This is a follow up to an article published in May 2022. My friend and fellow graphic designer Greg Vickers kindly agreed to share some of his thoughts on Canadian album cover art – his favourites, influences, and examples of a few of his own designs. You can check out more of his work at his Afternoons In Stereo Facebook fan group. ~Mark Tharme
Canadian Album Art. In the pantheon of modern graphic design, the album cover looms large.
While initially simply a reflection of simple marketing strategy, album art for the 12″ vinyl retail market quickly rose to become its own medium. There are designers who are, in fact, known best for the work they did for album covers. Reid Miles and Peter Saville come to mind, illustrators and painters like Roger Dean and Dean Struzan, or design legends like Storm Thorgerson and John Berg. They and so many others brought something unique and of lasting impact to the art form, their work rivalling that hanging in any art gallery.
Canada is no stranger to great design, but as with so many things here in the Great White North, our contributions are often overshadowed by our southern neighbours. Here, then, is an attempt to remedy that and shed a bit of light on a few examples of Canadian album design that are absolutely noteworthy. There are some that are perhaps better known — Leonard Cohen’s ‘Greatest Hits’ comes to mind, as does Neil Young’s ‘Harvest’ — but these are ones that speak to me personally, as both a graphic designer and a music fan.
I am a freelance graphic designer working as GVD for the last 20+ years. I have done a number of album cover designs over the years, for myself and many local and international artists, and I have been asked to include a few samples of my own work. I have done so below: one of my own albums as Afternoons In Stereo, and an album design I did for a local singer/songwriter.
Let’s dive in!
1. Rush – Fly By Night
I love that sometimes a single image is all you need. It will dominate the work and be burned into the viewer’s mind. This one certainly beckoned from the racks to 8-year-old me.
The colour palette is terrific, all the arctic blues certainly heighten the intensity of the giant owl with its yellow eyes that follow you everywhere. As a music fan and a graphic designer, I am amused that the man who painted the cover owl, Eraldo Curugati, also painted the four individual covers for the KISS solo albums! (which are all great too).
The inner sleeve of Fly By Night has all these great hand-written lyrics by Rush drummer Neil Peart with little accompanying doodles to represent each song. This was the first appearance of Peart on a Rush album, and I feel like everything from here forward went up several notches… including the band’s artwork and iconography. This is especially true of the band’s ubiquitous “Starman” logo, but more on that below. *
2. The Grapes Of Wrath – Treehouse
The band is not really well remembered these days, and my guess is that their album art is equally forgotten.
I remember the first two albums fondly, especially Treehouse. You could argue that it’s just a generic band shot out front of a house, but I would counter that so is the cover for the debut Crosby, Stills & Nash album and that has become iconic.
What I love about the cover here, and what I would cite as a direct influence on me personally as a designer, is the careful desaturation of colour. The ability to pull back on the greens/browns/creams creates a wonderful warmth that is very much in keeping with the album’s sound. And the band looks super cool, especially for 1987. Points also for the photographer to use a fish-eye lens to round the image (it stretches onto the back cover as well), and I like the simple but bold typeface treatment for the band name and album title – all-caps, but using an italic for the first letter of each word.
It always strikes me as a bit funny that there is no actual treehouse to be seen.
3. Prism – Armageddon
Not a stellar album, but very memorable artwork!
Released in 1979, this certainly hails from the heyday of great existential album covers. I venture there was a real desire to emulate the work of Storm Thorgerson and his exemplary work with his Hipgnosis design studio. This cover certainly shares similar aesthetics, reminding one of a time when not putting the band on the cover was still considered a creative and bold marketing move!
I dig the enigmatic crystal pyramid seemingly bursting out of the busy city street. I don’t know what philosophical statement it is making; it certainly seems to have little to do with actual armageddon, but it certainly catches the eye.
I have to point out, also, and this is a personal thing, but I really love the Prism logo. I was simply obsessed with band logos as a kid, and used to tote a pad+pencil+ruler everywhere and draw replications of them (or create my own). The logo used here is pretty damn cool, in a sublimely 70’s rock way, and would look pretty swell on an iron-on t-shirt. It hearkens back to an era when a band’s logo was often far better than the band itself (I’m looking at you, Asia).
A Few Notes On Hugh Syme
As the art designer and conceptualist for Rush’s album artwork, Hugh Syme is responsible for some of the most instantly recognizable album artwork in the world. He famously designed the covers for the streak of classic albums that started with 2112 and ran until Moving Pictures, each record containing its own unique creative statement. Syme is also responsible for the enigmatic “Starman”, the iconographic symbol most closely associated with Rush over some forty-some-odd years and one of the most famous rock logos in the world.
I always admired Hugh Syme’s ability to move through whichever approach best spoke to how to articulate the concept. Whether it was painterly, as on the covers for Caress Of Steel or Grace Under Pressure or strictly photographic like on the covers for A Farewell To Kings or Moving Pictures. Often it was somewhere uniquely left of centre, like on the cover collage of Permanent Waves or the art gallery academia that is the mysterious and slightly homo-erotic cover for Hemispheres. He found a distinct balance that straddled the best of both worlds. Rush seemed to often grant him great latitude, embracing a host of styles and techniques – whether a simple framed photograph like Signals or a basic schematic diagram as on Counterparts. The band were heralded as being musically and lyrically adventurous. It’s often overlooked that their creative directions were equally so.
It should be noted that in addition to his groundbreaking work for Rush, Hugh Syme also designed for a host of other Canadian artists such as Ian Thomas, Max Webster, Saga, Gowan, Klaatu, and Lee Aaron, as well as international acts like Bon Jovi, Whitesnake, Aerosmith, Def Leppard, and Supertramp. He continues to work regularly today even as he approaches 70.
Afternoons In Stereo
Two samples of my own work, and a few comments about it.
1. Habitat 67 EP
I have a great love for all of the amazing design done for the Montreal Expo in 1967. I am also an amateur enthusiast for modernist architecture, especially from that era.
Moshie Safdie’s modernist case study came out of McGill University and was built for the Expo. It remains standing to this day, a wonderfully unique (and highly coveted) housing development on the Marc-Drouin Quay along the Saint Lawrence river.
I used a photograph of it in homage and title for my Habitat 67 EP. I decided on a pea-green colour tint, evocative of the old rotary phones of the era, and a minimalist typeface that keeps things simple. I am especially fond of the ’67’ that I designed as a nod to that sort of Bob-Fosse-meets-Carnaby-Street flair of the late 60’s, a bit of go-go in a sea of green.
2. SG Sinnicks – T.I.H.
SG Sinnicks is a well-known and beloved figure on the Hamilton music scene. His style can best be described as a sort of protest/folk music; think Billy Bragg with a generous dash of Nick Cave.
With his more recent releases, SG brought me on board to bring a different creative angle to his overall identity. Prior releases had been a bit below par, truthfully, and SG wanted to kick up his visual identity to a more professional level. With T.I.H. (This Is Home) I had leeway to move in a different direction, which is always a fun challenge.
My first step was to design a logo, which I designed wanting to reference an old can of motor oil. The colour and text treatment is simple and easily reproduced across any medium. For my purposes here I did two things to make it stand out. First: a bit of subtle texture and distressing around the edges to lean in to the retro feel of it. Second: I added a drop shadow, which I am not always a big fan of, but here I manipulated the drop to create more of a 3D effect, like the logo was a small paper strip sitting on top of the cover painting, curling up at the edges a bit. I’m very proud of how this turned out, and am using it again on his newest release which I am working on right now.
I was very happy that SG loved the painting I submitted to him for use, not only because it was beautifully done and almost abstract in its style, but because of the colour palette. We licensed it and credited the artist, of course, and it is always nice to be able to bring another artist and their talent into the fold.
Pink is not always an easy sell to male artists, but SG loved it and we based the whole album on that palette with a complimentary teal for contrast and balance. I am a big fan of texture in design, and I feel that all of the painterly aspects here really add a lot to the overall effectiveness.
Ultimately, album art has been diminished quite a bit in the mainstream with the ever-shrinking real estate assigned to it — first the transition to cassette and CD, then the mp3, and now streaming audio. Thankfully we still have the vinyl resurgence to offer a select market for album artwork the way it was intended to be seen. And thankfully there will always be people who respect the art form, who gravitate to it when it is done well and who understand its importance both historically and in the evolving cultural vernacular.
Regardless, a visual identity remains integral to any musician and album art is a key aspect of that. Canadian musicians have had the same task set before them as those from anywhere else in the world: how to present themselves visually in a manner that speaks to the music they make and connects with the viewer (or the consumer) in a lasting manner that engages them.
It is a unique creative symbiosis, an unspoken language, between the artist and the audience. What do giant owls and enigmatic pyramids have to do with anything? Everything. That’s why we’re still talking about them today.
Let us celebrate Canadian album art as part of the larger construct, where the artwork that represents the music we love lives on in our hearts and minds – an embodiment of the very things we cherish.
– – –
www.afternoonsinstereo.com takes you directly to the Urban Modernists / Afternoons In Stereo fan group on Facebook.
https://www.instagram.com/afternoons_in_stereo/ takes you to my Instagram page, which hosts a multitude of artwork by myself and others.