The inaugural Heavy Music Awards saw Ghost’s ‘Popestar’ voted as the Best Album Artwork of the year, presented by The Pit. We’ve spent some time with the creator of this winning design, Zbigniew M. Bielak, to find out more about him, his work, and what this win means.
You have designed album covers for bands such as Paradise Lost, Mayhem and Ghost, when did you find your love for album design?
By the time I fell for metal music in the early nineties, the aesthetics of the genre had already emancipated, and long grown out of the nude biker-warrior cliche. In my opinion, heavy metal – just as it stems from the youthful rebellion – also draws its quintessential charm from pop culture’s escapism. And that’s exactly why I find it so entertaining – I’d risk saying it is indeed a very cinematic art form.
Much like horrors and science fiction movies, metal indulgently dwells on formal hedonism, drawing it’s almost unrestrained freedom of expression from its own limitations. Being devoid of punk’s or reggae’s ambition of saving the world, it greedily embraces the comfort of being just pure form. And thus, paradoxically, it is closer to classical music and jazz. Alas the metal fans – myself included – like to think of themselves more as insightful music connoisseurs, rather than rampant ideologists.
Having long left Birmingham’s industrial suburbs on its evolutionary path to become music of the young and the sumptuous, today’s metal is more confident than ever in expanding its aesthetic horizons. It aspires to be perceived almost as an intellectual exercise. That, obviously calls for a lot of narrative consistency – be it lyrical or visual. The latter of which became my field of interest, when the role of freehand illustration in the architectural practice slowly deteriorated into an obsolete craft, giving way to the CAD tools around the turn of the millennia.
Although I wouldn’t use it anymore in the architect’s work – at least past concept design stages – I still enjoyed drawing enough to seek any possible pretexts to cultivate it as an artistic outlet, parallel to my main profession. Around that time, I got a job of an encyclopaedic illustrator for a multi-volume history series. Another ‘formative’ experience was the job of documenting artifacts from archaeological excavations – a merciless exercise in dot-work.
Both of these endeavours required precision and constant improvement in the time-coherent, meticulous imagining. All that, let alone the technical drawing, and the love of Dore’s engravings, has left me hopelessly eclectic in my stylistic leanings, when – much in Wikipedia’s wake – the publishing market eventually came tumbling down. I took my toys and went back home.
All my metal vinyl was there – waiting for me in its terrifying, badly photoshopped glory – ripe for taking to another level using whatever techniques I learnt over those years. It’s proven to be a lot of fun, and still is.
Your background in architecture clearly has a significant influence on your artistic style. What are the differences in your approach to technical drawing and creative illustration?
To me, there isn’t really much distinction. In the end, all of my approaches boil down to the complexity of an architect’s labour, which naturally defines many if not most of my cultural interests.
More than any other, this particular profession requires constant tapping for expertise into various, intertwined fields of knowledge, which co-exist in the so-called history of art. It’s a vast universe strewn across few thousand years’ span of flourishing and vanishing technologies, philosophies, architectural styles or decorative fashions, all of which render architecture as far from independent. Therefore, being granted freedom to draw stylistic inspiration from such variety of aesthetic stimuli– unrestrainedly and oblivious to professional liability – is already immensely satisfying.
On the other hand, all of the many technological disciplines, which stand responsible for the physical form and durability of buildings, are – artistically speaking – held together by the elegant precision of technical drawing. Plans and sections – from the poetic grandeur of a concert hall, to the prose of the juice extractor’s motor – when taken out of their immediate technological context, offer a multitude of almost perfectly standalone forms.
These forms, at least in my case, may be seen as a bridge to the world of synthetic graphic abstraction – something otherwise not really present in my work, yet translating to an indulgent use of the precise line work. It also lends me the much welcome comfort in irresponsibly portraying the seemingly logical forms and objects, with a relative ease.
Had I not tamed the technical drawing in the first place, I doubt I would have ever dared taking chances with anything past the simplest of forms, because as an artist, I am pretty much devoid of expressionist, let alone abstract sensitivities.
Your illustrations have amazing detail. In the case of ‘Popestar’, how long did it take from initial concept to final design?
I guess I am lucky to have the tools of my trade on my side. Obviously, even a slight ability in technical drawing, helps make all the intricate elements seem way more challenging, than they actually are. Moreover, I take advantage of working on larger canvasses, so the final shrinkage to the applied twelve inch format does enhance the density of line work.
When all elements of composition fall into place, the inking itself is not a very long process. Being an architect I am very familiar with working on densely detailed blueprints, so, even though the final effect may suggest a painstaking, benedictine labor, the actual execution of the line work is never much of an ordeal to me, rather a pleasure. Generally speaking, it is the sketching and arriving at a satisfactory composition, that are a really time-consuming process.
Fortunately enough, the ‘Popestar’ concept was well outlined from the get go, so it was rather a smooth job, which – if I recall correctly – didn’t take longer than few weeks of work, all phases included.
I first did a bunch of synthetic 8x8cm sketches to grasp the composition – five or six I believe – most of which can be seen below. Then when all the elements were pretty much defined, I rescaled it to 12x12cm, and then again to 20x20cm, to work in all the architectural details over a few versions.
Ultimately, the final ink piece was drawn on 50x50cm format, part painted in watercolour and finally scanned and edited into its end result seen on the album. Due to immense amount of detail that was lost in translation to CD and LP formats, it was also made available as a museum quality art print, to preserve all information and nuance in its original extent.
How much involvement did Ghost have in the creation of the ‘Popestar’ artwork?
The first draft of the ‘Popestar’ cover – which opens the sequence of sketches presented here – came from Papa Emeritus himself. It communicated his ‘Square Hammer’-lyric derived idea of a game of chess between good and evil precisely enough to enable a smooth start, with all elements pretty much already in place.
The Papa character would appear in his casual attire, known from the live situations. He was to be elevated on a postument, over the chessboard-floored piazza – a star in his hand – and surrounded by the romanticised interwar architecture, with figures of the devil and the thinker, embedded into the buildings on the side.
As usual with Ghost’s artwork, the concept was about certain duality. The chessboard was meant as an arena of the apocalyptic battle for souls, yet at the same time, it symbolised a dance floor to underline the entertaining, pop nature of the songs appearing on the record.
The Heavy Music Awards’ finalists were nominated by the music industry, and the winners were decided by public voting. What does it mean to you that both the industry and the public voted for ‘Popestar’ to win?
It seems to mean, that both the music fans and the music industry have found my artistic output relevant enough to their respective criteria, to vote for ‘Popestar’. And that is a great deal to me, because first and foremost, I consider myself as an avid music fan.
For years I’ve been supporting the music scene – and that means both the artists and music industry – collecting music and going to the shows. And all that long before the idea of designing album covers even dawned on me. So, the trust I am now granted to illustrate some of my favourite music, is in itself a great reward, but it’s the feedback like the HMA nomination – let alone winning the award – that makes it worth going the extra mile.
Can you tell us something about the ‘Popestar’ artwork that would surprise Ghost fans?
I think it’s a tall order to surprise Ghost fans with anything. They for sure are among the most inquisitive and well informed out there. Well, where it came from, aesthetically, ‘Popestar’ still belonged to the ‘Meliora’ universe of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.
This time however, the energetic feel of the EP – soaked in shiny monumentalism and vivid contrasting colours – made me want to try dabbling into slightly vintage soviet-era stylistics, rather than further explore oppressiveness of it’s predecessor’s industrial palette.
The postument on which Papa is standing bears a lot of semblance to the never built 1937 Palace of the Soviets, which could be seen as CCCP’s equivalent of Albert Speer’s Germania – admittedly, I do have a soft spot for megalomaniac architecture.
What projects are you currently working on?
At the moment I am keeping busy with artwork for Ghost’s future offerings. It is always an exciting challenge to illustrate the ever-shifting, historic costume of the band. It has always demanded scrupulous, time consuming research, so currently I am nose deep in the books about medieval life as well as on art and architecture of the period. It’s scary and fascinating to say the least, and I can’t wait to bring it all into art on the next album.
I am also working on the next record from Absu, which will be a whole different thing, with their trademark Mesopotamian symbolism and occult extravaganza. You should also keep your ears and eyes peeled for the upcoming release of a brand new – and Im sure musically groundbreaking – album from Australia’s purveyors of aural horror – Portal. I am very lucky to be able to work with so many bands, that are so pivotal to my taste in music.
Last but not least, its the end of the year, so the fourth instalment of the annual ZMB art calendar is in the making and ready for preordering via my online store. No rest for the wicked!