessel: the newer fans of Trench are going to get tired of the edgy vocals and repetition and move on, while the older fans will still be listening to Vessel. Moving forward I’m curious to see where they go; they might prove me right by dropping another repetitive and monotonous album, or maybe they’ll surprise me with a revival of the energy that made them so great. Either way I’ll be keeping an eye out, because at the end of the day, they’re still one of the most interesting bands around.

(Image credits: Google Images)