Cover Story Interview – “Exhumed” by Grave, with design & artwork by Mike Hrubovcak

Subject: Exhumed, by Grave – a 2008 release on Century Media records, with cover artwork and design produced by Mike Hrubovcak.

Copyright ©2008 by Mike Hrubovcak/Visualdarkness.com – All rights reserved.

Throughout the Cover Stories series, it has been my goal to show readers the art and artistry of the talented designers, illustrators and photographers who have created many of Rock Music’s most-intriguing cover images. We’ve seen psychedelic images, fantastic designs and the intimate photographic portraits of many iconic musical acts and highlighted most major musical genres. And yet, while we’ve learned about the inspiration behind Dark Side of the Moon, we’ve yet to really visit the real dark side of the rock world – Death Metal. For those of you who have, for whatever reason, not closely followed the Death Metal music scene, here’s a brief primer.

Death Metal was initially viewed of as a sub-genre of “heavy metal” and early practitioners drew much of their inspiration from “thrash metal” acts including Celtic Frost and Slayer. With the maniacally-fast guitar shredding and impossibly-fast drumming of acts such as Death, Morbid Angel and Possessed setting the example for many others to follow (and, early on, the support of popular record labels including Earache and Roadrunner Records), Death Metal emerged as a genre of its own beginning in the mid-to-late 1980s.

While the musicianship is undeniable, the genre has, for most part, remained outside of the mainstream – in terms of distribution and press coverage – due primarily to the principal themes of the songwriting (i.e., death, destruction, mayhem) and the accompanying lyrics and visual imagery (and replicated on-stage by many of the acts, as well).

Take, for example, the inspiration for today’s cover story. Originally known as Corpse and then as Putrefaction, the re-christened band from Visby, Sweden named Grave burst from the Swedish death metal scene in the late ’80s (1988). They built a strong fan base after the release of their soon-to-be-classic (in death metal circles) debut record, 1991’s Into The Grave. This was followed by a tour of Europe and the U.S. and the release of their second album, You’ll Never See (1992). Following a series of personnel changes, the band continued to record and tour on and off throughout the 1990s, with some of these performances captured live for release as a CD (Extremely Rotten Live) and on DVD (Enraptured, released in 2006). Some of Grave’s current and past members have played in several notable bands such as Entombed, Face Down, Kaamos, Krux, The Project Hate and Therion.

Throughout their history, Grave’s records (and most recordings in the genre) have been packaged with covers that feature images that, for the most part, would scare (and, sometimes, disgust) most typical music buyers – these are the over-the-top images that only fans of slasher/gore-fest movies can fully appreciate. And yet, most people who truly understand and appreciate the history of painting and illustration realize that, throughout History, the works of “the Masters” have graphically depicted scenes of war, torture, crucifixions, lions maiming slaves, death camps and most other examples of man’s inhumanity to man. No one can question the technical mastery of these artists or, in some cases, can deny the dark beauty of some of the most-disturbing scenes brought to the canvas. Dark, intricately-detailed illustrations by modern masters such as Mati Klarwein and H.R. Giger have graced record covers and posters and, while they caused public uproars when they were first introduced, they’re considered as masterworks now.

It is with this in mind, coincidentally at the time when some celebrate All Hallows Eve, All Saints’ Eve, Samhain, etc., that we present an interview with one of the genre’s current masters (and active participant in the music scene), illustrator Mike Hrubovcak. As you’ll see, the process of creating eye/vein-popping cover art for fans of death metal is a familiar one, but with a few sinister twists, as evidenced in today’s Cover Story. Grab a shovel and some new batteries for your flashlight, then read on…

In the words of the artist, Mike Hrubovcak (interviewed October 2008) –

I was originally contacted by the Century Media record label when they were looking for an album cover for a new thrash band called Warbinger they had just signed. Marco Barbieri from Century Media had told me that he’s been a fan of my work for a while now and was interested in working with me. Apparently he had seen my artwork for other bands floating around (probably bands like Mortician, Sinister, Cattle Decapitation, etc.), and had seen the work I did recently for the thrash band Rumpelstiltskin Grinder (on Relapse Records – see below) and thought they’d try me out for the Warbringer record.

Unfortunately – I think due to time-constraints – they decided to go with another artist for that cover. Looking back it would have been great to work on that cover, but then they offered me the “Best of Grave” collection”. I have been a huge fan of Grave since my youth – and a natural “death metal kinda guy” – so this was a fitting project for me to work on and had me pulling out my old Grave tapes to throw on for inspiration.

When Marco and I were talking about a concept for the cover, he had the idea that, since the album was going to be called “Exhumed“, it’d be neat to feature a cover from the “worm’s eye view” of a corpse in a grave looking up toward the sky/tombstone, as if he’s awakening and rising from the dead. So, with Marco’s direction, I just took the idea and ran with it. Originally, I had a different perspective set up in my mind, of having a decrepit grave overgrown with weeds somewhere in the middle of the woods – as if it was an abandoned cemetery – with a corpse rising from it. I actually prefer and like Marco’s idea better though and I’m glad we went with it. The perspective is fresh and unique and grabs your attention right away without actually showing the corpse.

Most of my covers are custom-designed and geared toward the idea or concept of the band or label. I do, however, do my own personal work that will periodically get licensed for use on album covers, but it’s hard for me to actually take the time to do my own personal work since normally I’m just too busy doing custom jobs all the time for the extra cash.

Anyway, since this was a “best of” album, I was already familiar with most of the band’s music from their earlier albums – especially all of the old material which I had grown up with as a kid. I was fanatical over the Into The Grave and You’ll Never See… albums and have always been a fan of old-school Death Metal, so I wanted to go for that old feeling I’d had as a kid, and that was my defining inspiration. I would play the albums as I worked on the cover while trying to let my mind interpret those dark feelings into the motivation for my hands and then into image itself.

If I remember correctly, I had about a month or so to do the album art. Normally, I like to allow myself 2-4 weeks, but sometimes – especially when I’m super into doing the work, like I was with this piece – I under-estimate how fast a work will come together and I end up getting a cover done quicker than I had planned. I think the quickest cover I ever did was the one for Mortician’s Re-animated Dead Flesh. That took me less than a week, just because I was also super into it as well and would stay up into the early hours of the morning working on it for the tight deadline.

I think this one only took about 2 weeks or so for the actual cover illustration, but then I also had to do the artwork and design for the 16-page booklet and packaging layout as well, so that added another week to the total project.

To create basic image for the cover, I used my digital camera to shoot photo reference pictures. I actually went to my local cemetery and photographed some tombstones and some up shots of dead trees. Conveniently, it was right after winter and all the trees were still dead. Also, one night after a rain storm, I went out into my back patio area and got all dirty by smearing my hands in the mud and taking photo reference shots of my arms in various poses as well. Luckily, I think I hit the nail on the head and they liked the first image I sent them. It usually works that way, and once I complete the cover, I’ll send the client a preview sample through email to check out. It’s pretty rare when a band or label actually makes me change something. I guess I’m lucky in that way, because changing something after I’ve completed an illustration is a real pain in the ass.

In the end, Marco and Century Media were completely professional and it was a pleasure working with them – I hope to work with them again sometime in the future. They have a lot of bands that I personally like, so getting the chance to produce artwork for any of them would be an honor.

(These are some pix of the images Mike created for the CD booklet and tray liner – including an alternate version of the tray liner.) Copyright ©2008 by Mike Hrubovcak/Visualdarkness.com – All rights reserved.

The album will be released sometime in November, but I’ve already gotten plenty of comments though from posting it on my website, etc. People say that it’s totally creepy looking. Creepy and dark, but without the explicit gore that a lot of my custom artwork normally features – I think its one of my more professional pieces to date. I’m looking to break into more of the commercial side of horror, and since most of my favorite bands are on labels that would have problems distributing the explicit gore, it would have to be dark and creepy while still being acceptable enough for “big-box retail stores” like Wal-Mart to stock it on their shelves. This was primarily a collection of older songs, so I tried to summon those old-school feelings. Hopefully, that effort came across and all the old Grave fans buying this collection will share those same feelings.

About the artist, Mike Hrubovcak –

The picture on the left features Mike on stage with Monstrosity headlining the FTC Festival in Germany. The image on the right was taken from a photo shoot with Monstrosity in Florida just before our tour of Mexico. Copyright ©2008 by Mike Hrubovcak/Visualdarkness.com – All rights reserved.

Mike Hrubovcak is an artist based out of the Philadelphia/NYC area and has been heavily involved in the metal/horror scene since 1992. In his own words – “My artistic release first began with oil painting and airbrush. Throughout college, I started doing more artwork on the a computer within Photoshop and found that incorporating several mediums (painting, drawing & photo-manipulation) into the computer really allowed me the flexibility to express my art on a whole new level. Over the years I’ve had the pleasure of working with many great bands, magazines and record labels worldwide. I currently maintain a day-job working as a graphic designer at an Adult Novelty company while doing the work featured on my site – visualdarkness.com – on the side as a freelancer. I also currently sing for the bands MONSTROSITY and VILE and have stayed busy with former bands DIVINE RAPTURE, I.C.E. and my own solo project AZURE EMOTE.”

A few clients I’ve worked with have included: Revolver Magazine, the record labels Century Media Records and Relapse Records, and acts such as Sinister, Inhume, Rumpelstiltskin Grinder (see latest cover, below), Avulsed, Cattle Decapitation, XXX Maniak, Aurora Borealis, I.C.E. and many more..

Copyright ©2008 by Mike Hrubovcak/Visualdarkness.com – All rights reserved.

To see more of Mike’s work, please visit his web site at
http://www.visualdarkness.com

To learn more about this (and other) releases on Century Media Records, please visit their website at
http://www.centurymedia.com/us/index.php

To see the complete selection of album cover art available for sale at RockPoP Gallery, visit our site at http://www.rockpopgallery.com

About Cover Stories – Our series of interviews will give you, the music and art fan, a look at “the making of” the illustrations, photographs and designs of many of the most-recognized and influential images that have served to package and promote your all-time-favorite recordings.

In each Cover Story, we’ll meet the artists, designers and photographers who produced these works of art and learn what motivated them, what processes they used, how they collaborated (or fought) with the musical acts, their management, their labels, etc. – all of the things that influenced the final product you saw then and still see today.

We hope that you enjoy these looks behind the scenes of the music-related art business and that you’ll share your stories with us and fellow fans about what role these works of art – and the music they covered – played in your lives.

All images featured in this Cover Story are Copyright 2008, Mike Hrubovcak – All rights reserved. Except as noted, all other text Copyright 2008 – Mike Goldstein & RockPoP Gallery (www.rockpopgallery.com) – All rights reserved.