Monday, September 2, 2013

Packaged Rebellion: When Presentation Enhances the Album Experience

Insert tired fucking cliché about books and covers [HERE]. Well worn bromides of questionable veracity aside, a good cover and an innovative package in the hands of a clever designer can actually enhance the album experience. While album art and packaging are meant to convey quickly what a record’s about (“Hey, this has Ed Repka zombies on the cover; it must be the new Taylor Swift album,” said nobody ever), the designs can actually take music and elevate it by providing another entryway into the art. A good visual and a design that invites close study and an extra minute of thought can even elevate albums that were otherwise forgettable failures.
Here are five albums that stepped up the game on the visual side. 

Discordance Axis
The Inalienable Dreamless 

Hydra Head

The Inalienable Dreamless looks like no other album before or since. Jon Chang’s meticulous design ensured that Discordance Axis’ final album would stand out from all of their peers and competitors (even if it did get grindcore’s defining moment mistakenly exiled to the DVD section of many retailers). Most obviously, The Inalienable Dreamless came packaged in a DVD case, which gave a wider, more cinematic aspect ratio to the wrap around horizon and seascape the band chose for the art. If most album art was in a TV aspect, Discordance Axis had jumped to wide screen. The colors and imagery gave no hint to The Inalienable Dreamless’ content and the illegible logo, tiny script for the album title and lack of even song titles and a bar code on the packaging ensured the album would be an enticing mystery for those brave enough to peek inside. And inside, fans would find a larger than usual booklet that was laid out to look like a journal, just one more personal touch that made The Inalienable Dreamless the endlessly fascinating musical landmark it remains today.

The Contaminated Void

Coldworker’s music vacillates between inoffensively forgettable to insultingly unlistenable. But the one thing Anders Jakobsson’s post-Nasum project got perfect was the art for debut album The Contaminated Void.  Relapse’s resident visual maestro Orion Landau crafted a clever booklet for the album that includes clear cellophane overlays that alter the art a page at the time, concealing and revealing the Breugellian horror behind, framing and then exposing the hellish slasher film revelry. Coldworker never deviated much from the well worn themes of death, decay, betrayal and misery and even then weren’t album to elevate their material beyond the legions of similarly minded metallers, but the booklet art is enough to keep you coming back periodically to experience The Contaminated Void against the backdrop of such a striking package. Relapse has to be applauded for cracking open its wallet for such a visually inventive presentation. It’s just a shame it wasn’t in service of a better album.

Creation is Crucifixion
Child as Audience
Hactivist Media

Child as Audience is many things: Creation is Crucifixion’s best sounding effort, a didactic lesson in critical theory by a droning, monotone lecturer and a whole Anarchist’s Cookbook full of practical cultural and technological subversion suggestions. Against all of that, the three songs, which were some of Creation is Crucifixion’s best, can understandably get lost. At the center of the unassuming brown cardboard box, a nod back to the brown paper bags used to sell dirty magazines in the bad old days, is an inch think multilingual book that lays out the Creation is Crucifixion manifesto on education, liberty and authoritarianism. Child as Audience is intent on subverting the methods used to indoctrinate children, instead turning them into opportunities to learn the principles of radical anarchism. Creation is Crucifixion provide one means for subverting indoctrination by detailing instructions for reverse engineering old Nintendo Gameboy cartridges to create games that teach children the joys of of their own sexual development while reinforcing the message that authority figures can never be trusted. That’s a hell of a lot to cram into a package that contains less than 15 minutes of music.

Graf Orlock
Vitriol Records

Graf Orlock’s creative packaging is so legendary it probably deserves a post of its own from the face-hugger CD-holder of Destination Time Tomorrow to the multiple foldout fronts of Destination Time Today. The attention to detail they put into their offerings is meticulous and a large part of the band’s charm. But the cinephile grinders absolutely outdid themselves with the stunning Doombox. The 2011 release not only included the band’s entire discography to date, but the whole kit ‘n’ kaboodle folded out into a giant ass boombox to hold your precious filmcore records. The whole concept is deliberately over the top but it also perfectly encapsulates Graf Orlock’s passion for film and their go for broke approach to music and presentation. It’s that kind of time and budget killing vision that lets you know Graf Orlock view their music as something more serious than a revenue stream.

Pig Destroyer
Book Burner

However disappointing Book Burner might have been musically, the packaging, especially for those of us who shelled out for the two CD digipack, does admirably reflect Pig Destroyer’s lyrical themes and ambitions. The book-bound digipack, which includes J.R. Hayes’ short story “The Atheist,” feels like a tome in your hands. It's like a samizdat missive from the dystopian world of Hayes’ imagination and that does help reinforce the themes Pig Destroyer were trying to build on Book Burner. Now none of that redeems flaccid music, a stale concept and a trite, poorly written short story, but it does show some forethought and an eye toward worldbuilding. The term concept album gets tossed out too casually for every wanking prog band that slaps together a handful tunes about calculus, but Book Burner at least tried to create a complete packing from the art to the presentation to the music that established multiple entry points into their blighted landscape. It was ultimately a failure, but it was a failure that took a chance.


God Harvest said...

Dude, the Contaminated Void LP was too good. Probably one of my all time favorite listens!

You're spot on about the art. This was a flawless record. I constantly get into arguments about how the newer stuff didn't have what the first LP did.

Love you,

Rosemary said...

I know much of the "behind the scenes" of the art and design of the Coldworker first full length. You'd be surprised how "local" the art was created.