What the sleeve notes never tell you
It’s been 16 months since the original post , which was meant to be a one-off feature; however I always felt that it’s been somehow incomplete. The constructive feedback I received, occasionally bordering on debate over a matter de facto subjective, convinced me to revisit the topic; paraphrasing Nick Hornby “a sneer at the bad choices, an understated but supportive raise of the eyebrow for the good ones”. So, instead of updating the list, I decided to compile a new one containing record artwork I had intentionally omitted for a variety of reasons, as well as couple of recent entries.
I firmly believe in the maxim that the cover artwork adds a literal dimension to the music that a digital thumbnail simply cannot replicate and my fondness of sleeve design has been stated in previous posts to the point of irritation. Disregarding the seriality of the collector’s desire for rarities and the compulsion to get the complete set (the whole label back catalogue, limited edition versions, memorabilia etc. even though the music can never be all gold), I have taken into account the aesthetic quality of the imagery, the nature of its production, the relationship to the music on the record and obviously my personal attachment. In other words these are records that the brilliance of the record cover and the music within are inextricably in tandem.
Bearing in mind that the variety of the artwork presented pertains only to my record cabinet, here are another ten of my favourite record covers in chronological order and a few things that the sleeve notes never tell you.
- Dave Wallace – Future Realities
Label: All Good Vinyl (AGV005, 1996)
Sleeve Designer: Simon Emery
All Good Vinyl launched on May, 1996 as a joint venture with R&S. Headed by music manager and A&R director Jon Sexton (notable artists managed by Sexton being Tricky, Leroy from Prodigy, Lee Scratch Perry, Alex Reece, Wax Doctor and DJ Pulse among others) the initiative aspired to take drum & bass to whole new level; to be regarded as a really serious musical form by using vocalists and live instrumentation. R&S founder Renaat Vandepapeliere commented at the time: “Since ‘Jacob’s Optical Stairway’ people in Europe are starting to react to drum n’ bass. I love the music and I think this is the way techno should have gone. I’m the happiest man in the world”.
Though short-lived, All Good Vinyl left their mark on the scene. After only two years of activity, Sexton folded the label and re-branded it as Copasetic Recordings with a shift in direction towards hip-hop.
Dave Wallace (Moving Shadow artist and member of Aquasky) envisioned a desolate future in arguably his finest solo recording; the dystopian chords in part 2 counterbalanced with the epic synths of glimmering hope in part 1. ‘Future Realities’ transcended genre confines and were embraced by djs across the spectrum.
The sleeve illustration, a part of an unspecified machine device has been designed by typographer and illustrator Simon Emery. After leaving Neville Brody’s studio, Emery set up his own freelance practice. Between 1995 and 2000 he worked primarily for the music industry; clients included: Island Records, Sony Music, Polygram, London Records, R&S Records, On-U Sound, Dorado and All Good Vinyl. His record sleeves crossed the musical boundaries of electronica, dub music, jazz, hip- hop, trip- hop and drum & bass.
- Photek – Ni Ten Ichi Ryu / The Fifth Column
Label: Science (QEDT2, 1997)
Designer: Mark Standere
Sho-Do (Japanese Calligraphy): Toun Kobayashi
If Photek’s previous track titles (‘Seven Samurai’ on his own label and ‘Kanei’ on Kirk Degiorgio’s Op-Art) had provided a hint about his affinity for all things Japanese, the follow-up to the ‘Hidden Camera EP’ made it evident. The album sampler of Parkes’ paradigm-shifting debut album ‘Modus Operandi’ (‘Ni Ten Ichi Ryu’ appeared only in the CD version exclusive to the Japanese market) instantly qualified as one of the genre’s masterpieces. The impeccable and clinical drum programming incorporating sounds of sword fighting and the jazzy flair of the 4-note bass culminated in samurai stealth beats and an unbearable feeling of anxiety and peril.
Mark Standere, Photek’s artwork designer of choice, took over the creative control of the record and the inner sleeve, featuring a calligraphic display of the track title by Toun Kobayashi, painted with ink brush on textured scroll.
Wiki Note: Niten Ichi-ryū (二天一流), which can be loosely translated as “the school of the strategy of two heavens as one”, is a koryū (ancient school), transmitting a style of classical Japanese swordsmanship conceived by the warrior Miyamoto Musashi. Hyōhō Niten Ichi-ryū is mainly known for the two-sword-katana and wakizashi-kenjutsu techniques Musashi called Niten Ichi (二天一, “two heavens as one”) or Nitō Ichi (二刀一, “two swords as one”).
- Future Bound – The Ephemeris / Blue Mist
Label: Timeless (DJ023, 1997)
Sleeve Designer: Jon Black
Future Bound formed in Liverpool around 1994, by producer and engineer Paul Maker, formerly of short-lived hardcore outfit New Force, who disbanded in 1993. The other original members were Alan Ryan, John Collinson and Brendan Collins, who had all collaborated separately with Maker during, and post-New Force.The original line up stayed together for roughly 3-4 years (culminating in releases on Skanna, Timeless, and Funk21), until the decision was made to work separately again, bringing about the Tunduska alias, which was essentially Maker collaborating on two separate tracks; one with Ryan and one with Collins; shortly after, the members of the original line up parted ways. Brendan Collins is the only member to continue recording drum & bass. After a short period using his initials BC as a production alias, he eventually adopted the guise Futurebound for his recording and djing ventures.
The sleeve designer is the prolific Jon Black, whose artwork probably deserves a separate feature. Adding a touch of medieval art with the figure of Archangel Gabriel holding his horn to announce Judgment Day, superimposed on a double edged spear decorated with barbed wire flowers, the strong imagery implies the connection of the finite with the timeless.
- Voyager – Apollo / Beatnik
Label: Good Looking Records (GLR027, 1998)
Sleeve Designer: Propeller Studio
Parsons’ musical career started around the dawn of 90s as an in-house producer, remixer and sound engineer at the famous Monroe Studios based on Holloway Road, London and has been involved in production and engineering for a large cross-section of musical styles, for many different labels including the likes of Dee Jay Recordings, Lucky Spin, Moving Shadow, Impact, Suburban Base, Soapbar, Proper Talent and Sound Entity. In 1994, Lucky Spin Records relocated from King’s Road (the premises were taken over by Moving Shadow setting up their own record shop and sub-label Section 5) to Holloway, next door to the Monroe Studios and Parsons soon became the main engineer for Dee Jay & Lucky Spin. After a string of collaborative releases (under various monikers alongside Slipmaster J), Parsons adopted the Voyager recording guise for his productions. With tracks garnering anthem status at the ‘Speed’ club nights hosted by Bukem and Fabio, it was only a matter of time until he recorded for their labels. The cinematic and breathtaking orchestral strings of ‘Apollo’ render it one of GLR’s finest moments.
The second half of the 90s was an extremely creative period for Bukem’s Good Looking Records and their 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. The sleeve design by Propeller Studio is self-explanatory and depicts blurry parts of the inscriptions on the Voyager Golden Records, which are two phonograph records that were included aboard both Voyager spacecrafts launched in 1977. The records contain sounds and images selected to portray the diversity of life and culture on Earth, and are intended for any intelligent extraterrestrial life form, or for future humans, who may find them. Those records are considered as a sort of a time capsule. Had it been recorded 20 years earlier, ‘Apollo’ could easily feature on the discs; the d&b future legacy.
- Omni Trio – Even Angels Cast Shadows
Label: Moving Shadow (ASHADOW26LP, 2001)
Designer: Process Studios
Omni Trio enjoyed a glistering and acclaimed recording career with Moving Shadow, especially throughout the 90s. With five personal albums, dozens of stellar singles, EPs and remixes, including an endless list of drum & bass anthems like ‘Renegade Snares’, he garnered universal recognition and praise from his peers and fans alike, despite keeping a low, often mysterious profile.
‘Even Angels Cast Shadows’, the 5th Omni Trio full length was the last for Moving Shadow, as in 2003 Omni Trio launched Scale Records with Deep Blue, before retiring from drum & bass a few years later to re-invent his contemporary classical alter ego. ‘First Contact’ is probably the most recognizable track as it featured on the ‘Grand Theft Auto 3’ video game, however the piano-driven ‘Higher Ground’ is the highlight of the album.
As opposed to the minimal artwork of his previous albums and singles, the impressive graphic design of the album meets the album title with an unprecedentedly dark and evocative theme and allusions to new wave or gothic rock, rather than drum & bass. Designed by Process Studio, who were the Moving Shadow creative arm at the time (they also designed the booklets for the MS budget sampler CD series), the sleeve depicts the distorted outline of an angel/demon elevating through fire.
- Ill Logic & Raf – Syracuse EP
Label: Bingo Beats (BINGO065, 2007)
Designer: Give Up Art
Photography: Ben Simons
Avid enthusiasts of the Metalheadz and Bristol sound, Ill Logic & Raf started their production career in the dawn of the new millennium. Having recorded for prestigious labels like Emotif, Renegade, Hospital, 31 Records and Metalheadz, they eventually signed with Zinc’s Bingo Beats in 2005. The EP title is named after the eponymous historic city in Sicily, founded and colonized by Greeks in the 8th century BC. ‘Let Me Have You’ from the ‘Syracuse EP’, was a Fabio favourite on Radio 1.
The sleeve design by Give Up Art is based on Ben Simons photography. A classroom with wooden desks, two vintage portable turntables instead of a chalkboard and records stacked all over the place, the cryptic graffiti message painted on the back of a desk seat reads “Evolution of musical presentation”.
- Naibu – Fireflies EP
Label: Horizons (HZN030, 2008)
Sleeve Designer: Foldesign
French producer 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. Apparently a re-interpretation/re-work of a previously unreleased track ‘It Took A Long Time’ featured on the first part. ‘Fireflies EP’ was published by Horizons Music, Naibu’s creative home in the forthcoming years and was the prelude to his sophomore eponymous album with a similar artwork concept, released the next year, with the lead track remixed by Seba.
The Japanese culture references of the graphic illustration by Foldesign are omnipresent. The title of the EP is inspired from the emotionally draining 1988 Japanese animated war drama ‘Grave Of The Fireflies’ and the geisha portrait completes the concept.
- Instra:mental x dBridge – Sepia Tones EP
Label: Darkestral (DARKESTRAL 004/005, 2009)
Sleeve Designer: Not credited
In 2007, Instra:mental signed with Darkestral Recordings, the eclectic leftfield drum & bass label run by Paul Laidlaw aka Rico Drkstr. Though short-lived, Darkestral introduced cinematic aesthetics, with outstanding releases, supplemented with bespoke vinyl art and packaging. The label’s ethos is summarized in the maxim: “170… respect the speed limit”. Instra:mental found their natural habitat and forged their own musical path with a string of ground-breaking records. The pinnacle of their Darkestral discography has probably been the ‘Sepia Tones EP’, co-produced with dBridge; literally a musical artifact, which foreshadowed the emergence of the Autonomic movement.
‘Sepia Tones’ was published on May, 27th, 2009. The double 12” vinyl edition contains 4 tracks. The first plate is written and produced by Instra:mental (‘Photograph’ / ‘The Dead Zone’), whereas the second plate (‘Translucent’ / ‘Detuned’) is co-produced with dBridge. ‘Sepia Tones’ was released in three vinyl colour variations limited to 500 copies (one in plain black, one in gold and black and one in sepia; the latter probably the most collectible and sought after version) beautifully packaged in reversed heavy board sleeves, coloured pantone black both inside and out, with gold foil block logos and lettering front and back. Regrettably the designer is not credited on the sleeve, in accordance with the label’s mystique and minimal approach. An extensive review of ‘Photograph’, which was selected by Commix as the closing track on their ‘Fabriclive 44’ compilation, with Damon Kid Drama eloquently narrating the background story of the track, is available in the blog’s archive here.
- Kimyan Law – Coeur Calme LP
Label: Blu Mar Ten Music (BMTLP005, 2014)
Sleeve Designer: ithinkitsnice
I refrained from using another BMT Music artwork with an abstract female figure/portrait, so I opted for a sleeve with a different portrait; Kimyan Law’s the label’s wunderkid. A few months after the ‘Famous Lost Words LP’ release, I had spoken with Chris Marigold of Blu Mar Ten, who had been extremely excited about his latest discovery, an artist he had met at a ‘Vollkontakt’ gig in Vienna. Fast forward to 2014, Kimyan Law’s first album showcases and artistic maturity far beyond his young age and transcends the confines of that often-formulaic genre, expanding sonic ranges and disrupting standard arrangements; musical representations full of imagery and meaning, romantic, cinematic and seductive.
As per usual, ithinkitsnice is behind the sleeve design, illustrating a poster with instantly recognizable vintage letter fonts and a cartoonish sketch of a face-painted Kimyan Law. Brilliantly cheeky!
- Blocks & Escher – Something Blue LP
Label: Metalheadz (METALP015, 2018)
Sleeve Designer: Later Ago
Layout: Simone Deiana
This is one of my most recent purchases that sneaked into the list just before publishing the post. Perhaps the most anticipated album of recent years, the lead single ‘Something Borrowed, Something Blue’, as the title implies, is Blocks & Escher’s homage to the ‘Blue Note Sessions’; a re-imagination of the formidable 90s Metalheadz sound in a contemporary context. Launching their own boutique label Narratives Music for their own material, with Goldie enthusiastically proclaiming that their music is art, it was only a matter of time to sign with Metalheadz. The background story will be disclosed in the next blog feature, narrated by the person who’s been the catalyst to the brilliant partnership.
The distinctive sea blue cyanotype design is by graphic designer Later Ago, whose work has recently turned heads and the layout by Simone Deiana. Metalheadz also offered the LP from the official page in a limited edition collector’s bundle with a unique artwork print and a t-shirt.
The link to the first part: here.
The archive of the previous installments of the “Count To Ten” series: here.