Ultra-Obscure Musical Relics: Digi-Art Edition

While plundering for bizarre musical phenomena, I had the pleasure of discovering this wonderful list of “Wonders of Digi-Art,” as compiled by a prolific RateYourMusic user named strugatsky. That user, who has an affinity for weird and wonderful cover art as well as esoteric strains of doom and black metal, has put together a fascinating list of deeply obscure records with charming covers featuring the latest & greatest in cutting-edge graphics software, to wit:

What makes this list especially gripping is how profoundly obscure it all us. It’s a fiesta of whimsical cover art, with not a familiar name in sight. Self-releases, micro-label treasures, and pop chart near-misses are all featured, each treasure decorated with garish Photoshop effects. In most cases, scant information survives online about these magical records.

Below are some highlights of the very first part of the alphabetical list — spanning numbers and the letter A — complete with the stories behind the music, as far as I can recover them from the ever-diminishing annals of history.

4 Tune Fairytales – Fantasies (1997)

A half-smile superimposed on a virtual sandscape: what’s not to like? And yet the public at large could easily have never seen this beautiful image, since Fantasies was never actually released.

The dance group 4 Tune Fairytales emerged from Amsterdam in 1996 with a debut single called “My Little Fantasy.” It became a real hit in the Netherlands, reaching number 17 on their local top 40 chart. It even had its own music video, a charmingly low-budget digi-art time capsule in itself:

The group emerged from the then-booming happy hardcore scene, a splinter of the Dutch gabber scene. Both gabber and happy hardcore were pushing dance music tempos to previously unmatched highs, but while gabber was dark and menacing, happy hardcore was defined by its peppy melodies and relentless jubilance. The group was fronted by singer Lilian Van Sonsbeek; the line-up was filled out by a rapper and two dancers. Following “My Little Fantasy,” they released two further singles, “Take Me 2 Wonderland” and “Ding-A-Dong,” the latter a remake of the Netherlands’ winning Eurovision entry, “Ding dinge dong.” Neither song so much as grazed the Dutch music charts, which is how their debut album found its way into utter obscurity.

The Fantasies album was produced, recorded, and, according to a YouTube comment apparently authored by group member Richard Van Enteren, it was scheduled to come out on ID&T, one of the major gabber labels in the Netherlands at the time. However, Van Sonsbeek et al. were unhappy with the quality of the many remixes that the label was planning to include on the disc, reportedly without their knowledge. Therefore, they demanded the label pull the plug on the CD. According to a comment attributed to Van Sonsbeek, only a handful of promotional copies and copies for the group were ever produced. Copies of these scant few CDs have subsequently sold for over one hundred dollars apiece to desperate collectors, with discs only emerging sporadically (the last Discogs sale occurred in 2015, and none are currently on offer).

Fantasies itself is a fun albeit repetitious listen. It has seven real songs on it, plus an intro and six remixes of said songs. A lowlight is a dismal cover of Sonny & Cher’s “I Got You Babe.” A highlight is the A.K. Jungle Remix of “Melody of Love”:

The cover art on this record is attributed to Victor Feenstra, a prolific Dutch visual artist known for producing artwork for the Thunderdome franchise of gabber parties and CD compilations. Feenstra recently compiled much of his cover and flyer art into a book, despite the fact that many of the originals were lost when a shaving mirror sitting underneath a window in his mother’s attic magnified sunlight onto his files, incinerating the entire archive!

Aastyra – Aastral Projections (2007)

The black metal scene in the Northern Ontario city of Sudbury is quite the tangle, and this one-off side project may be the strangest offering to emerge from the area. Aastyra was primarily the work of Darren Favot, who also went by the stage name Fraust. His main project at the time was the band Wolven Ancestry, a melodic black metal band whose other member, Lord Defiler, now produces documentaries about conspiracy theories.

Aastral Projections is noteworthy not just because of its cover, nor the abundance of the letter ‘A’ — it is also a peculiar pastiche of epic black metal, ambient music, and Hawkwind-esque space- and prog-rock. The best moment is the nine-minute ambient epic, “Wanderer of the Post-Apocalypse”:

Details about Aastral Projections are hard to come by. In interviews, Favot hasn’t seemed discuss the record much, and it appears to be a largely forgotten artifact of Sudbury’s extreme metal scene. Favot is now better known for his part in two different bands. He uses the name “The Bard” for the doom/black metal band Finnr’s Cane, which has been their scene’s most successful export, signed to the German label Prophecy Productions and distributed internationally. Their trademark is heavy use of cello:

Favot also participates in an experimental black metal band named Fractal Generator, where each member is referred to by a sequence of numbers. (Favot is assigned the integer 040118180514.) They, too, are no strangers to the wonders of digi-art:

Aereda – From A Long Forgotten Future (2000)

Look at that cover! Evocative of the Myst computer game series and the works of other cyber-new-age acts, this disc sounds exactly as you expect it to. The File Under Jurassic Rock guide to progressive rock considers it “probably a cash-in project after the success of ‘Adiemus’ and Enigma, blending Gregorian chants, new age, dance and ethnic elements.” You be the judge:

Aereda was a Dutch music project organized by a producer named Martin Scheffer, a founding member of a progressive rock group named Taurus, for which he played guitar. Despite a debut single released by Mercury, mainstream success eluded them, perhaps because their music already sounded dated by the time their debut album, Illusions Of A Night, surfaced in 1981:

Scheffer has proven a versatile studio producer. His 1997 debut under the name Aereda was a modest success (number 55 on the Dutch album charts), likely because it doubled as the official soundtrack to a popular television production at the time, a documentary about the Netherlands’ expedition to the North Pole. That record, The Arctic (The Journey Begins), also features a swell cover:

From a Long Forgotten Future, which wasn’t tied to a television production, managed to reach number 63 on the album chart. It was produced by Dan Lacksman, a Belgian producer who was previously a member of the legendary group Telex. Telex were noteworthy for their embrace of the experimental end of synth-pop; in 1980, they were selected by Belgium to record a song for Eurovision and, reportedly with the goal of finishing dead last, they submitted the ironic single “Euro-Vision” which was performed deadpan with deliberately banal lyrics. (It came in third to last).

From A Long Forgotten Future, in true Y2K spirit, came accompanied with enhanced content, including a screensaver and a digital menu. In a Dan Brown-esque move that matches the cover art’s aesthetic to a tee, one of the album’s tracks is based on the manuscripts of Thomas Aquinas. And the front cover is just the tip of the iceberg — everything else about this record’s design is magnificent:

From prog guitarist to new age programmer, Martin Scheffer has proven himself a versatile producer. Through his studio, MBS-Moebius Studio, he architected a number of albums at the turn of the millennium. He created a CD trilogy, The Ambient World, which is more trite new-agey chillout music, each disc themed to a different continent. The seemingly unironic Mysteries of Africa wields an on-theme inattention to linguistic detail, its tracks including “Savanah [sic] Song,” “Serengetti [sic] Sunrise,” and “Wilderbeest [sic] Stampede.” The latter one is all the more perplexing, given that the word “wildebeest” is of Dutch origin.

The “Mysteries of [continent]” series has been repackaged wholesale in a number of forms. Mysteries of Africa and Mysteries of Asia were both put out, the same year, under the auspices of a different series: World Flavours. (Which seems to better capture the spirit of cultural appropriation.) Therein, the music is attributed not to Scheffer but instead the ethnic-sounding K’Zula. In a great bit of postmodernism, the music is still pinging around, divorced from its origins — in 2019, a faceless label named “Master Street” licensed the entire album, this time attributing it to the artist Dogo Jelani and coining the mouthful title, From the African Savannah to Kilimanjaro – A Mystical Musical Odysee. The cover art appears to be a rather refined bit of digi-art: a synthesized valleyscape, perhaps royalty-free, which has been repurposed widely:

But Scheffer was not satisfied with Mystical new age schmaltz nor by-the-continent appropriation. The following year, he is credited with two CDs using the moniker Chevy Martin. This time the aesthetic is early-aughts wine bar music. Indeed, the records, generically titled Just Lounge and Classic Lounge, sound fresh from an Absolut ad. I am partial to the smooth “Everybody Dance,” which manages an uncanny valley-esque surrealism. First of all, despite its title, its languid tempo leaves one to wonder: who on Earth would dance to this? And it is somehow both generic and exquisitely askew — it (and many songs on this record) sound like they could be from the soundtrack to Lost Highway.

Ambient Theology – Self-titled (1996)

Perhaps the finest work on this list, this one-off project was the work of Stefan Nelson and Greg Young, better known as the electronic act Virus. Ambient Theology was named to be distinct from Virus, with the focus on soundscapery rather than beat-driven techno. Befitting the name, this is a vaguely Christian release, released on a Christian dance label named N*Soul. Being an instrumental record, however, there is nothing explicitly religious about the music itself, as far as I can divine. It is a charming ambient journey, all synthesizers and sound effects. Young has generously made the record freely available on archive.org.

The N*Soul label was an interesting story itself. A Christian dance label started by an early Christian DJ named Scott Blackwell, it featured a variety of different artists producing different varieties of dance music, in many cases UK artists licensed to the US. Manchester’s Preacha produced exuberant house anthems fueled by Christian messages. Faith Massive were an LTJ Bukem-style liquid funk act with an apostolic twist. Nitro Praise was the label’s roster performing electronic covers of worship songs. N*Soul’s goal was to break these acts to the secular market although that never ended up happening. Instead, Blackwell handed over the label at the turn of the millennium. Thereafter, it has been claimed (on Greg Young’s website and on the N*Soul Discogs entry) that the label eventually started selling CD-R versions of their catalogue without compensating the artists.

ARZ – The Magi (2005)

ARZ started as the solo project of Portland, Oregonian guitarist Steve Adams. It was originally to be named ARS (an acronym consisting of his and his brother Robert’s initials), but Adams tweaked it because he thought it was too close to the British term, arse. (I am not making this up.) The Magi is an instrumental prog concept album, meant, according to Adams, “to capture a state of mind or ‘feeling'” as well as to tell “tales of ancient mythos and future worlds.”

Ultimately, this one-man production is a skillful lesson in the art of overdubbing, the centrepiece being the one-two punch of “Ur” and “The Magi,” together encompassing nearly 40 minutes. I believe the cover art is meant to depict two magi summoning a spirit through music; the album itself captures that vibe acceptably.

ARZ continues today, having picked up a second member, Merrill Hale, in 2007. (The two met while playing in a local Yes tribute act.) They continue to churn out excellent cover art:

Aska Temple – Hosanna (2001)

This CD-R release is such a deep cut it hasn’t made it onto Discogs. (As a result, only a low-res image exists). A krautrock-obsessed Japanese guitarist named Muneharu Yuba adopts the stage name John Übel, “assembling” the one-man band Aska Temple as an obvious reference to Ash Ra Tempel. The record has been scrubbed from the internet, but a contemporary review salvaged from an archived version of Yuba’s old website (he died in 2012 at the age of 46, sadly) records that this was exclusively composed of overdubbed synthesizers. Elsewhere, it is described as resembling early Popol Vuh.

Not too much is recorded of Yuba’s life, although his website references time spent in psychiatric institutions and an enthusiasm for big ideas. From his website, he describes taking inspiration for his 2003 A Night By The Pavane album from multiple sources:

“I read BIBLE in the isolated room of mental hospital.After I went out hospital,I covered
VIVALDI,RAVEL,BARBER,CHOPIN,BALTOK,by electric guitar.and I read all through
CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON of KANT in English,Les miserables2,HUGO,SADE,

Befitting the orgy of influences, much of his work evokes a whimsical “psychedelia overdrive” mentality:

The cover of Hossana, meanwhile, uses the central figure from Maxfield Parrish’s painting, “Ecstasy,” but suspends it in the sky underneath WordArt-y typography. It’s a good look.

Yuba’s sprawling discography, which includes at least 24 minimally-archived CD-Rs on his Nicht Records label, may be due for a thorough appraisal and perhaps a Numero Group boxset re-release.

Astralasia – Whatever Happened To Utopia (1994)

There are more obscure titles on this list, but this record stands out for its amazing nineties digi-art cover as well as its overall quality. The British act Astralasia started off life in the late eighties as a side project of a psychedelic pop concern named The Magic Mushroom Band, which had been around since 1982. The principal sound architect was a keyboardist who went by the name Swordfish; he conceptualized Astralasia as an outlet for exploring longer-form dub and electronic music. From their 1990 self-titled debut, Astralasia’s ebbing-and-flowing, synthesizer-led music garnered a cult following which would see them overlapping with the growing electronic scene in the UK — though, being journeyman psychedelic artists, they were coming from a bit of a different place than many electronic producers popular at the time. Astralasia’s progressive, build-and-release sound is sometimes considered a progenitor to trance music, and this album represents the start of their golden era. The key referents are ambient and dub, this record having surfaced in the thick of the early- to mid-90s chillout fever, just a few years after The KLF’s Chill Out.

Atlantic Ocean – Waterfall (1994)

This cover is a true beauty, capturing the Nintendo 64 aesthetic to a tee. It is the third Dutch release on this list, in this case the lone album by trance duo Atlantic Ocean: two synth wizards who had a major European dance hit with the album’s title track — something like an EZ-listening take on 808 State’s “Pacific State”:

Atlantic Ocean were Lex van Coeverden and Rene van der Weyde, the latter of whom had a few years earlier released a Dutch club hit, “Deep Inside Of Me,” under the pseudonym TFX. Yet when they came together to record “Waterfall,” it was success on a whole other level. The single reached number two on the Dutch Top 40, even though it had originally been conceived as a B-side.

Following “Waterfall,” each subsequent follow-up single was less successful than the last — though their music videos are quintessential-nineties treasures. “Body In Motion,” their second-biggest hit, is correctly described by one YouTube commenter as “Waterfall” with vocals. These come courtesy of the Surinamese-Dutch singer Farida Merville, who previously was featured in the house/techno act Quazar.

Despite its awkward name, the third single, “Music Is A Passion” may have been their finest work:

The Waterfall album collected these three core singles alongside a pile of filler with generic titles like “On A Journey,” “Move Baby,” and “Beach Party.” Somehow, it is over 70 minutes long.

The cover art for Waterfall was done by Ben Liebrand, a Dutch DJ who had success in the eighties and trained himself to create 3D art after his music stopped paying the bills. His futuristic renderings adorn many a dance record in the mid-90s period, where he seems to have been the in-house graphic designer for the Arcade label. The golden-dolphins motif even recurs:

Better still, a latter-era 1999 Atlantic Ocean single named “Trance-Atlantis” features a Ben Liebrand produced 3D music video, which was contained on the maxi-single CD version as a bit of enhanced content. The terminally bland song didn’t make the slightest indentation on the national pop charts, but the magnificence of its video lives on, dolphins and all, not unlike an underwater level from Super Mario 64:

α:Vout – Trick Theater

“Visual kei” refers to a fashion aesthetic among Japanese musicians in which they adopt an androgynous, flamboyant look inspired by seventies glam-rock. Popular in the eighties and nineties among Japanese hard rock bands like X Japan and D’erlanger, the style was revived in the 2000s on the country’s indie circuit, leading to a booming subculture that propagated on the Livejournal underground.

α:Vout were one of the more obscure exponents of this neo-visual kei scene, a squad of youngsters playing glammy, polished rock as evidenced on this song from Trick Theater:

In this archived interview, they provide largely banal answers to largely banal questions (“If you were to compare yourself to an animal, what animal would you say you were? Please tell us why.”) Yet one member reveals the goal was to create a band similar to Hanoi Rocks, which, I suppose, is as good a goal as any for a gang of youths.

Awenson – Saphonic (2007)

Saphonic was originally a self-released CD-R issued by an obscure synth wizard named Joël Bernard. In this case, the music matches the cover art quite well — not so much in terms of the absurd golden nude, but rather the spacey landscape projected behind her.

Bernard is a disciple of the Berlin School, an extension of seventies kraut-rock that was more about amorphous electronics than rhythm. In a French interview, he describes discovering Pink Floyd as a teenager, then hearing the electronics-forward music of Klaus Schulze, Tangerine Dream, and Kraftwerk at age 15. Yet it was only at age 30 that he purchased his first synthesizer. After releasing his first CD, Shadows, in 2005 (then recording under the name Awen), he expanded his name to Awenson and put out Saphonic. This record is a true treat, perfectly suited to the mid-2000s drone/space-electronics boom heralded by the likes of Emeralds and Oneohtrix Point Never. Hear for yourself in this brief gem, pulled from a 2012 reissue of the album by the French label Dreaming:

Thus concludes our tour of the highlights of the Wonders of Digi-Art list, up until the end of the letter A. The list is so sprawling that nearly every letter of the alphabet could spawn its own article, telling the esoteric stories behind these many exquisitely designed releases. (Though I can assure you it would be overwhelmingly heavy in progressive-rock and neo-AOR content.)

Stay tuned for the next chapter.