The Rise and Fall of Skinny Puppy

Listening to Skinny Puppy was like living in a haunted television. The vocals were run through layers of dirty distortion that made what came out of our stereos sound like a tormented soul in hell or worse. Over this and assorted electronic noises, clips of movies or tv shows with telltale midcentury diction floated, unmoored and decontextualized so that they may as well have been more synth noise.  The lyrics, such as they were, vaguely hinted at death, torture and despair. Narratives were absent, just nebulous words connected only by some nearly schizophrenic  associative process that inspired a codebreaker’s fervor in me. My middle school boyfriend—a pathological liar with unaccountably great taste in music—and I would pour over liner notes, debate what samples were supposed to mean. In the days before everything was on the internet it was a massive triumph to finally prove that the line in The Choke was “assuming that were possible” and not—as said boyfriend insisted—“assuming I were comfortable.” We spent hours trying to conjure up lucid dreams while Skinny Puppy tapes reeled out on the stereo in my room. What we expected from those dreams in not clear. Something like divination, maybe. Communicating with those eerie disembodied voices?  The music was disturbed, irrational and perhaps we wanted to think we were like that too.

We—and here I mean all the Goths who grew up in this late 80s-early 90s not-quite-Gen-X- but-close-enough milieu—thought of ourselves in some ways as like these songs. Full of random noise, made of senseless words from TV shows that only came on after everyone else in the house was already asleep, knowing a world of pain existed out there but not sure we were actually feeling it. Songs like “Deep Down Trauma Hounds” spoke to us of horrors in remote, vague terms. If there was identifiable pain in all the vivisection and torment, it didn’t seem to belong to anyone specific, so we made it belong to all of us. We reveled in the strange, dissonant noise. We had been vivisected, it said so on our ripped black shirts. And if—as in all likelihood—that wasn’t true, we would find a way to do it to ourselves. If ever there was music made for zombies, this was it.

There was talk that Skinny Puppy was going too mainstream when Last Rights came out. There were fewer of the songs that challenged you to sit through eight minutes of stuttering samples and tinny drums. The lyrics were more coherent but still cryptic. Though this album gave us the hauntingly beautiful “Love In Vein”  and the quiet melancholy of “Mirror Saw” it still dared you to prove you were not a poseur who’d skip through “Circustance” or “Download.” Then Dwayne Goettel died, The Process eventually came out and it had all kinds of horrors like Ogre’s unprocessed vocals and acoustic guitar. Was the band trying to be Skinny Puppy Unplugged? If the opening acoustic guitar of “Candle” played over any club’s system and you headed toward the floor everyone would know you were a noob. You’d better sit on those cockroach–kickers until “Testure” played.

In retrospect, The Process shaped a lot of the industrial that came after. But it also began Skinny Puppy’s deviation from a band that would make most people call the exorcist to something that might conceivably be played in association with some sort of sporting event. There was a time in the early aughts when one could hear Front Line Assembly on MTV sports. I feared this would be Skinny Puppy’s fate.

The excellent book House of Leaves has a dedication reading “This is not for you.” This, then, exemplifies how I felt when Skinny Puppy t-shirts started cropping up on regular kids. This was not for them. They hadn’t listened as intently, trying to scratch some meaning out of the songs. They didn’t understand where this music came from. They liked some rocking guitars and bass drums and didn’t care about the message. Of course, it was the time that anything vaguely labeled “alternative” was stripped from the fans to sell toothpaste. I’d cherished this music that was spooky and weird and I didn’t want to share it with everyone. Sometime close to 2003, I stopped trying to keep up with any music save a handful of obscure German acts. I mined the past and avoided the present. I ignored Ogre’s solo albums and focused on the multi-volumes of Back and Forth. The Process really marks the end for me.

As I was looking for videos to insert into this post, I came across this:

This is just the worst sort of thing. Trying to throw some sort of banal hip-hop attitude into Skinny Puppy? It’s not funny, it’s not cool. It seems like if Skinny Puppy aspired to be played at wet-t-shirt contests, then this would accomplish that.

Sigh.

I need to get some sleep. See you in electric dreams.

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4 Responses to “The Rise and Fall of Skinny Puppy”

  1. i dont know how i feel about skinny puppy…but im young i was listening to smothered hope and my mom yelled at me and told me to turn it off. to be honest its so strange i cant stop listening to it. i love it and i love the singers voice. I’m tired of being chained down by my parents when they ask why i love demonic stuff. i dont like demonic stuff. i like things that sound diffrerent and they cant except that. just cuz its not what they like. well, they can all kiss my ass cuz they created a daughter who loves skinny puppy…love your entry i got to know a little big more about the music behind the madness

  2. I relate totally to what you say having grown up through the same process (lol) you describe in the late 80s and 90s. For me (as an SP fan and a club DJ) “the process” didn’t work because, well, it didn’t really sell out enough; it dabbled with hooks-of-the-time but never quite delivered; it was too meanderingly obscure and not in a great way; so it fell somewhere in no-man’s land. I do love “mythmaker” though and especially OhGr’s “welt” (it hits the mark, with good hooks, like early SP) and a few other OhGr albums I’ve heard but not as closely. I think they’re the best thing done since SP’s 80s hey day.

  3. phenobarbidoll_nyc Says:

    Skinny Puppy died with Dwayne. Try as they might, neither Ogre nor Cey have managed to recapture the out-and-out aural assault that Duck fueled. I’ll give you “Too Dark Park” if pressed, but frankly, almost everything after “Rabies” was a waste of time (and money).

  4. I have to say I mostly agree. Also grew up in that era. I do like Mythmaker although the newest release hanDover is quite forgettable.

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