I remember taking this class in college entitled The History of Contemporary Music. I failed it. This isn’t because I was light years ahead of the material they were presenting and I just took it for shits and giggles, but instead I just found it absurdly boring. This was a class, where we spent two full classes (and night classes mind you, which are about three hours in duration) discussing the profound impact of the musical 'Oklahoma'. I just couldn’t will myself to feign any interest in the material, not even for a fraction of any given class.

This resulted in some truly disastrous test results.

I’m sure in time I’ll forget all about that train-wreck, but I very much doubt I’ll forget my presentation in that class. Since I’m Canadian, we were had to pick one Canuck musical act we held dear to our hearts, and do a verbal presentation on whoever we chose. This included a fifteen minute speech, followed by several audio snippets of our choosing. My first impression of the project was a positive one. Not only would I get to illuminate the minds of my class with some great music, but they’d do the same for me! I figured this would be a fantastic way to improve on what had been up to this point, a hideously droll program.

Then as I was brainstorming who I should choose, something slowly dawned on me: Canada just doesn’t have a lot of interesting music to speak of. Sure there’s Joni, and Neil, and Leonard....but all of their best stuff came out approximately thirty years ago. Then there is regionally popular stuff like the Tragically Hip, but they’re just too safe to ever spark any interest outside of their native country. And if anyone can point out three discernible differences on even the most shallow of levels between Bryan Adams and Tom Cochrane, two of our nation’s biggest musical icons, I will shave my head and tattoo a Dallas Cowboys star on my skull.

So I sat there, not only totally uninspired by the vast majority of choices I had available, but also fully aware that the class of over a hundred-and-fifty students would be considering the same names I was. Then it hit me. Not only was this band one I have loved for a long time, but also I was extremely certain nobody else in the class would be aware of, much less do a report on.

That band was Skinny Puppy.

In case you don’t know much about them, Skinny Puppy is a severely harsh industrial outfit from Vancouver, B.C. They emerged in the 80's, and, until drugs completely derailed them, released album after album of completely uncompromising and punishing electronically based experimental recordings.

On the day of my presentation, I had to follow some frat-boy douchbag who picked Great Big Sea as his band, because “They’re great pub music man!” That was a verbatim quote. As I walked up there with my paper and CDs in my hand, I started to realize how absolutely awful this is going to go over. I mean by this point, the most daring outfit any of the other students covered was the Tea Party.

I was right. It did go extraordinarily bad, although it might have just been self-fulfilling prophecy. Everyone’s eyes collectively glazed over at the very mention of the band’s name in the first sentence of the presentation, and this catatonic look of surreal levels of apathy only changed upon my blaring of the first Skinny Puppy audio sample, which was the first two minutes of 'Love in Vein'. It was at this point their total indifference to my production morphed into downright revulsion, and when I played the second tune for the class, 'Grave Wisdom', their reaction teetered between awkward horror, and an overwhelming need to throw whatever they had in their hand, down towards the front of the class in the general direction where I was standing.

The good news is, I got a decent mark on it, although it must be stated a 73% is exponentially more satisfying when the project singlehandedly alienates you from every other student in the classroom.

Having said that, even if I made one person out of that entire class gain some interest in Skinny Puppy, my laughable final grade on the transcript was more than worth it. Skinny Puppy were and for the most part are fucking awesome, and the more I think about it, the more I think they were our most important musical import to come out of this overly-polite country of ours.

To be clear, they probably weren’t the best one. I mean they never recorded a seminal double album with Bob Dylan like The Band did, nor did they prove to be one of the real forefathers of grunge like Neil Young did. Their aesthetic contributions, along with people’s general impressions of them all but ensure they are more consistently remembered as a relevant footnote than any sort of visionary whose effects are still rippling through contemporary music today.

That’s truly too bad, and I’m here today to make a case for Skinny Puppy as our country’s proudest musical entity. Let’s get going.

Lenny, Neil, and Joni....three of our biggest icons, and all of them have one thing in common: they’re all wimps. Don’t get me wrong! They’ve all made some really great music (well, the first two did, the last one has rightfully faded with time), and their contributions were legit. But their best music, the stuff they will always be remembered by, was kind of preening and chalk-full of near-embarrassing levels of sincerity. The fans of all these singers also had something in common: to hear their music, was to feel like you were their best friend, and vice versa. That’s the main reason I love 'Songs of Love and Hate' so much, and it’s also the reason I play it sparingly. I don’t desire to be a shoulder to cry on, and I resent the fact that the music also makes me look for one before the end of the first track.

Skinny Puppy isn’t as far away from that sort of sentimentality as one can go, but the polar opposite isn’t a long jog away from how the band is generally perceived. Their music has guts, tons of bloody guts to it, and not in the convenient confessional sense either. They don’t have time to moan about lost loves, or memories of a lost yesterday., I mean who has time for that shit when there are so much more pressing issues at hand, like apocalyptic disease and universal environmental degradation to focus on?

But we’ll get to the lyrics in a bit (hopefully, they are pretty terrifying after all). Let’s talk about the core components first, the soul of Skinny Puppy if you will. For the most part, the band is composed of three pretty messed up individuals. cEvin Key is the main programmer and principle song-writer, Nivek Ogre is the vocalis/ lyricist, and Dwayne Gottel handled keyboard and some instrumental responsibilities. That is before his untimely demise in 1995.

These were the men who were responsible for the brunt of the band’s output during their most important years, specifically from 1987-1992. The interesting thing about Skinny Puppy, is they never really progressed into the ‘Puppy Sound’ we all know today. It was pretty much there right from the get-go. There certainly was no sissy dance-club phase like Ministry had early on before they realized they could make more money remaking Big Black albums. Even Cabaret Voltaire had that shitty 'Voice of America' album before they found their footing. Of course there were changes and progressions inherent in Skinny Puppy’s music from the time of their conception to their final days, but unlike a lot of other acts in this genre (oh, also Nine Inch Nails for example, but more on that later too), every album sounded like a Puppy record, just different shades of grey.

Things did get a bit more ragged as time moved on though. I’ll admit this. It was always a linear progression though, and it was always a direct product of the personal state of mind the band members seemed to be in at the time. There isn’t a single moment in their discography that seems forced in the slightest, no “This is probably the right kind of record to make at this point in our career” moment.

The first three studio releases from the Skinny Puppy camp actually did have some legitimately danceable moments on each. 'Stairs' and 'Flowers' could easily have been a staple on the playlist of any hashed out B.C. drug bin in the early nineties, and I’ll never forget my respective reactions seeing a collective goth group not only enthusiastically boogie to the first couple verses in 'Assimilate' (an intense fit of giggling) to then witnessing them all chant the “Death! Death! Death! Death! Death is dead!’’ mantra at the end of the song (pronounced terror).

The thing is though, as groovy as these offerings might have been, they were always sandwiched in between absolutely brutal recordings like 'God’s Gift' (Maggot) and 'Blood on the Wall', so their effect was a short-lived one, at best. These easy on the ear cuts weren’t exactly sent the way of the dodo bird on subsequent studio releases, but they were masked with enough metallic grinding and general ugliness in the highest degree that in fairly swift order, they became a distant, although pleasant memory.

1987's 'Cleanse, Fold, and Manipulate' marks this point in the group’s trajectory, beginning an assortment of albums that were as punishing as they were terrifying. This culminated in the end-game effort of 'Last Rites', but that wasn’t until five years later. I won’t go into a description of all these albums they released during this brilliant period, but I will say there’s not a shit one in the bunch (well, 'Rabies' certainly wasn’t great by any stretch of the imagination) and each of them remained faithful to the ‘Puppy sound’, although they all still maintained a very unique individual identity.

Considering their legendary drug intake, coupled with their pattern of relatively brief time in between releases, the consistent level of intensity filtered through varying forms is nothing short of completely remarkable.

There was nothing ordinary or average about any of their records from 86-92 (the band has since reconvened and released two fairly ordinary and average albums in 2004 and 2007), and with that said, I’d like to bring up several key points why I solemnly believe they were our greatest musical export.

i) From then until now, there has never been a more pure or unfiltered version of industrial music. Skinny Puppy literally had all bases covered. It could be danced to (even if that did eventually became a rare commodity in the Skinny Pup catalogue, although one of their most danceable tunes 'Inquisition' was found on their least melodic record, the aforementioned 'Last Rites'). They always avoid the mundane jackhammer rhythms found on albums from many of the most admired industrial acts over the years, never afraid to incorporate various arrangements or sonic experiments while systematically staying true to the principles that drew people to the band in the first place. Often overlooked is the fact that cEvin Key was a pretty phenomenal songwriter, and this is the reason Skinny Puppy has never relinquished its position as not only the most relevant pioneer in the genre, but the most timeless one as well.

At their best, the beat disappears at random times, and we’re suddenly left with a violent sound collage to we’ve got to deal with if we’re to maintain alertness until the next reclamation of end-of-days organ grinding. At their worst, we’re left with something so raw, so sparse, the gristle and soot that Skinny Puppy perpetually toil in, seems like only an arm’s length away.

ii) It’s all too easy for grown men singing over programmed rhythms to have multiple moments of extreme tackiness. This doesn’t happen a single time throughout their entire output, and there isn’t ever a fraction of a second where we take the music as anything but ultra-seriously.

iii) Their live act was not only totally influential, but ripped off to a pretty severe degree. The stilts Ogre used to stalk the stage in – blatantly stolen by Marilyn Manson. Hell, even Einsturzende Neubaten took a page out of the Puppy book by incorporating various pulverizing steel percussion into their show (Key used to cut steel with an angle grinder on stage).

iv) Their music videos were also groundbreaking on a ton of levels. If you dig the 'Happiness in Slavery' video Nine Inch Nails released, well you have Skinny Puppy to thank, as it’s very unlikely that video would ever have been conceived without their 'Spasmolytic' video coming first. But if that one’s a little too B-Horror movieish for you, there’s always the immortal 'Worlock' video to admire.

v) The band was completely averse to styles and trends. Not only were the subjects they sang about completely abhorrent to the general public (cryptic proclamations of a personal apocalypse manifested through the world’s crass gluttony come to mind) but they were brought to the table in an incredibly disorienting manner (stream-of-consciousness ranting, complete with voice disfiguration and intense soundscaping). Not only that, but their music got less accessible as they stuck around. It’s clear a couple of the singles on 'Too Dark Park' would have gained them some fans, albeit twisted ones (probably the semi-harmonic 'Tormentor' and 'Spasmolytic' lured them in), but the crushing 'Last Rites' set out to prove Skinny Puppy didn’t have any casual fans, and if they did, they didn’t want them.

vi) They had some pretty tremendous cover art. Even Tipper Gore thought so, when she put the front image of 'Mind: The Perpetual Intercourse' on one of her lists for the Parents Resource Music Center as an example of why there should be parental advisory stickers on albums.

vii) Skinny Puppy wasn’t just Skinny Puppy on stage or on record, and then they went home to watch 'Full House' over a nice cup of eggnog with friends. These guys had a pretty intense image they put forth, and still managed to live up/down to it. This even prompted perpetual hedonistic rock-star wannabe Al Jourgensen to develop a man-crush on Ogre. Unsurprisingly, he couldn’t be bothered with ‘Alien’, as he went about carrying on with his life/engaging in month-long speed binges.

viii) This brings us to our next point: drugs. Like nearly all extreme/perverse pioneering bands, drugs fuelled Skinny Puppy, and drugs killed Skinny Puppy. On August 23rd, 1995, Dwayne Goettel overdosed on heroin in his parents home, a place he went ironically to kick the habit. Even though he was the only one who actually perished from his addiction, he was far from the only one in the group with addiction issues. Rumour has it that Ogre shot up a particularly violent batch of skag during the recording of 'Knowhere?', found on, what else...'Last Rights'. Allegedly the sounds of his overdose were actually recorded during that song and left on the final mix, although heavily covered by severe sound-layering.

I don’t want to attribute the band’s entire creative output to their insane drug abuse, but it is telling their entire music philosophy can be described by their Brap description, which was invented and coined by Skinny Puppy: “to get together, hook up various electronic instruments, get high and record”. These people lived by the sword, and were perfectly willing to die by it. Substance abuse in music isn’t something I consciously support, however when looking at the bigger picture of popular music in the last thirty years, addiction has been a part of nearly every monumental group, and in that regard, Skinny Puppy stands far apart from any of the other Canadian acts we have offered to the industry. It’s unfortunate something this destructive has to be referenced, but this fact gives Skinny Pup some comparative relevance to hundreds of other classic acts, something our clean-cut, granola-eating singer/songwriters from Canada just don’t possess.

ix) They released one of the greatest ‘unreleased singles and b-sides’ collections of all time ('Brap: Back and Forth Series 3 & 4').

x) Skinny Puppy was completely opposed to any sort of animal abuse, and included many songs/stage props to demonstrate this. Who else has the balls to broach this nerdy, soap-box subject on record, especially in such a dehumanized genre? Nobody, that’s who.

xi) They are responsible for releasing the most amazing ballad ever recorded in the history of industrial music. 'Killing Game' not only stands the test of time, but it’s still ahead of it.

I know I can’t make the argument that Skinny Puppy write inherently better songs then Leonard Cohen, and I also couldn’t keep a straight face if I were to say their long-term impact rivals that of Mr Young. But that’s really not the point here. The point is, Skinny Puppy is our most important export because they serve as a perennial reminder that our nation is not only perfectly capable of throwing something ugly into the world, but making it stick too.

Despite relying heavily on machines and dials, their legacy is not a hollow and sterile one; instead it’s one of personal chaos and grave wisdom, resonating powerfully with anyone not willing to invest all of their private feelings into the music of a solitary guy in a studio, who is simply reciprocating the original process. Sure such a relationship is comforting, symbiosis doesn’t get a lot better than this, but the problem comes when the disarming realization arrives, that there’s a hell of a lot we go through that cannot be explained, or eloquently articulated on record, even though at times it did seem, as though that record was a direct portal and subsequent mirror of your harrowed soul.

Nothing is ever that simple though, although people have gotten pretty adept at reducing the complexity of human life and experience to those quotients. This is why Skinny Puppy has more guts than all of those tear-jerking singer/songwriter types we have flocking out of our country. The concept of tangible ‘guts’ is all too often associated with personal declarations of pained confessional variety, but it all comes down to a matter of rejoinder proportion. If these admissions are delivered sans fear of rejection or indifference, then the words carry as much weight as any uncontrolled variable associated with the confession, which are marginal at best.

So it’s simple. Skinny Puppy’s legacy comes down to proudly existing as an uncontrolled variable, and I’ll salute that any day of the calendar year.











Related Links:



Commenting On: Skinny Puppy - This Metal Sky








ie London, England

tick box before submitting comment
 


First Previous Next Last