The announcement of a European Skinny Puppy tour earlier in the year (“Down the Sociopath Too Euro 2017“) was, I have to say, a bit of a surprise. It has been seven years since their last UK appearances at least, and in the meantime they’ve released the excellent Weapon – but that was four years ago – and only last year cEvin Key was recovering from cancer surgery.
O2 Forum Kentish Town, NW5
So there’s nothing at the moment to promote, at least in Skinny Puppy terms. That said, both cEvin Key and Nivek Ogre have other projects with new albums this year (The Tear Garden and ohGr respectively) – but you never expect solo work at a band show. So I’m guessing the reason for the tour was the band being booked for both Primavera in Barcelona and WGT in Leipzig in the same week, which would almost instantly make the rest of the tour possible (and a whole lot easier).
One of the other benefits of a band like Skinny Puppy touring is that everyone is out. One of those bands that long since sealed their legendary reputation, both on record and live, they are almost always quite the draw as you never quite know what might come next. As a result it was certainly great to see a number of people that I’ve not seen in a while (and there were likely a few more people that I missed).
But, one thing that still gets my goat – and The Forum are a particular offender for this – is that in the age of the internet, with information easily disseminated, why is it so hard to put set times online? I know they want us to drink their (horrendously overpriced) beer first, but not everyone has the time to get there early. Really promoters, please sort this out. Also, cloakrooms charging £3 is now officially taking the piss.
Without knowing set times, we got there a little late to see all of Ventenner, but I did see about half of their set. I wasn’t especially keen on their recorded output, which has always seemed a bit tame (I was intending to write a review of it late last year, however my honeymoon intervened – sorry about that, folks), but live they have far more power, and on the big stage at the Forum it suited them well. There is very much a feel of old Stabbing Westward, and more particularly Filter, to their live sound, with a fearsome bottom end driving their sound forward. A band I will now revisit again on record, just to make sure my previous view was correct.
With such a hefty back-catalogue to reach into, including twelve albums and loads of other odds and ends, trying to predict what you might get out of a Skinny Puppy show is something of a waste of time. Each of the three previous times I’ve seen them have been very different, with a variety of outfits, tricks and appearances, never mind the massive variety of the setlists each time too – something which does the band a great credit as they appear to be unwilling to simply repeat themselves on each tour. To illustrate this, a quick count up suggests that I’ve seen them play no less than forty-three different songs across four live sets, with just fourteen played more than once, and none of them played on all four occasions (the benefits of keeping notes from my shows over the years).
Skinny Puppy Setlist
Fascist Jock Itch
VX Gas Attack
But even that variety didn’t really prepare us for what happened last night. Aside from Village – a surprising choice in itself, from the lacklustre HanDover, but a song that seemed to gain new life hammering out of a very loud PA here – everything in the set was from their first period, which means up to and including The Process. And The Process was represented by no less than five songs, including a staggering, pummelling Hardset Head, with guitar wizardry from Matthew Setzer (only recently seen in the UK as part of KANGA, of course) squalling over the hard rhythms and Ogre’s stream of consciousness vocals. Curcible – a song I’ve actually seen surprisingly often live – was another reborn here, with the schizophrenic, stop-start motion of the track and dense samples all present and correct.
But it wasn’t all about The Process. Across the set, the band tore into something from broadly every album across their “classic” period, digging into some unexpected gems while delivering a number of the old favourites that we’d pretty much be surprised not to hear, too.
They managed to do a better live job of being Ministry than Ministry do with a savage Fascist Jock Itch, and Tin Omen was even heavier than that (and was the first time an awestruck crowd actually moved much), while the swirling, driving tripped-out chaos of T.F.W.O. revealed the suprisingly melodic chorus at the heart of it with rather less distortion on Ogre’s voice than perhaps there has been before. Too Dark Park, mind, is one of Puppy’s greatest albums, in my opinion, but maybe one that is more difficult to do live than others – there is simply so much going on! That said, I’ve seen a few songs from it performed over the years, but rarely more than one per set.
The other thing of note amid the set was the sheer intensity of it. From the off, the band barely stopped for breath for song after song, with a clever touch being an additional person on stage (as a friend put it, in a “cyborg minotaur” outfit complete with glowing red eyes), who was controlling the on-stage visuals and keeping Ogre’s outfit in check (and topped up) – meaning there was no need to leave the stage.
Yes, you heard. It’s difficult to explain exactly, but Ogre appeared to be dressed in a decaying mummy outfit, with various oversized plastic syringes, filled with UV-reactant liquid of some sort, attached to various parts of his body. Needless to say, they were eventually sprayed all over his body and head, leaving him covered in an assortment of luminous splatters, and the effect was quite impressive.
As a result of the mid-song costume updates, the whole set was relentless, with song after song of classic Puppy attacking our eyes, and the combination of the music, the on-stage antics and trippy visuals meant for an exhausting set, but one that flew. The only breaks between songs, interestly, were for the final few of the main set, where a thundering, hugely popular Worlock was teased in before that drum rhythm kicked in, and the one ballad that the band ever wrote (the gloriously affecting Killing Game) followed that, before the eternally popular – and the one time where Puppy ever really played along with everyone else – Assimilate closed out the hour-long set.
It felt short, but only because none of us needed to check the time, as the whole set was so damned good. There was at least an encore, with a stripped down Ogre (i.e. no costume, just him in normal-ish clothes, and no mask, either) making a vaguely political intro (and thanks to the crowd – I’m not sure I’ve ever heard him speak to the crowd before) that rather masked what was to come – it’s not as if there aren’t enough political Puppy songs to pick from.
I’m fairly sure that I wasn’t the only one that then nearly punched the air when the opening synths and radio samples of VX Gas Attack, their greatest political missive by far – and with the current state of the world and the potential instability therein, not to mention various allegations of chemical weapons use in Syria – then kicked in, and it was delivered with a fury that suggests Ogre has lost none of his political ire over the years. That said, I’m sure the front rows were happy that there was no gas mask and “effects” to cover the crowd in this time…
The final surprise of the night – on a night full of them, really – was the emotional power of Candle, a song that on record is surprisingly light of touch for Puppy, complete with (treated) acoustic guitar and untreated vocals, but onstage was transformed into an industrial rock powerhouse that was quite the closer for the night.
After all the band have been through, over the thirty-five years since formation in Vancouver, it is quite the achievement for them to be as brilliant as they still are live – and indeed be still relevant at all. While few bands have really tried too hard at sounding like Puppy – bands like Dead When I Found Her and Necro Facility have probably been the most successful in finding new ways to intepret the stylings in recent years – their influence in how they use sampling, song construction, not to mention live performance, within industrial is absolutely incalculable.
Skinny Puppy were the band that found a way to blast away any confines, to totally confound expectations and to find whole new ways of making electronic music within the industrial sphere. They may not have taken that sound much further forward in recent years – not that some of the recent releases aren’t good – but their legacy was assured by the mid-nineties, and as is often the way, other bands picked up the baton and made a greater, perhaps more accessible, success of it.
In 2017, though, it is maybe surprising to find just how relevant, and how fantastic, Skinny Puppy still are.