When Arik Moonhawk Roper got the call early last year from High on Fire drummer Des Kensel to create the cover for the band's fourth full-length, very little had to be said. Roper already had an extensive history with the Oakland-based riff titans after painting the covers for the 2001 reissue of their debut, The Art of Self-Defense, and 2004's Blessed Black Wings, not to mention numerous T-shirts and tour posters. In fact, Roper's history with High on Fire vocalist-guitarist Matt Pike goes back even further: Roper did two different covers for Jerusalem, the 52-minute swansong from Pike's previous band, Sleep (the initial bootleg release and the 2003 extended version, rechristened Dopesmoker).
"There was no specific direction given," Roper says of his artwork for Death Is This Communion, which was released on Relapse in September 2007. "Des just got in touch and said they needed some art for the new album. That's the usual procedure; they leave it up to me."
The band commissioned Roper just before entering Avast 2 Studios in Seattle to record the album with producer Jack Endino, so the artist was unable to hear any of the music before beginning his work. However, Pike did provide Roper with the lyrics to four songs: "Waste of Tiamat," "Fury Whip," "Rumors of War," and the title track.
"There's no shortage of visual ideas in those songs," the artist enthuses. "Based on these, I did a few sketch ideas. The title track has some H.P. Lovecraft–esque imagery in it about resurrecting old, terrible gods, so I did a scene of a sea creature being summoned from the depths of the ocean. We liked that one; it was a new theme for them, but ultimately [we] decided to go with this idea of a collage of 'death'-type imagery, which became the final."
Created in ink, croquil pen, and liquid watercolors, the nearly monochromatic piece features a pair of grim reaper figures and a winged demon surveying a death scene littered with bones and decay as carrion birds arrive to pick at the remaining flesh. The central figure—a sort of ancient warrior carrying a club and a sling of skulls—is a montage of well-known death personifications: a mummy, a skeleton, and a grim reaper. "He has a Mongolian feel, with the fur and gear," Roper offers. "The robed figure is more traditional-looking and represents some of the more 'occult' aspects. The winged creature in front is reminiscent of Blessed Black Wings. A lot of times these recurring themes just seep out without my consciously directing them.
"To me, it looks like a post-battle scene in the mountains, or maybe some afterlife world," he continues. "The word 'death' can mean many things—change, for example. The picture feels like part of a process of death and rebirth, the death stage leading to the transformation."
The finished painting took two weeks to complete and measures 24x12 inches, the size of an open gatefold LP. Roper was pleased with his latest contribution to the High on Fire canon. "I think the scope of the Death Is This Communion art is on track with the scope of the music," he says. "This album was musically more complex and epic than their older material—it's bigger, more involved and complex. Hopefully the art captures that aesthetic."