Skinny Puppy, “Weapon”
So here we are, it is 2013 and Skinny Puppy releases a new album, this time titled, “Weapon”. Every time one of these albums comes out I feel compelled to listen to it, and be grumpy about it because everything I enjoyed about the early part of Skinny Puppy’s career is gone and is replaced with a musical style I am simply not enthusiastic about. Skinny Puppy was a band so strongly influential to my early interest in music, I can’t ever steer clear and have to at least give anything they do a chance. After the past two albums, which were not terrible but didn’t gel with me very well, I approached “Weapon” with unfairly low expectations. After letting it churn around in my head for a while, I’ve found there are some things to really like here.
I want to take some space to talk about Skinny Puppy, where they’ve been and how we got to “Weapon”. These guys started kicking out this post-punk crazy music in 1982, making this band more than 30 years old now. In that 30 years, their career has been divided into two major parts: before and after the various catastrophes of the mid-1990’s, which included the death of their keyboardist Dwayne Goettel. This was a critical turning point. To start with, the band lost a major contributor and friend. In a three person band, this is significant. This catastrophe was further compounded by other calamities including record label drama, a fire in the recording studio and vocalist Ogre leaving the band (prior to Goettel’s passing). After some time, after the record had been shelved for a while, it was released. It was the first album that pointed in a very stark artistic direction that parted ways with the wall-of-sound, discordant industrial/noise symphony that climaxed with the previous album, “Last Rights” (still a personal favorite, though I love the entire early catalog).
“The Process” was released in 1996. Listening to it, it is immediately obvious that the band radically changed directions. There were a few songs that had some qualities reminiscent of the previous work, but on the whole, this was new territory for the band. There were crunchy metal guitars, four-to-the-floor dance beats, really clean production and a lot greater pop appeal. “The Process” was still edgy music, but it did not sit comfortably in their older catalog. Not to suggest the older catalog didn’t evolve from conception, it most certainly did. You could hear, with each album, a growth in their niche, the production became nuanced, with more layers and more refinement. “The Process” comes out and there is no evolution here: It is just flat out different. Personally speaking, I still enjoyed “The Process”, but I was a very loyal fan at the time and the band could release anything and I’d enjoy it. Even had said that, a few tracks like “Candle” grated my nerves a tad.
Fast forward to 2000, Key and Ogre resurrect the band, do some shows, put out an album and do tours. The new material is an evolution from the sound established with “The Process”. In truth, the newer albums were vastly superior, cleaner, more tightly produced, showing a strong modern approach to electronic music production. By 2004 when “The Greater Wrong of the Right” came out, I was over it. As an old school fan, the new style just didn’t work for me. Was it good music? Sure. But on the whole, my primary criticism was that Skinny Puppy now sounded like bands that previously been inspired by Skinny Puppy, and they weren’t necessarily doing this as well as bands that had done it before them. In the 90’s there were so many industrial bands trying to replace Skinny Puppy as the powerhouse of industrial music and while many good bands came of this, none of them came close. The “industrial” style slowly degraded into cyber-goth four-to-the-flour trance techno with gritty synths and grunty vocals (also imitating Ogre’s vocal style). Skinny Puppy’s new albums just felt like another one of these albums to me, despite being able to acknowledge that their new albums were, in fact, vastly superior compositions with vastly super production. I still found a few tracks off the new albums to be decent to listen to, but they didn’t feel very inspired or very innovative. Somewhere in all this my romance with this legendary band was compartmentalized.
All this exposition is to make a point here: This change in style took place circa 1994, which was 19 years ago. The band was 12 years old at the time. This means Skinny Puppy has been running with this new style quite a bit longer than they had the previous style. This all assuming you measure things in years, as prior to “The Process”, the band was way more prolific up to “Last Rights”. Between 1984 and 1992, they released nine albums, and since then only five. Still, we’re talking about a big generation gap and it’s been over twenty years since “Last Rights” was released. This stopped being “the new Skinny Puppy” a long time ago. At some point while listening to “Weapon”, probably when the new version of “Solvent” I started milling over this fact in my head and it put some serious context to the album for me.
Having now started to listen to “Weapon” through this new perspective, I started hearing things that really call back to Skinny Puppy of the 80’s. This really resonated for me on the third track of the album, “SoLvo”, particularly as it closed out with the grainy echoes and tape loops. The synth work through out the song is very reminiscent of Skinny Puppy pre-1992, particularly in the spaces, transitions, vocal effects, etc. There is a real atmosphere that teleports me back to albums like “Too Dark Park”. I’m not trying to convince anyone this album sounds like an old school Puppy album, but there is crack shining through that flickers a nostalgic feeling. In that, I identify with the modern Skinny Puppy in ways I never could before.
“SoLvo” then transitions into “gLowbeL”, a song I can’t even begin to understand with its silly opening synth lines that sound like an organ grinder. The album hits and misses like this, with each strong song paired with something forgettable or even nerve grating.
All this is amplified, of course, by the inclusion of them recreating one of their older songs, “Solvent”. Which is an interesting experiment, because this is lodged right into the center of the album, a nice big slab of real old school Skinny Puppy sandwiched between a bunch of really clean, new recordings. Despite this being a modern recreation of an old song, it still feels mostly in-congruent, but I think it works very well to illustrate the tone of the album.
Lyrically, Ogre’s style has evolved over the years. The vocal styling and lyrical content on “Weapon” largely match what Ogre’s been doing since the late 90’s: Somewhat more melodic, with unusual but coherent effects and politically charge themes. Occasionally he dips into Reznor-ish goofiness along the lines of my favorite Nine Inch Nails lyric of all time: “flip flop flip flop flip”, in particular on my favorite new song “SoLvo” where the main refrain is “Screw it!”, which punctuates a number of lines in the song. Fortunately, it isn’t too distracting and Ogre’s lyrics otherwise fit the musical content perfectly, and are as thought provoking as usual.
I’m left at an impasse. I love Skinny Puppy, and I realize I’ve been a fan for over twenty years. These guys are legends to me, now putting out albums that don’t excite me like their albums used to. Not meant to be a statement to mark me as an old man as I am comfortably in my thirties, but I do like to imagine old man Ogre and Grandpa Key nerding out in their studio, cranking out albums that, above all else, they love making. This love of the craft reflects on “Weapon”. Thinking about that along with my other personal revelations, I find a warm comfort in “Weapon” that I haven’t found in a Skinny Puppy album for many years. Speaking as a put-off old school fan, Skinny Puppy’s “Weapon” is actually refreshing, and I highly recommend this album to my jaded peers. This one is actually pretty solid!