Sunday, January 03, 2010

I'd Buy Anything By...Skinny Puppy

One of my first jobs was as a part-time clerk at "Sounds Music Plus," a record store in New Hamburg. Besides sitting around waiting for somebody to buy the latest New Kids on the Block or gospel album, me and friend/fellow clerk Lynda would get to hear the latest music.

In 1988 she played me the extended remix of Skinny Puppy's "Testure." I'd never heard of the band before. Until then I'd mainly been listening to synthpop, but thanks to Lynda my musical interests took an irreversible new course into politically angry NOISE.

"Testure" was far more commercial than any of Skinny Puppy's older songs so it was a good introduction to the band. After I picked up their "viviSECTvi" album I was exposed to the real Skinny Puppy sound: dirty, chaotic, multi-layered, screechy, and totally unlike anything else before or since.

It took two more years until Lynda and I finally got to see Skinny Puppy during their "Too Dark Park" tour. It was a year after their Ministry-produced "Rabies" album had been released, so the crowd was a diametrically-opposed mix of angsty goths and mohawked crowd-surfers. Their gleeful moshing stopped after only a few minutes exposure to the on-screen video footage.

Here's the live backing video for "Testure," and it's EXTREMELY graphic. I'm presenting it as an example of what sets Skinny Puppy apart from other bands which use shocking, horrific imagery, and why I still respect them for what they did.

Second warning about this footage, especially for those of you who adore animals. Don't watch. You've been warned.

You see, Skinny Puppy never glamorized atrocity. They used it as a tool. You won't find a single Skinny Puppy song that glorifies its subject matter; instead you get vocalist Nivek Ogre screaming about how sh*tty us human beings are, without an ounce of glitz or self-aggrandizement. This stands in stark contrast to horrorcore or even the Nine Inch Nails-ish bands which combine glam, self-pity, and rock star posturing to diffuse whatever message they might have had.

So Skinny Puppy was a topical band concerned with warfare, greed, corruption, and injustice. It's true that they didn't offer solutions to any of the problems they wrote about, but at least they took an unflinching and honest view.

Anyway, I continued to wallow in Skinny Puppy's misery during my teens and early-adulthood. I attempted a terribly-executed and misconceived Nivek Ogre hairstyle in grade 13. They inspired (and continue to inspire) many aspects of music that I love today, heavy percussive delay and distortion (on everything) in particular. I even met my first two girlfriends at Skinny Puppy concerts, and joined my first band thanks to a Skinny Puppy shirt, and learned about another long-term musical obsession (The Legendary Pink Dots) through a Skinny Puppy side-project.

Then -- while the band was struggling through the long process of recording "The Process," -- I started reevaluating my life. I realized that I'd sunk so far into depressing, angry music that it was actually feeding my worst character traits: a sense of helplessness, a deep self-pity, and a crippling misanthropy. A radical cure was required, and I swallowed it whole: I dived head-first into ABBA.

It couldn't have happened at a better time, because Skinny Puppy was disintegrating. Synth/sampling genius Dwayne Goettel died of a drug overdose and -- even worse -- Nivek Ogre decided he should sing. He and remaining member cEvin Key called it quits at the same time I was putting my Skinny Puppy CDs and vinyl into storage.

Then, in 2003, they reformed and started releasing new material.

It would be silly to expect them to sound the way they used to, but rather than run ahead of musical trends they are now lagging sadly behind, aping a dozen other "new metal" bands on the scene. The lyrics have lost their edge and both time and repetition have dulled the impact of the stage shows. A friend once described Ogre's live performance as "Come out dirty, hit himself, fall down, get dirtier, keep on falling down." He also said it would be far more shocking if Ogre wore a suit. He was right.

Their new albums aren't bad but they aren't good either. Ogre's decision to sing isn't a good one, and their meticulous sound certainly suffered when Goettel died. I CAN say, however, that after ten years of dismissing my previous love of Skinny Puppy as misguided, I have rediscovered their early genius and I try to remember them as they were:

Albums to buy: "viviSECTvi" hits the hardest and has the most layers, while "Bites" shows their earlier, cleaner, pre-Goettel sound. Albums to avoid: Excluding their two "reformed" albums, "The Process" is a terrible train-wreck and "Rabies" is pretty weak, and some people think "Mind: TPI" is a mess (but I like it). For fans only: The inevitable cEvin Key "Brap" releases of demos and early material, which are interesting appendixes for those who love the albums.


Christian Lindke said...

I agree that viviSECTvi is a must listen experience, but I don't share your lackluster for Rabies. I have always been fond of Worlock and Hexonxonx, primarily for the wonderful use of sampling in those cuts.

Skinny Puppy, Ministry, and KMFDM (who I saw in a very small show on my college campus at the Student Union) added a nice "crunchy" layer to my CD collection.

I remember just sitting in my friend Ron's room and listening to CDs with him, and listening to his comments, for hours. My enjoyment of music has always been merely on the sensory level, Ron helped me to listen for things I would have otherwise missed and introduced me to so much music to which I would have otherwise been oblivious.

Thanks for posting this discussion, as it brought to mind some lovely memories of a friend whom I miss dearly.

Adam Thornton said...

I love Worlock and Hexonxonx, but the rest of the album sounds confused and just "middling" to me.

Granted, I have the first pressing of the CD which supposedly was terribly mastered. My New Year's resolution is now to borrow the second pressing from somebody and give it another chance. :)

A good musical friend can certainly be a blessing, and they can change everything. Thank goodness for them!