If you’re a Rush fan, you know Hugh Syme and his dynamic covers for the iconic prog-rock band. But there are many more memorable images that Syme has created that you might not realize are his. He has had a long-term relationship with Dream Theater that has lasted nearly 20 years. His work has graced covers by Bon Jovi, Whitesnake, Stone Sour, Megadeth, Kick Axe, and dozens more. He is an art director and cover artist who paints and does photography, and usually, all of those disciplines unite on a project.
“I started as someone who drew incessantly as a kid and well into my career,” Syme tells Discogs. “I still do – pencil mostly, being a huge fan of M.C. Escher. I began painting at around 12.”
Photo composites became more prevalent in his cover designs once he discovered the work of English art design group Hipgnosis. Although he worked with outside photographers earlier in his career, Syme says he has always done everything himself – the cover concept, design, painting, traditional photo-retouching — then later integrated modern digital tools later like Photoshop, Z-Brush, Blender, and Painter.
Syme’s inspiration for his album art can range from an immediate reaction to a more nuanced conversation. Or sometimes both, as when he and the late Neil Peart discussed the cover for Rush’s Vapor Trails.
“He said, ‘In the whole scheme of things, we sparkle, we fade, life is fleeting,’ and of course, I knew where that comment was coming from at the time,” elaborates Syme. “He was thinking the comet and the tail of the comet.” Peart found a NASA image he liked, but Syme pushed for something different. He sent a small, painted, acrylic-on-board piece he did in a few hours, and he adds that “the horizontal extension to the left, and the addition of the dragon, were painted later.” That was it.
Some of Syme’s painted covers look like photos, including the dream-like cover for Rush’s Power Windows. His photography skills aid in his painted work, but at first, it was not something that he considered.
“I just came to a point in the ’80s where both my record work and my commercial work was becoming overwhelming, working as a traditional painter,” says Syme. “I did seven of those Joe Camel campaign illustrations. Those paintings took six weeks to do, using triple-zero brushes to paint every hair on Joe’s face. Rendering a can of beer, you’re just going in there to tickle out all the beads of condensation on a can — that’s a ton of work.”
To this day, Rush wouldn’t be my first choice, and probably wouldn’t be amongst those five albums I took to a desert island right now, but I remember thinking, “They’re not Genesis or Supertramp, but I’ll do a cover for them” … Not having a clue where this was all headed. Well, not only that, but a wonderful and loyal friendship.
Syme was a big fan of Salvador Dali growing up, and a good friend of his met Dali at his Port Lligat studio and returned with stories “about Dali’s floor being strewn with reference photos,” he recalls. “I then resolved that there’s no shame in utilizing photo reference. The same with the camera obscura approach of Dutch painters like Vermeer and his peers. They would set up a grid in the foreground just to make sure that their rendering was true to what they were looking at. I did the same thing when I painted [Rush’s] Power Windows. A lot of people don’t know that’s a painting because I worked from several images. I found the room, found the guy, and found TV, then painted the final as acrylic on canvas.”
Like many great stories of artistic triumph, Syme’s begins with a modest background. He was born in the small paper mill town Cornwall, Ontario, and spent seven and a half years there. His family moved to St. Catherine’s near Niagara on-the-Lake for two and a half more years before his father was asked to oversee the expansions of the pulp and paper company Domtar Howard Smith in Sunderland, England. Syme went through high school there in a Harry Potter-like institution with black-robed teachers. (He got caned twice.)
“They were some of the best years of my life,” recalls Syme fondly of the era of the British Invasion. “Radio Caroline was in full swing at the time so that was our radio of choice. I loved the bands of the ’60s and loved being able to watch on TV live programs like Ready Steady Go, which would feature The Beatles, the Kinks, the Dave Clark Five, the Stones, and The Who. While I was kind of homesick for a bit, I took some comfort when I discovered The Mamas and Papas, Lovin’ Spoonful, and the Beach Boys.”
Upon his return from England around 1969, Syme attended The New School of Art in Toronto. He then played piano on a small recording session for folk duo Crawford and Wickham, the producer of which was “incredibly gifted singer and songwriter” Ian Thomas, whose hits included “Painted Ladies.” He asked Syme to join his band. So the budding artist played keyboards and sang for Thomas’ harmony between 1974 and 1981.
Syme enjoyed the learning curve and was flattered to be touring with Thomas’ band. “We toured with the Beach Boys for three weeks, and we were a five-part harmony band that had a similarly tight live show,” says Syme. “We even did a Beach Boys set on club dates, but we knew better than to do that as the opening act with the Beach Boys because frankly, our ‘Good Vibrations’ was much better than theirs. I really enjoyed that time. We shared management and record label with Rush, which is how I met those guys.”
The first three bands that Syme started doing covers for were Rush, Ian Thomas, and Max Webster, whose guitarist, Kim Mitchell, he calls “a wonderful guitar player and great singer-songwriter.” All three bands toured across Canada in the mid-1970s, and one day Rush manager Ray Danniels asked Syme if he wanted to do an album cover for them. That ended up being their 1975 album Caress Of Steel which featured photography from Terrance Bert, Gerard Gentil, and Barry McVicker.
“To this day, Rush wouldn’t be my first choice, and probably wouldn’t be amongst those five albums I took to a desert island right now, but I remember thinking, ‘They’re not Genesis or Supertramp, but I’ll do a cover for them’,” admits Syme. “Not having a clue where this was all headed. Well, not only that, but a wonderful and loyal friendship.”
It even landed him the chance to play the opening synth overture for Rush’s iconic 2112 album and Mellotron on the track “Tears.” Such opportunities arose at a time when people had more in-person meetings and connected that way. “Those don’t exist the same way anymore because it’s all faceless JPEGs, uploads, and phone calls,” Syme says. He also created the famed Starman logo after a conversation with Peart about the collectivist mentality of the Red Star of the Solar Federation from the album’s story.
The Canadian artist has designed or created every Rush cover since 1975 with the exception of Snakes and Arrows, which featured a Harish Johari painting that Peart liked. Syme calls it a “harrumph moment,” but he was still art director for the album and contributed doing unique art for the CD booklet. Looking back, he feels spoiled. “Neil had the best titles,” declares Syme. “Very few bands had those beautiful and evocative turns of phrase. But mostly it was down to me.”
His collaboration with Rush has led to Syme winning five Juno Awards (the Canadian equivalents of the Grammy) for his album covers. That association led to him later working with American prog-metal icons Dream Theater. His favorite covers for them include Octavarium, Black Clouds & Silver Linings, A Dramatic Turn Of Events, and, in particular, Distance Over Time.
There have been times that the artist has not wanted or needed to hear music for a project if he already liked the album title. “Sometimes I would endeavor to do something that was completely unexpected, as we often did all through Rush’s career – dogs and fire hydrants, nuts and bolts,” says Syme. “We would strive to deviate from norms, which was, perhaps on some levels, just indulgent without regard to the prevalent cliches of rock music. I still get calls from prog bands in Germany and places like that saying, ‘We love wizards and we love demons and we love castles.’ So, I may not be your guy, you know. Much of that stuff is beautifully rendered, and it’s stuff that I could certainly do. I just didn’t want to make a career out of that.”
Syme says he has a different take on whimsy and what he calls “improbable reality.”
“Even the unsettling image of the Iron Maiden X-Factor cover that I ended up producing, though it was to the consternation of many of their fans, it was also well received by many too,” notes Syme. “It was really great to hang out with those guys in London for almost three weeks [in 1995] and learn how to really drink. It was an extraordinary time.”
You had to be cautious at the reduced size of a CD booklet … I’m so grateful for the resurgence of vinyl now. With bands like Dream Theater and Rush, not only do we get to do the vinyl gatefold, [but I’ve also] convinced them all to do square full-size 12-inch books. If we’re going to do a CD booklet — if I’m going to take the time to do art for a 28-page CD booklet — let’s do the same with an LP book. And thankfully, they all said, “What a great idea.”
Another Syme tactic that has worked well is what is called “breaking the frame” in the design world, such as the woman’s skirt blowing into the black margin on the cover of Rush’s Permanent Waves or the man whose footsteps fall outside of the circular image on Klaatu’s album Sir Army Suit.
“That was back when you could afford to waste some real estate with having such a large canvas as a record jacket,” recalls Syme. “Pretty quickly thereafter [with CDs], you had to be cautious at the reduced size of a CD booklet; you didn’t dare do a frame that would accommodate that design device because the frame we all had available was a mere 3/8-inch to 1/2-inch, and then you’re encroaching on your live area. Your diminutive, remaining live area that became the CD booklet cover. I’m so grateful for the resurgence of vinyl now. With bands like Dream Theater and Rush, not only do we get to do the vinyl gatefold, [but I’ve also] convinced them all to do square full-size 12-inch books. If we’re going to do a CD booklet — if I’m going to take the time to do art for a 28-page CD booklet — let’s do the same with an LP book. And thankfully, they all said, ‘What a great idea.’”
One of Syme’s most indelible images graces the cover of Youthanasia by Megadeth, and he says that was a moment when the tail wags the dog. For a decade prior to the album’s release, the artist had wanted to create an image with “some weird old lady hanging babies from the clothesline.” When he met with the band in Arizona about the album cover, he had two other concepts that he felt were not as good. Then he told Dave Mustaine and company how he was intrigued by the spelling of Youthanasia. For him, it changed the meaning of the word, and he offered, “Is this like we as the caretakers of the world, and the parents and the grandparents of our children and grandchildren, are we trashing the planet so much that we’re actually hanging our kids out to dry?”
The band loved his idea and interpretation of the title.
“Mustaine’s first reaction was, ‘You’re sick’,” reveals Syme. “I said, ‘But good sick, right?’ He said, ‘Yeah, that’s a great idea.’ I did all the necessary photography. By the way, the fourth baby to the left is my daughter. I would do the work and would assemble all the imagery and make it feel like one cohesive, improbable moment of reality. That’s one of the things that people have often said about my work. It looks like improbable reality because my hope is that something about my work looks oddly possible, looks feasible, despite being highly unlikely. So I coined that phrase long ago.”
Sometimes there are jobs where everything changes and one must learn to adjust to the circumstances. Megadeth’s Cryptic Writings was one such album. The original title was Needles and Pins, and Syme was immediately inspired to do a Voodoo motif. So he journeyed to New Orleans and met with Chicken Man, a self-taught shaman and one of the better-known Voodoo priests.
“Dimo Safari and I captured lots of photography and went into the different stores and the boutique stores and met with some very remarkable people,” explains Syme. “I did some really amazing images of very private collections of voodoo artifacts. And it was going to make a very interesting album and CD book. We cast this girl who’s from Brazil, and the money we spent on her was extraordinary. Then I did a painting that’s on my website. You see her with this rag doll, which was a voodoo doll that I bought in New Orleans. I bought some hat pins, and I lit her so I could paint her portrait for the cover. It was actually a good watercolor painting, and I loved the outcome.”
After spending a huge budget and four or five days down in the Big Easy, Syme learned that Mustaine had changed the name of the album to Cryptic Writings and just wanted symbolism on the cover.
“When I started to hear that, I was deflated, disappointed, and challenged by the fact that it was a bit of another ‘harrumph’ moment,” says Syme. “All right, whatever. So I started looking into those unique chalk markings that hobos leave for each other. ‘Don’t go near this house, there’s a dog.’ ‘This household will serve you food.’ They have these little markings to communicate with each other. And I found that to be an interesting graphic device.”
The artist did some research, and Mustaine liked the idea. “We salvaged it by making something really surprisingly graphic,” says Syme. “For a Megadeth cover, it was certainly a departure from our previous two. It wasn’t something we had endeavored to do before where we featured slightly unsettling, if not whimsical images, so this new cover direction was a challenge.”
Syme had dealt with change before. The original concept for Signals was to have each Rush member represented by either their own EEG or EKG readings recorded during a certain measure in a song while playing in the studio.
“Coincidentally, The Police’s Synchronicity came out and there were three strokes of color across the front of their cover, representing the three members of The Police,” recollects Syme. “That robbed our fire so we abandoned the idea. Then suddenly, thinking signals, dogs, subdivisions, I eventually saw the green suburban lawns and fire hydrants, and I decided to be more graphic about the whole thing. Ray Danniels was in my studio when I told him about my cover idea, and he stormed out saying, ‘I don’t know what the fuck this has to do with rock and roll.’ He was quite upset. But later that year, my cover was featured on a full page in the third volume of Storm Thorgerson’s The Ultimate Album Cover Album book.”
Up until Rush’s 1991 album Roll The Bones, Syme had worked regularly with other photographers on various projects, such as Deborah Samuels with her striking images for Rush’s Moving Pictures, Signals, and Exit…Stage Left. Signals was entirely done in-camera using available light on a rooftop. Then he became more selective, tackling most of the photo work himself. However, Tony Frederickson shot the babies for Youthanasia (Syme wanted them lit really well), the sculpture on Rush’s Test For Echo, and Eddie on the torture table for Iron Maiden’s X-Factor.
Photographer John Scarpati worked with Syme by allowing him to create sets in his studio on a few projects, including Roll The Bones. For that cover, Syme built the sidewalk set full-scale and created “water” in a frame with sandbags and lumber. “I built the wall out of dice in miniature, and then slid that into the final piece,” he adds. “That was a hybrid of me photographing the dice and me using John’s studio. He was instrumental in quite a few covers that we worked on together.”
Beyond music, Syme has ventured into pharma, advertising, and book assignments. For example, he worked on an ad for Forteo, a drug for late sexagenarians and early septuagenarians “whose core of their bone became osteo fragile,” explains Syme. “So I had to illustrate a set of stairs that went from the fragile, brittle state and morphed into a more robust state that was more dense-looking as they ascended. I had to actually illustrate that bone-stair element. The national drug campaigns have seemingly limitless budgets. So, while it’s not completely free and a blank canvas for me like it is in the album art realm, it’s gratifying work.”
But some advertising gigs allow him to think as he would while creating album covers, like his Rebel IPA campaign for Sam Adams. “They wanted to have some rebellious kind of quasi-graffiti vandalism, and then somebody running away,” says Syme. “So I worked it up to where there would be rags and paint cans and somebody was running from the police down the alleyway.” He says he has some freedom, and but also having two daughters still at university has taught him, at certain times, “how to shut up and just do the work.”
From the first time Hugh and I met, we shared a level of communication that would sustain us through all the years of discussing art by long-distance – sometimes over the telephone from some recording studio in Wales or the Caribbean, and later by fax and email. We had the same values and tastes in images and design, and simply spoke the same language. – Neal Peart in The Art of Rush
Syme spent a period of four years working on covers for a series of action-adventure novels. He notes that it might seem like grunt work to some, but he enjoyed a reliable gig of doing two per month at a rate of $5,000 each. “I did get occasional projects like that, magazines and books,” he recalls. “Books are sporadic and fun to work on but usually don’t pay well. But they’re always challenging. I am generally called on for my style and approach to image solving.”
During the ’80s, Syme’s art adventures took him to Los Angeles and New York City, where he lived for a couple of years in a friend’s sublet loft. Next, he spent an “unscheduled” 16 years in Los Angeles, originally meant to be a six-week stay, then journeyed to Indiana for 7seven more years before returning to Toronto. During that time, he worked on many famous covers, including Whitesnake’s multi-platinum self-titled album, Bon Jovi’s New Jersey, Celine Dion’s Unison, Aerosmith’s Get A Grip, and Warrant’s Cherry Pie.
While Syme spent nearly 15 years since the start of the 21st century working at his Toronto studio, a change of mind took place. He would occasionally visit the house he built for his daughters in the Indianapolis area. Sometimes three weeks turned into three months; at one time, nine months. He did all of Clockwork Angels on his Macbook Pro. He did preliminary work on his Art Of Rush book for a month in Boracay, an island in the Philippines.
“I would look up for my laptop and see the Pacific Ocean and think, ‘Wow, I could get used to this’,” he recalls. “ Just as I would look up at our family house in Indiana and see cornfields. And I realized that it didn’t matter what my view was. So nine months ago I just loaded up a truck and moved from Toronto to Indiana. I just broke ground on a house that I will build for the price of a driveway in Toronto.”
Once pandemic restrictions have eased up, he is hoping to mount a planned exhibition at an art gallery as well. His work was previously showcased at the Renditions Fine Art Gallery in Indianapolis last fall.
After all these years, Syme feels like he has been extraordinarily lucky and feels that those who find themselves with such opportunities be prepared to work hard and be passionate and committed. In the early stages of his career, he spent more than he earned.
“I didn’t make enough money on Moving Pictures to make a profit,” admits Syme. “I wanted that cover to look so world class that I probably spent my whole budget by the time I was done with that situation. So I tell students to be committed. The unknown quotient is luck. Being in a band on the same label as Rush that led to me doing covers for them, that, in turn led to me being called by other bands and artists. Snowballing as I evolved.”
In his introduction to Syme’s book, The Art of Rush: Serving a Life Sentence, the late Neil Peart wrote, “From the first time Hugh and I met, we shared a level of communication that would sustain us through all the years of discussing art by long-distance – sometimes over the telephone from some recording studio in Wales or the Caribbean, and later by fax and email. We had the same values and tastes in images and design, and simply spoke the same language.”
On top of all the work he has done for other people, Syme has served a “life sentence” as Peart and Rush’s art designer. It looks like things turned out all right.
Gallery photos courtesy of Hugh Syme.
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