Report: Skinny Puppy, Live in Toronto
It was colder than a mother-in-law’s kiss Tuesday night in Toronto, but that didn’t stop an army of multi-generational Skinny Puppy fans from making the pilgrimage to a picturesque, remote industrial area dubbed The Docks to see the three decades-old electronic band that not only refuse to die, but sonically seem to get sharper with age.
The Toronto stop was part of their North American “Live Shapes for Arms 2014” tour, a belated trip designed to support the band’s last studio album, the superlative 2013 platter WEAPON. That disc, their twelfth, is a deliberately retro-fashioned collection of analog flavored intensity, hearkening to the singular sonics of their earlier sound. And yet although WEAPON’s songs are designed with the same purpose, their orchestration is decidedly more complex and mature, devoid of the endless horror movie and TWILIGHT ZONE sound bite sampling that both defined and somewhat dates those preliminary works, instead allowing vocalist/lyricist Ogre and audio wizard cEvin Key to create a much harder, contemporary sound from the skeleton of old.
It’s that connection between the past and the present that gives their current live show its thematic power. Most of the classic Puppy tracks don’t stray past 1989’s Al Jourgensen-produced RABIES. Not one selection from their stitched up 1995 “first death” album THE PROCESS, nor the 2004 comeback album THE GREATER WRONG OF THE RIGHT (which has aged splendidly), is performed and only cursory nods to other recent discs (most memorably, the pummeling “Village” from 2012’s HANDOVER) worm their way into the set list. Rather, classic tracks are selected by their apparent ability to weave thematically and aurally into the WEAPON landscape. The result is a conceptual and fully realized quasi-industrial rock opera.
On the theatrical tip, Ogre’s visual presentation—both personally, and the construction of the sets and costumes—is the skin and soul of the show. While opting for a less bloody performance (his dabbling in onstage Grand Guignol are well documented, controversial, over-the-top and worshiped), the show is no less malevolent. As with their “Mythmaker” tour a few years ago, the set (also conceived, mostly built and designed by Ogre) is a mess of white sheets and screens in which kinetic, melting visuals (by Tim and Sarah at Rim Visuals) are machine-gunned endlessly in an all-out sensory assault. This time, extra LCD monitors are also brought on stage, each playing another visual feed to further disorient the audience.
From opening the show with WEAPON’s lead single “illisiT,” the thundering from cEvin Key’s rack, Justin Bennett’s relentless live drumming and Ogre’s screeching about “the criminal age” set the mood. The front man bellows from behind a twirling biohazard symbol-emblazoned umbrella, emerging eventually to reveal a terrifying machete-wielding, masked monster get-up. Later he ducks behind a sheer screen to morph into a kind of were-dog, while a human stage prop snakes around the peripheral in full HazMat suit, taking Geiger counter readings. Plenty of gems from the BITES and REMISSION era are blasted out with renewed sonic fury including “Solvent” (itself re-recorded/orchestrated on the “Weapon” album) and the oddly cheery “Far Too Frail.” Most of the crowd was familiar with the newer Puppy material, but for those that weren’t, every time one of these classic cuts blasted out of the PA, the surge in audience energy was palpable, most pronounced when the immortal RABIES single “Worlock” began its moody synth-string intro. That was the formula. Hook with the known, steer ‘em into the new, keep the show tight.
For a band that should have long since ceased to be relevant, Skinny Puppy are making waves in the press lately, with news that the US government was reportedly using their more extreme material to torture prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. It’s great to see Ogre and Key’s names being bandied about in the mainstream with an aura of danger and controversy, but this renewed interest shouldn’t live and die on what is really just a novelty, a grim one at that. The boys are just into their 50s and creatively, they’re at their apex. Full disclosure: this writer recently cast Ogre in a film, a role that required him to be very physical and he was, doing stunts that would make men half his age weep. So it’s no surprise that Ogre’s presence on stage is still athletic and vital, a ceaseless 90-minute performance that requires multiple costume changes, endless feats of movement and contorting and challenging vocal trickery. And there wasn’t a false move. If there was, we didn’t notice, as the band has created such a dense sensory experience that any flaw would only add another layer of complexity to the show.
As of this writing, there are ten more US/Canadian stops on the Shapes for Arms tour. Even if you don’t love and know Skinny Puppy as much as this writer clearly does, it might behoove you, as a horror film lover, as a lover of abstract art and extreme sound, to check the show out. We brought several newbies to this performance and all of them emerged as fans. If that’s not a sign of enduring relevance and evolution I don’t know what is.