Cloud swabs white on grey overcast skirt the deck at a steady gait
The Inalienable Dreamless not only revolutionized how grindcore would sound and what subjects were acceptable lyrical fodder, it also radically altered the visual lexicon of album packaging. It challenged audience expectations of what the genre could do artistically. From the art to the fonts to the packaging, The Inalienable Dreamless is the story of every element of an album contributing to a total listener experience that is idiosyncratic and unique.
More than being a gimmick, the DVD packaging was a crucial element in vocalist Jon Chang’s effort to present the album as an intensely personal experience. Building on the cathartic lyrics, the packaging was meant to mimic the experience of reading someone’s diary, getting a furtive peek into another person’s interior life.
“A lot of my writing in general was coming from I didn’t understand people and how to relate to them. The Inalienable Dreamless and having all the dead leaves inside, I wanted it to look like a journal,” Chang said. “I wanted it to look really personal. That’s part of the reason I wanted the DVD format. I just don’t like the aspect ratio of CDs. I just wanted something more evocative, more cinematic if you will.”
The striking seascape artwork and use of unique or hand-lettered fonts was also a deliberate break from prior grindcore albums, including Discordance Axis’ own. For The Inalienable Dreamless, Chang said he was determined to create something that would stand out on a record store shelf. The Inalienable Dreamless’ packaging came devoid of anything – including song titles – that would hint at its contents. There was only the cryptic pronouncement on the back cover, "I will live forever. Alone." The iconic ocean horizon photo – taken outside of the Sea Bright, New Jersey, beach house where drummer Dave Witte was living at the time – defied every punk, metal and grindcore convention. There were no black and white photos of dead bodies, no grisly gore, no repurposed political trappings. The Inalienable Dreamless, visually, immediately jumped out when placed next to contemporary albums. Inside, the hand-lettered lyric sheet and autumnal-themed artwork also contributed to that scrapbook feel.
“Enough of the dark imagery. The music is going to sell that,” Chang said. “On the cover I want to show this horizon. Something that’s open and hopeful, but inside here’s the reality. That’s why the back says ‘I will live forever.’ Then, ‘Alone.’ ”
Photographer Scott Kinkade, whose work has appeared in Decibel magazine and who shot both GridLink album covers, met Chang at a Philadelphia show in 1996. Kinkade said the singer is "deep rooted and methodical" as a visual artist, careful to tie his lyrics to anchor his artwork in his musical metaphors to create a cohesive artistic package. The Inalienable Dreamless is "the 'art' record to me," Kinkade said.
"The artwork is the perfect contrast of visual elements to the music Discordance Axis created," Kinkade said. "The vastness of a never-ending sky, which at one time, the cover image was going to have a human element involved but was nixed. The text 'I will live forever. Alone.' Quite chilling, but a riddle that holds the record all together. I do not think there are many artists/designers thinking like Jon. The Inalienable Dreamless was out of the box different. No one will try to recreate it. The work would get pinned to this record."
Aperture of Pinholes
Though the band’s requests may have put off other labels, Hydra Head was immediately supportive of Discordance Axis’ vision for The Inalienable Dreamless. The art was just as important as the music in creating that unique album experience.
“We’ve always been proponents of our artists doing exactly what they want for what’s right for their record. We were really excited,” label co-owner Aaron Turner said. “Not many people had done CDs in DVD packages. That seemed like a great idea. Chang wasn’t contrary for the sake of being contrary. It suited the record well. We got into Jon’s ideas and that made us even more excited about working with them. … The packaging is anything but dark. It’s this bright blue seascape. There’s no splattery logo. It wasn’t willfully contradictory. All the pieces definitely fit.”
For the other members of the band, as with the lyrics, they trusted Chang’s vision, giving him the autonomy to craft the album’s constituent parts and organize its artwork.
“He totally masterminded that whole thing,” guitarist Rob Marton said. “He told us what we were going to do and we said, ‘Awesome.’ Me and Dave just looked at each and said, ‘Cool,’ and he knocked it out.”
That artistic autonomy was also a key motivator when Discordance Axis agreed to work with Hydra Head.
“That was the thing that really sold Jon,” Witte said. “Jon had this way of doing it and was really strict about it. Hydra Head not only offered us quality music, but they cared and went the extra mile with the packaging. … I knew Aaron from Isis and playing shows and seeing him around and I knew what Hydra Head was about, but it was an alien world for Jon. I think when that happened he was like, ‘Cool.’ It’s really rare to have a huge list of demands like that and the label to go, ‘Sure.’ It’s unheard of.”
Bizarre fonts and exotic packaging were not the only demands Discordance Axis were known to place on labels and distributors. For prior albums, Chang said he had put constraints on Devour, such as not letting their music be shipped through major distribution channels “because we were trying to be punk rock or something stupid.”
Discordance Axis also attempted to make The Inalienable Dreamless slightly more eco-friendly by otherwise minimizing the packaging, a move undone by retailers and distributors.
“The Inalienable Dreamless shipped without shrink wrap because I didn’t want to create all that plastic garbage and record stores would shrink wrap it,” Chang said. “I was fighting a losing battle.”
Turner said he simply accepted the band’s requests. It also didn’t hurt Witte warned the label about Chang’s artistic intentions in advance.
“We were often unorthodox in our approach, and [Witte] thought that might be a good fit given Chang’s demands for how things needed to go from a label,” Turner said. “Witte gave us some forewarning. He said Chang, by some people’s standards, is very hard to work with. He has very specific standards for people he works with. We weren’t put off by that. … Over the years he’s softened up. We like working with bands that do things in unorthodox ways. Whenever possible we try to avoid doing things in a conventional way. In that way Jon has turned out to be a perfect working partner for us.”