Of all of the top echelon of industrial bands, none perhaps gain such polarised views as Skinny Puppy. Right from their early days in the eighties, they’ve pushed boundaries with their sound, avoiding the obvious routes of dancefloor approval, creating nightmarish musical visions densely packed with samples and a visual image almost as impressive. This restless, partly-drug-and-tragedy-fuelled experimentation has influenced countless bands, although it is probably fair to say that no-one has really dared to pick up the baton fully in following them. Maybe it is all just too much.
But anyway: this release is perhaps a curious one. This is a re-release, a chance for Metropolis to get an album out on vinyl more than anything I suspect, as the album is only ten years old – and it’s not as if the album really needed a remaster, I though (it always sounded pretty awesome in the first place). Back when it came out, though, it was a big deal. This was Skinny Puppy’s first new album since the ill-fated, disaster-strewn The Process in 1995, even if their reunion had already been heralded by the legendary Doomsday: Back and Forth show in 2000 (so fantastic is that live album, that if you need a starter in the Puppy, go there rather than the Singles Collect), and indeed their reputation was enhanced by the also damned-awesome live tour that accompanied this album during 2004 and 2005 – so good I saw it twice.
In the lengthy time between the albums, though, neither member had been doing nothing. Ogre had his ohGr project, while cEvin Key had Download and The Tear Garden, not to mention solo work, and one of the things many wondered about any new Puppy material was how it was going to end up. Would there still be a sense of fracture, of danger and of mind-melting chaos?
Maybe not from the beginning, no. I’mmortal was unexpectedly thrilling, after ominous synths start things off, raising in tone and being swiftly blown away by cut-up synths and hard-edged, almost hip-hop beats and vocals that are themselves then cast aside by the surging chorus. As it fades away, though, the ground is set for the track that perhaps divided Puppy fans more than any other. Pro-Test is, like the opener, a thrilling ride of electronics, one where Key’s production is at it’s peak and prepped to give the track maximum impact. That impact including the rhythm like an out-of-control-monster-truck, ohGr let loose with a stream of consciousness vocal that seems to exist more to add texture than to make any sense, and breakdowns and false endings abound. Despite the latter being bear-traps for unsuspecting (and suspecting!) DJs, the direct, catchy nature of this make it a club floorfiller to this day. As for the division? I think it was perhaps more the video that did the damage there. But here, both are elevated by a subtle remaster that makes everything just that bit harder.
Coming back to EmpTe after some time away, it’s still not hard to think that this is just one of ohGr‘s solo tracks with the kitchen sink of production thrown at it (the dramatic percussion that crashes through it does sound amazing, mind), even if it does have a pleasant melody winding through it too. Neuwerld, however, is perhaps one of the relevations of the remaster. I don’t recall noticing it before, but at points there appears to be about four songs going on at once, with snippets of other melodies and rhythms coming in-and-out of focus like a trip up-and-down a radio dial – not to mention the chaotic, multi-tracked vocals, as if the first few songs were the clean, accessible hooks to pull you in before ohGr and Key really got to work being Skinny Puppy again.
That revelation in the sound continues with Ghostman, the synths have extra bass and bounce, the beats extra depth, and ohGr’s vocals stretch and swerve all around – into the background, howling in the distance, or right into the fore, screaming in your face, or whispering from the depths. dOwnsizer was used on the 2004 as the intro track, and it’s not hard to see why – the ghostly electronics and pitch-shifted vocals eventually coalesce into something resembling a full track, but nothing too groundbreaking or anything that perhaps would be that interesting live.
Perhaps the hidden gem on this album is Past Present, a song I come back to now and again and think “isn’t this awesome?” every time. Basically a lengthy electronic jam, with vocals and voices very much second fiddle to the sinuous rhythmic flow, it builds up a quite staggering, pounding momentum that really should have seen it slay club dancefloors but somehow no-one saw it’s potential at the time.
Use Less heads back into more comtemplative territory, with a curiously flat vocal from ohGr that drains much of the life from the song, as far as I’m concerned, at least until guest drummer Danny Carey (from Tool, of course) whips up a storm of drumming that finally forces the track to rise from it’s torpor. I’ve never been entirely sure what to make of Goneja, the cascading synths, vocodered vocals, the off-kilter, seasick-inducing beats – lots of clever trickery in search of a tune. Superficially the remaster sounds even better, but it still goes nowhere in particular.
Closer DaddyuWarbash takes that idea that bit further, stripping out any semblance of a tune whatsoever for three minutes or so of pounding drums and twinkling synths, and well, that’s about it, leaving the album to end on a damp squib, really, although you have to hear ohGr impersonating a dog at the end to really believe that he does.
It’s important, perhaps, to put some perspective on this album. The return of perhaps the most forward-looking, complex-minded industrial music artists of the eighties and nineties in the following decade was always going to have unrealistic expectations, and few were sated by this at least partially uneven album. Yeah, it has some brilliant moments, that fully deserve being added to the collection of Puppy tracks you simply have to hear, but it also has some skippable moments. But this was a peak, and quality dropped off pretty markedly for the following couple of albums, and it took until 2013’s Weapon before they really got back on track again, with a resurgence that easily eclipsed this.
The other thing, is that so many more Puppy albums deserve a glittering remaster than this. Rabies, Last Rights and Cleanse, Fold and Manipulate could all desperately do with a brush-up and clean nowadays, at least, although I fear label and rights complications would scupper any plan to do so from the start. Which is a shame, as maybe it is time the band were reappraised a little. Next year marks twenty years since Dwayne Goettel died, and the band disintegrated for the first time, and a new look at the keyboardist’s twisted creations would be a fitting tribute.
A confusing, multi-faceted opinion, then, kinda in keeping with the band. Certainly worth hearing – and I’m sure on vinyl it sounds great – but just for now here I’ll stick with the digital version having already long since invested in the CD. But maybe, just maybe, I’ll be digging out some of this again in future DJ sets.