Hearing Pictures: Working with Ben Levin Group

Ben Levin and I have been collaborating on visual work since about 2008. The bulk of this has been with Ben Levin Group, a progressive-music enterprise that brings tight, rigorous ensemble work to wildly diverse compositions.

Ben's thing is to create these hour-plus musical epics. To get an idea, take a second to dig into Ben Levin Group's Bandcamp page. (Invisible Paradise is a personal favorite) Some are created solo with multiple tracks, many are scored to be performed live with Ben Levin Group. They span pretty much every genre they can, and go in wildly different directions, but there have been two constants:

- There will be a story, whether or not you can hear it

- It will be about death


Now nobody can lay a particular claim on the idea of mortality, and none of us really have any authority on the subject. Processing the idea of our own eventual death is something everyone has to deal with, in private moments and in the times we gather to compare notes. Ben's stories don't offer anything new about it, they only explore the idea of death in small pieces. He's just another person doing the same thing we're all doing, but it is a gift to be allowed into his version of the process. 

In these stories, he takes bits of memories, experiences, and stories and uses them to poke and prod at the idea of death in a roundabout way. Storylines often draw from comics and movies: a rocket will carry the last of humanity off a dying planet, a voice on the radio announces that all humans only have 24 hours to live, an immortal reflects on his life. These over-the-top scenarios are safe testing grounds to process real-life events - the loss of a loved one, the aging of another, a first kiss. It's much easier to look at big scary ideas once you turn them into storybook monsters.

An early draft of Pulse of a Nation

The power comes not from the stories themselves but from the characters and feelings that come to life through the music. These are real feelings from real life, but placed in a new context that allows us all to look at them more comfortably. Movement 1 of Invisible Paradise uses a page from a girl's journal to introduce the death of her world and the birth of a new one. The lyrics give time for Courtney Swain's voice to build from fearful hope to grieving rage against the inevitable. The beauty of this method of storytelling is that it gives so much attention to the emotional riches of a story and so little to the details. It is pretty much impossible to tell what's happening in one of these (the first few were entirely instrumental, and lyrics have since found their way in), but if you can get a glimpse of the story the music becomes a journey unique to you.

The final cover

The final cover

This is sort of where I come in. We share a fascination with the intersection of music and images. Music comes from the realm of emotions, while images deal with pieces of the real world. Our collaborations act like opera playbills, giving the listener clues about the story of the piece without upstaging the music.

Album art stays minimal, with a focus on typography. Supplemental materials go deeper into the story and can be more literal.

The title Pulse of a Nation initially made me think of silent films, but after listening to the music I wanted something simultaneously older and more immediate, and pulled fonts from Thomas Payne's Common Sense.


This year, Ben asked me to design a cover for the upcoming album Freak Machine. The album follows a caricature of a sexually frustrated young man who has fired a pistol into his brain. The entire album takes place from the time the bullet enters his skull to the time it exits. The work is by turns crude and elegant, stooping to the man's level and then following him back out as he explores the madonna/whore paradox and the suffocating pettiness of the life he has built and imposed on others. 

Ben Levin Group covers have always been a chance to experiment with materials. For Pulse of a Nation it was revolutionary-war-era embroidery and prints. For Invisible Paradise it was children's toys and craft supplies. Some of my favorite details from Freak Machine were moments of partial clarity the character had, witnessing his body being discovered and packed away through the filter of his evaporating brain. These offered the materials for this album: plastic sheeting, a coroner's report, a powder burn.

I liked the idea of things being seen or half-seen through plastic sheeting. For type, I laid out the cover in pencil and traced it with wire, trying to be as clean as I could with the letters and letting loose with the underlying structure. These letters were then tacked to a plastic sheet with super glue. I put together a simple frame with corner bead and pointed a work light at them, and the piece was ready to photograph.

After watching the super glue interact with the light, I kept playing with the plastic. Fire, wax, dirt, and solvents all created different points of tension and texture in the surface.

Other panels drew from the upcoming music video.

Freak Machine drops Feb 10, 2015. Check out the rest of BLG's music at benlevingroup.com