It’s reassuring to know that as iTunes and Spotify continue their dominance of the music world, their downloaded and streamed music becoming more and more popular with each passing year, there are still some young bands who take great pride in celebrating that old-fashioned idea that’s sadly going the way of the albatross: the album as a tactile, interactive, multimedia art piece, where visuals are just as important as the music inside. Sure, we still have mainstream bands that are doing their part in keeping the tradition alive, but these days it’s mostly those with few with great clout in the music business, the likes of Radiohead, Kanye West, and especially Tool. Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, there’s a little movie-obsessed grindcore band called Graf Orlock who has taken the idea of creative album packaging to such an extreme that they’re close to revolutionizing the entire process.
Constructed around loads of ingeniously-timed movie samples, Graf Orlock’s music is some of the most fun grindcore you’ll ever hear, psychotic and chaotic yet insidiously catchy, but the first impression is always unforgettable, thanks to their artwork. The 2007 split with Greyskull was cleverly packaged in a backpack-shaped sleeve. The great Destination Time Tomorrow EP gleefully referenced the film Alien in two ways, first with a CD wrapped in an elaborately designed “facehugger”, and then with a 10” vinyl boasting a gory, pop-up “chestburster”. The ambitious Destination Time Today (2009) came with a die-cut crosshair in the sleeve and eleven posters of different famous assassination victims to serve as targets.
However, nothing the band has done in the past has ever compared to the astonishing new Doombox EP, which sees a ten-inch record housed in an elaborate sleeve that folds into a massive, 1:1 scale, 30” x 10” x 10” model of a circa-1990 boombox, complete with a CD tray on top that contains a disc of the EP as well as the entire Destination Time trilogy. To see it pictured online, your eyes pop, but once it’s assembled in front of you, you may find yourself picking your jaw up off the floor.
“All the other records leading up to [Doombox] are pretty ridiculous when it comes to artwork,” says guitarist Jason Schmidt, on the phone from Los Angeles. “We always try to push that angle, particularly when you’re talking about how CDs are worthless now. If you’re going to have something that someone’s going to spend money on, you might as well make it worth it. That was always our angle with vinyl, making something that’s worthwhile and will stand out. Not [something] where five years from now you’d forget it even exists.”
Typically, what started out as an innocuous idea turned into something far more extravagant than anyone had ever expected. The attention to detail on the assembled Doombox is remarkable, from the CD tray on the top, to the speaker wires on the back, to even a hilarious send-up of an owner’s manual. Not only that, but it’s actually a pretty sturdy model, as well. “It always starts with the drummer Alan and I, he does the artwork, he’s our graphic design person,” Schmidt says. “We come up with ridiculous ideas and then see if we can make them happen. And usually it takes a lot of snaggling [sic] with the plant, but we usually can come up with what we want to do…
“All the tabs and the thickness of the posterboard is such that it works pretty well, you can carry it around on your shoulder and stuff. The liner note part was a mock of a real insert that I’ve had for 15 years. It looks like every one that anyone’s ever had. The best part in there was where it even tells you how to handle the CDs without ruining the CDs because you’re stupid.”
For such a complicated-looking undertaking, the whole design and manufacturing process went surprisingly smoothly. “There were two different prototypes. It actually really easy this time because we worked with Pirates Press out of San Francisco, they have a plant in the Czech Republic that presses there vinyl actually, we made a die-cut mock up and they just made it and sent it to us. Then we had to figure out the logistics of how it would fold up and all that stuff. It took a couple months of going back and forth, but when I finally got all 1,500 of them, I couldn’t believe it. It’s ridiculous,” he laughs.
“We kind of had to mess around with the CD flap on top, because it’s actually an amalgamation of two different boomboxes that we had gotten from a thrift store and from eBay and took pictures of, because one of them didn’t have the CD top. We had to mess around with that a little bit. But we got to put everything into it that we wanted to. The CD face is a mock-up of an old Metallica CD face from the ‘90s. With the insert, we finally got a platform where we got to put everything we wanted to into it. No matter how over the top and degrading it was.”
The creativity of the Doombox‘s design hearkens back to the days when bands actually gave a damn about the product they sold to their fans. One is instantly reminded of such clever packages as Alice Cooper’s School’s Out sleeve that folded out into a school desk (complete with panties inside), as well as the band’s facetious follow-up Billion Dollar Babies, whose gatefold was made to look like a gigantic snakeskin wallet with a one billion dollar bill inside. A more recent example would be Spiritualized’s brilliant limited edition of Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space, which was designed to look like pharmaceuticals so accurately, you actually had to break each mini-CD out of a blister pack to listen. Then there’s Tool, who has incorporated everything from lenticular images to stereoscopes on their records.