Justin Bartlett has created art for some of your favorite bands and labels: SUNN O))), Intronaut, and Southern Lord, among many others. A self-described “black-ink warlock from the grim and frostbitten raven-realm of Southern California,” Bartlett knows metal and doom aesthetics. It’s only natural that he knows of a few bands you should hear too.
Bands and Artists You Should Know
by Justin Bartlett
Constructing a cohesive theme for my guest column at ALARM was not forming in my skull. Top Ten Album Releases for 2010? Top Ten Favorite Artists? Top Ten Fish Tacos? Hmm…nothing.
Perhaps this needs to be more KVLT and underground…Top 10 Cassette Releases? Nah, the tape thing has been played out enough. Bear with me….Top Six Uses of Upside-Down Crosses on Album Artwork? Ah, fuck it, here’s a list of nine bands and visual artists that I enjoy, find inspirational, or simply think are interesting and who you should check out for yourself. All of the visual artists I’ve listed have created artwork for bands, but some of the musicians/bands do not necessarily have outstanding album aesthetics. Either visually or musically (and sometimes both), they weave together textures that are dark, grim, and, to a person with a penchant for the negative, often cathartic.
Blessure Grave was one of the best things to come out of San Diego’s rather lackluster and safe indie music scene for years. Although its post-punk sound gives a nod to some of my favorites — Joy Division, Death In June, The Cure, and The Chameleons — the band played with enough conviction and creativity to avoid being too derivative. Structurally, the band has a very strong pop drive to its material with an underlying bedroom black-metal atmosphere. Blessure Grave released a ton of EPs on vinyl and cassette, and Judged by Twelve, Carried by Six was one of my favorite releases of 2010. Unfortunately, the band broke up recently, but luckily I was able to work on a cassette cover for When I Die before its demise. Blessure Grave’s mastermind, Tobias [Grave], started a new band called Soft Kill.
2. Sindre Foss Skancke / Utarm
Not only a crafter of a black-ambient-holocaust-doom noise with his musical outlet Utarm, Sindre is one of my favorite visual warlocks as well. His work evokes a pre-Renaissance feeling with its line style, only with the Holy Trinity being replaced by goat spawn and unholy defilement. Imagine, if you will, the Unholy Bible for Children. His large-scale paintings showcase a world of occult chaos, where humanity suffers in a dark abyss. Utarm is the perfect musical soundtrack to his visual night terrors. Formless, bleak, terrifying, suicidal, and definitely Norwegian! Artsy, experimental, black-metal noise.
Hailing from Norway, but centering its black kingdom in Northern California, Unholy Crucifix is definitely my favorite black-metal band over the last few years. It hits on all points: dark riffs, thematic repetition, and unhallowed atmosphere. This is not to be over-intellectualized, or the subject matter of critical dissertations on the theory of black metal. Take it for what it is: simple, cavern born, raw, and impetuous. Imagine if Incantation, VON, Beherit had an unholy three-way…and that spawn wore a Brainbombs shirt…this is what you’d get. The band has released several very obscure cassettes and a few vinyl offerings. You can pick up a seven-inch from Seedstock Records.
4. Sutekh Hexen
A chaos in the black drift…skin-peeling sonic nightmare. Picking up on the more frenzied aspects of Gorgoroth‘s Destroyer (which is one of the most underrated TRVE NORWEGIAN BLACK-METAL albums), San Francisco’s Sutekh Hexen up the noise quotient by six hundred and sixty-six. I can’t say that I am hugely familiar with the whole black/noise scene. Most of what I heard was somewhat amateur and reeked of flavor of the month. This doesn’t by a long shot. The duo released three cassettes in 2010. Very dense, oppressive, and well crafted from a solid monolith of blackened lead.
Someone with a larger music vocabulary would be better suited to throw a label on this one. I’ve read them as described as “death wave,” but come on now! We all know it’s “black wave.” I can’t seem to find much information about this band besides that it’s from the United Kingdom and has a few cassette releases (most of which are available online for free). A strange, black-ish, punk-goth hybrid with low-fi guitars, drum-machine-created-by-pop-music-induced-darkness-lurkers with monotone vocals. For fans of Cold Cave, My Bloody Valentine, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Joy Division, etc.
This Russian painter’s work seems to come from another time of ages past. His distinct style is reminiscent of the old Renaissance masters. He employs a heavy use of chiaroscuro, texture, and has an obsession with the occult and gnostic aesthetics and symbology, which I believe he also studies. His work seems to be of a classically trained painter, but I honestly have no firm grasp on how much schooling he has undergone. Regardless, his work is timeless and hauntingly beautiful. I believe he will be working with Beherit in the near future, or has already done so.
By far one of the most truly pulverizing black/death-metal acts from the United States over the last few years. Vasaeleth plays obscure yet crushingly straightforward death metal…the way it was meant to be! Crypt Born and Tethered to Ruin: unpolished and driving metal of death that rots through your skin with an atmospheric occult stench. Channeling such KVLT acts as Incantation and Demoncy, its full-length is available on CD from Profound Lore and LP from Blood Harvest. I’d pick up the vinyl version because the artwork was painted by Antichrist Kramer from Satanic Skinhead Productions, and just looks better at a large size. Additionally, Vasaeleth put out a split with Vorum on Negative Existence, with awesome artwork by Alexander Brown.
Regardless of your feelings on the politics attached to his record label, the artwork that has emanated from his hands are some of my favorite album covers over the last few years. Dripping, textural, bold — his distinctive paintings can be found on releases from Vasaeleth, Inquisition, Nyogthaeblisz, and Pseudogod. Creepy, beautiful use of color, mutoid skull artifacts, teeth, and stalagmites.
Quite an eclectic mix of music from Altaar, who gives you a taste of what to expect on its forthcoming album, which should see the darkness of night in 2011. “Occult, funeral, ambient doom” is quite a good description. It’s a blend of noise, plodding drums (real drums), samples, and atmospheric riffs, seasoned with a bit of black metal — which makes sense since the band members come from very different backgrounds. All of these elements could make for a very patchwork and inconsistent release, but in this case, the Gestalt theory holds true. The production is excellent, and the 25-minute length will definitely leave you craving more.
10. Timo Ketola
Infinitum Obscure, Dissection, SUNN O))), Watain, Teitanblood, Deathspell Omega, Katharsis…quite an impressive list of clients. Timo is a creative machine whose work just gets richer and fuller with every album layout. My personal favorite is his work on Teitanblood’s magnum opus Seven Chalices. His occult script writing, ritualistic imagery that seems to be diagramming the audio evil of the band’s sound and lyrics, and detailed black-blood ink work visually seal the listener into a wall of terror, decay, and blasphemy. The lyric book for the album is simply a kill-ustrative masterpiece that demands your attention…and the black/death noise contained on the vinyl is one of the highlights (lowlights?) from 2009.