By Alastair Bailey
Phone screens, televisions, posters at the train station, cereal boxes, logos, the artwork on the front of an album; in twenty-first century life, we are bombarded with visual imagery. Designed to maximise an engagement the list of visual items we consume is endless. All of these pervade our daily lives. Yet, our position on the receiving end of this should not be seen as one of passive acceptance. Humans crave visual stimulation.
Images provide an outlet that the written word cannot satisfy. Who can be bothered to read something, if the same information is instead conveyed by a colourful YouTube vid?
When considering the subject of album artwork though, we move beyond the debate between images and words and land somewhere in the realm of art as a singular communicative force; the subliminal ability of a particular piece that adorns the cover of a record to tell the beholder what lies beneath. The first port of call that allows for the development of the deep attachment to a record.
But how important really is album artwork? Is it not just an accessory to the real reason for picking up an album: the tunes themselves?
The timeless adage states, ‘never judge a book by its cover’
Maybe the closest equivalent to an album and its artwork is a book and its front cover. What lies beneath may be very different from its presented, open-to-the-elements surface-level veneer. In truth, though, when it comes to music, and record shopping, in particular, it is a process by its very nature that involves searching for the unheard and less recognisable. It may be described as some sort of secular ritual, leafing through hundreds, possibly thousands, of identical square shapes until you land on something that sparks both your interest and imagination. With all the possible options, what greets you in the first instance plays a significant role in shaping that initial relationship between you and a sound. More often than not, this role is occupied by album artwork.
Without the tools offered to book lovers browsing in a book shop, such as a blurb or maybe a quick read of an initial chapter or two, the artwork of a record is crucial. This process of identification, even subconsciously, takes place long before you decide to wander over to the turntable in the corner or ask the person behind the counter to stream it over the shop speakers. Furthermore, in places that do not have this technology immediately available, such as at record fairs, charity shops or the odd car boot sale, the building of this initial relationship through art takes on an even greater importance.
Album artwork can act as a metaphorical visual anchor
Whilst record shopping in an unfamiliar space or environment, album artwork can act as a metaphorical visual anchor; a reliable point of reference in a sea of the unfamiliar. Ever-present amongst the crates and their contents, record art allows for the eye to land on a particular selection that may have not been immediately apparent. More often than not, choosing records with an artwork that leaps out at you straight away for some unknown reason will result in a purchase that delights the ears just as much as the eyes.
Underflow Records and Art Gallery
Nowhere was this more apparent than on my recent trip to Athens. Underflow Records and Art Gallery sits just beyond the ring road that encircles central Athens, towards the district of Neos Kosmos. A distinct ‘locals’ shop with, quite rightly, no desire to openly market itself to those just passing through. It features a heady selection of mostly independent Greek artists and labels with a small import section of electronic and experimental sounds.
As a result, I was completely unfamiliar with most of the records on the shelves and, compounded by the Greek written genre dividers, I was unconsciously diving into a body of water whose bottom is excitingly mysterious.
Faced with such a task, yet determined to welcome the possibility of discovering a hidden gem, the artwork of the records in the crates became my ballast; my vital navigator on which I could lean.
Given over to this, records started to leap out – their arresting artwork almost daring me to examine what was etched into the grooves contained within. As it transpired, I came away from Underflow that hot Wednesday afternoon with three great records, all previously unheard and yet all with artwork that immediately appealed to some strange inner arbiter of musical greatness.
First out was Seriality by Underwater Chess. An electro-acoustic duo from Thessaloniki who blends traditional Greek folk and violin themes with experimental Autechre-style electronic elements. The record features a beguiling image of a diagonal chessboard, the individual shaded squares melting into increasingly twisted images of brutal-looking fish, with their facial features exaggerated and embellished to varying degrees.
The artwork on this particular record immediately took me by surprise, unlike anything I had seen before. It was a testament to the power of album artwork to suck you in when other, more immediate cues are limited, and the records or labels you are seeing may as well be from another planet altogether.
A similar process occurred with my other purchases that day. Sir o Sir’s Solar Panels on the Moon features a predominantly solid ink-black background with a curious monochrome image of a woman’s face, only the bottom half of which is visible. It is a perfect visual accompaniment to what its Bandcamp page proclaims is ‘a collection of restrained, yet poignant ambient soundscapes’. The art on this one oozes an almost meditative, frozen state – a precursor to the impact of the weighty, trance-like droning chords found hidden between its grooves.
My final choice that afternoon was Data Room’s eponymous EP on Ecke Records. The striking purple and yellow colour scheme that adorns this one looks like overlayed pieces of felt. A playful composition that immediately caught my eye when flicking through the crate, it brings back vivid memories of primary school art classes where many an hour was whiled away matching colours together to create the whackiest effects.
This, I think, captures the ultimate beauty of album art. Acting as a complement to the music no doubt, but similar to any other piece of art you may find hanging in a gallery, it has the indescribable ability to cut right to the heart of whoever is viewing it, triggering a deeper memory or connection that exists way beyond the four walls of a shop or indeed the record that you may be holding in your hand.
For music in general, the power of album artwork should not be understated. For the music-makers themselves, it can elevate their material from the ranks of obscurity within a myriad of other options, maybe even landing itself into the collections of critics who can go on to give it further exposure.
A record with striking, noticeable artwork lends credence to the project as a whole; evidence of thoughtful curation and genuine visual-sonic expression. It is certainly no throw-away aspect of a record’s component parts. Records without artwork would not be records at all.
Graphic courtesy of Isabel Armitage