“… drawing a fine line between the sublime and the ordinary, the initial presentation criteria have been the aesthetic quality of the imagery, the nature of its production, the relationship to the music on the record and obviously my personal attachment …”
Something completely different for the last post of 2016; instead of the music per se, the next installment of the blog’s ‘Count To Ten’ series is dedicated to artwork design, an essential aspect of the physical product. The size and tactile experience of the record sleeve is one of the reasons why vinyl records remain the most enjoyable way to listen to music. The recent vinyl resurgence has rekindled the art of the record layout. Whether it’s hand-made or mass-produced, meticulously arranged or spontaneously created, the cover artwork adds a literal dimension to the music that a digital thumbnail simply cannot replicate.
I’ve always been fascinated by record illustrations and covers. In previous blog posts I have repeatedly admitted that I would gladly exchange almost all of my white labels and promotional copies for full artwork versions. So, I decided to delve into my record collection and pick ten of my favourite drum & bass record sleeves. Drawing a fine line between the sublime and the ordinary, the initial presentation criteria have been the aesthetic quality of the imagery, the nature of its production, the relationship to the music on the record and obviously my personal attachment. It proved harder than I expected, so I had to set a stricter set of constraints (one sleeve per artist/label/designer, no ‘various artists’ compilations, presentable condition etc.) in order to scale it down to just ten. In an attempt to cover a period of more than 20 years in a rather uniform time distribution, some brilliant designs were inevitably left out. After a lot of contemplation, ten of my favourite drum & bass illustrations and record sleeves are presented below in chronological order.
1 – Rogue Unit – Luv Dub / Dance Of The Sarooes (Nookie Remix)
Label: Labello Blanco Recordings (NLB13, 1994)
Sleeve Designer: Dave “Nodz” Noddings
In 1994 Steve Gurley left Foul Play to pursue a solo recording career. He adopted the Rogue Unit alias for his productions on Labello Blanco and its offshoots. The instantly recognizable artwork, featuring the stark contrast of a fierce warrior and a man sleeping serenely, is by Dave “Nodz” Noddings, the prolific artist who has designed a plethora of classic sleeves for Suburban Base, Strictly Underground and Labello Blanco.
2 – Photek – The Seven Samurai / Complex
Label: Photek (PTK05, 1995)
Sleeve Designer: Mark Standere
Mark Standere has designed exquisite record sleeves for Photek and Source Direct. Inspired by Japanese impressionistic printmaking, the misty landscape captures the dark paranoia of the record. One can vividly imagine in the distant background seven samurai on their warhorses, wielding their katanas.
3 – Future Bound – Sorrow / Liquid Groove
Label: Skanna (SKANNA10, 1996)
Sleeve Designer: Jon Black
One of the most prolific and in-demand designers of the 90s, Jon Black (aka Blackeye and Academy Of Thought) has had an enviable portfolio with countless brilliant designs for the genre’s most prestigious labels. This is probably my all-time favourite by him; an emotionally-draining cyanotype image of a tearful eye, that perfectly captures the dramatic moment and encapsulates the essence of the record’s main theme.
4 – The Invisible Man – Spiritual Awareness / Stormfields
Label: Looking Good (LGR015, 1997)
Sleeve Designer: Alison ‘Ally’ Dunn
The second half of the 90s was an extremely creative period for Bukem’s Good Looking Records and its sub-labels. Spearheading a more streamlined approach to drum & bass, the sleeve design has been in accordance with the musical output; futuristic, unconventional and thought-provoking. Jon Black, Public Art and Propeller among others had taken over the artistic control of the sleeve designs. This particular one admittedly is neither the most characteristic nor representative; however it made the list for a different reason. The cavernous fantasy landscape, with stone formations resembling stalagmites, in blue, purple and magenta watercolours has been designed by Alison Dunn. The name might not ring a bell, but Alison has contributed vocals to a couple of Invisible Man tracks, which in turn reminded me of a short story about the G-Spot Records label art (the precursor to Timeless Recordings).
Graham Mew (aka The Invisible Man) reflects on early label artwork (excerpt from the Timeless Recordings feature, which is available in the blog’s archive here).
“… then, with number two, I decided to use a proper label name and that was the first of the crazy hand-drawn labels. As I recall, my mate James Kearney thought of the “G-Spot Records” label name, he also drew the main logo – the rest of the label art was literally just me scribbling on a piece of paper, a few hours before I went to the cutting house!”
5 – Justice – Modern Retro LP
Label: Hydrogen Dukebox (DUKE085DJV, 2000)
Sleeve Designer: Unknown
Released on Doug Hart’s Hydrogen Dukebox, at first glance this seems like an ordinary architecture image; a photograph of the Rockefeller Plaza in New York at an oblique angle. The picture is taken from a private collection and the canvas effect is achieved with the ‘Liquitex’ method. It works aesthetically with the LP theme/title Modern Retro, hence its place in the list.
6 – Naibu – It Took A Long Time / Urban Sprawl,
Label: Creative Source (CRSE053, 2008)
Sleeve Designer: Shylock @The ReThink Lab
Naibu’s meteoric rise to drum & bass came in 2008. His talents were readily picked up by Fabio and Naibu returned the favour with one of the label’s finest moments. ‘It Took A Long Time’ is apparently a re-interpretation/re-work of a previously unreleased track entitled ‘It’s Gonna Take A Long Time’. The latter eventually featured in the compilation ‘Never Released’, which contains previously unreleased tracks, written in the period from 2005 to 2007 inclusive, published by the Horizons Music offshoot Inside Recordings in 2013. The cover illustration, an ink sketch of a forest glade in sepia tones, is designed by Shylock.
7 – Blu Mar Ten – Believe Me / Made Of Air
Label: Blu Mar Ten Music (BMT002, 2009)
Sleeve Designer: Scott Smyth @ithinkitsnice
Clearly, Blu Mar Ten artwork is a firm favourite that couldn’t be absent from this list; abstract female portraits are a recurring theme on their record sleeves. Scott Smyth is behind the alluring retro illustrations for Blu Mar Ten Music. A charcoal drawing on a cardboard sleeve, intentionally omitting attention to detail and colour distractions, the design enhances the unbearable melancholy of the record; perfection in simplicity.
8 – J Majik & Wickaman – Ritual / Old Headz,
Label: Metalheadz (METH093, 2011)
Sleeve Designer: Richard Lock, senior designer @devolutiondesigns
Countless variations of the iconic Metalheadz skull logo have appeared on the label’s record sleeves, flyers, posters and merchandise. From the unparalleled Jon Black’s mid-90s illustrations and Sam Bennet’s ‘Platinum Breakz’ designs, to more recent works by designbyengine, twistdesign, Eveson and Sig Vicious, Metalheadz have always managed to render their products unique and collectible. This one has been conceived by Richard Lock. To celebrate J Majik’s return to Metalheadz (his last appearance being in the 1998 boxset with the track ‘Freefall’) the illustration is in swift accordance with the record, an homage to the label’s golden past and J Majik’s musical legacy.
9 – Klute – The Draft LP
Label: Commercial Suicide (Limited Artist Edition, SUICIDELP014, 2013)
Sleeve Designer: Lindsay @ Firecracker, Photo by Klute
One of the most prolific d&b producers, Klute likes to use photography from his travels for his album covers. On the LP features a woman in Tokyo on her way to work. Limited only to 35 copies (2×12’’ test presses, including the LP sampler) signed and hand-stamped by Klute himself, this is the black & white version of the album art. The sleeve has been hand-screen printed by Lindsay @ Firecracker.
10 – G.H.O.S.T – III
Label: Goldman Records (GHST003, 2015)
Sleeve Designer: Atelier Margrit (Thun, Switzerland)
I was introduced to G.H.O.S.T (members: Lewis Joyce, Thomas Grau, William Jones) after the release of their second single and have followed their musical excursions ever since; amazing music material bundled with bespoke packaging. The particular sleeve depicts views from a building’s interior wooden staircase and is a handmade screenprint in combination with offset printing in sepia. The layout is designed by the Swiss Atelier Margrit.