Since 1978 Steven Stapleton has explored the dark corners of avant-garde music with his project Nurse With Wound. Inspired, both musically and aesthetically, from avant-garde movements in the visual arts, Stapleton designs most of the project’s brilliant covers. We pick some of our favorites below.
Steven Stapleton’s musical credentials are unimpeachable. Without Nurse With Wound (and other bands like Throbbing Gristle) industrial music would either be nonexistent or spineless and unimaginative. It’s even questionable whether certain subgenres like dark ambient – or even techno – would resemble their current forms.
Nurse With Wound started with the seminal Chance Meeting on a Dissecting Table of a Sewing Machine and an Umbrella, and built a reputation for crafting minimalist sculptures populated with strange jazz-rock curves and eerie field recordings. Use of techniques such as repetition and dissonance, and exploration of themes like human angst, owe huge debts to musique concrete and krautrock. In the early 80s Stapleton began filling this canvas out, conjuring up grating rhythms and hallucinatory landscapes that culminated in 1988’s Soliloquy for Lilith – another masterpiece fusing electronic elements with Stapleton’s dungeon-like dissonance and ominous atmospheres.
Stapleton, though, is also a respected visual artist. Working across multiple mediums, he has designed accompanying artwork to the majority of NWW’s huge back catalogue and lent his artistic touch to the covers of fellow groups like Coil and Current 93 with the pseudonym Babs Santini. Stapleton’s unique skill is making aesthetics not just supplementary, but an essential part of his sound and indispensable to an understanding of NWW’s philosophy. Although mentioning the influence of surrealism and dada on his project’s principles, in four decades and across dozens of releases its artistic style has fluctuated as wildly as its music. Indeed, a NWW cover artwork is sometimes haunting, always brilliant, and usually completely different from the last. We’ve picked out a host of our favorite NWW album artworks to share with you:
This artwork comes from the cover of 1980’s Merzbild Schwet —Nurse With Wound’s third album. When the group first formed they released their first five LPs for the newly formed label United Dairies. The artworks for these LPs are stylistically similar, and perhaps come closest to completely defining NWW’s aesthetic. Merzbild Schwet’s is by far the least grisly, yet still the anatomy of a dissected human dominates the foreground. White skulls, headless bodies, and what appears to be a long religious procession litter the margins in a surrealist nightmare. Like the other four artworks, it explores dark themes of alienation, human suffering and eroticism–all in an industrial setting.
Five years (and eight albums) later comes The Sylvie And Babs Hi-Fi Companion. It’s one of NWW’s funniest works and features a drastic change in album artwork. Gone are the Dickensian workhouses and BDSM references: In its place stands what looks like a pair of crooners from 1950s popular music. You’d be forgiven for doing a double-take and questioning whether this is a NWW album at all – only subtle references like ‘astral dustbin dirge’ give the game away. Clearly, this is what Stapleton intended. Perhaps no other artwork better illustrates the NWW’s dark humor: The thought of a musical traditionalist finding this in a crate and receiving a rude shock was in mind.
Thunder Perfect Mind moves away from practical jokes and returns to tormented themes. This time, Stapleton re-contextualizes 20th century ballroom culture and gives it a mesmerizing, haunting spin. It sees Stapleton relying more on traditional painting techniques and motifs – twisting and mutilating each figure into a peculiarly happy zombie. Although very different stylistically, a similar theme presents itself: the inevitability—and absurdity—of both life and death. It also was one of the first cover artworks to introduce the color in NWW’s back catalogue, and helped usher in a period of heavy hue usage by Stapleton.
One of NWW’s most memorable and spectral covers, 1995’s Alice The Goon turned backwards again to darker shades, bolder lines, and raw human anguish. It might draw on similar themes as the United Dairies quintet, but it does so in completely different ways: Premeditated collages of symbols take a backseat, giving way to the ‘automatic drawing’ of surrealists like André Masson, Jean Arp and Salvador Dali – themselves influenced by the automatic literary techniques of André Breton and James Joyce. In Alice The Goon grotesque demons are haphazardly piled on top of each other, melting into a nightmarish mess with red eyes glowing like hot coals from the wreck.
An Awkward Pause was released in 1999, seeing Stapleton return back to his experimentations with color. This time though, the palette used is formed of rough and earthy tones. The surrealist ‘automatic drawing’ has been shelved and An Awkward Pause’s artwork gravitates more towards abstractionism. It is especially notable for what looks like Stapleton’s rare attempt to explore the beauty of the human body. Even in this, though, you can’t be certain (and if you can be, is that an open ribcage?) Like many of NWW’s covers, An Awkward Pause is open to multiple interpretations and no correct answer.
A 2001 collaboration with Czechoslovakian musician Aranos yielded this Jackson Pollock-esque work of abstract expressionism for its cover art. Raw and purposefully lofi, it features bold emerald green lines and arbitrary splashes which recall Stapleton’s earlier experiments with automatic drawing. Many of the lines have a purposeful, almost unnatural curve to them, and the entire work has been put through multiple image processing techniques to achieve a grainy feel.
Angry Eelectric Finger – Raw Material – Zero Mix came during Stapleton’s most intense period of color experimentation. Everything from neon-colored fish to crimson-red flayed figures floating in clouds received a look in. Some of these artworks were formless – psychedelic swirls of emotions and color – while others, such as this, contained clear figures. It came during a stage when NWW’s cover art was seemingly influenced by sub-Saharan artistic techniques and Indigenous Australian art forms: featuring lucid colors, hallucinatory trappings and dream-like structures.
The Bacteria Magnet saw NWW move back towards a more humorous take on their artwork. Stapleton returns back to his collaging techniques, juxtaposing a sumptuous, glowing woman against a no-mans-land of filth, chaos and confusion. Using this contrasting technique as an ironic tool to ridicule popular culture, he draws upon the history of Guy Debord and the avant-garde Situationists of the 50s and 60s. Behind the model, a headless figure of a beautiful woman stands strapped to all manner of industrial machineries, only withered trees and a greyscale sky for company.