It was, I think, 1987. I was sitting on the floor in a friend’s room when he announced that a friend of his had passed along a tape from a band with the stupidest name he’d ever heard in his life.
I was sixteen at the time, but I was used to the idea that you could camouflage something great behind a terrible label. When one of the finest books I’d read up until that point had been named Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the notion that a band could be named “Skinny Puppy” didn’t exactly have me giggling, or reaching for the smelling salts. And having already experienced Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Kontakte courtesy of an LP at the library, I was no stranger to the idea that music could be about more than just mere entertainment. None of this was defense enough against what came out of those speakers and mugged me.
Of all the bands from that period through the Nineties that were either awarded or self-applied the description “industrial”, Skinny Puppy were among the few who not only outlived the era without being embarrassing in retrospect, but had the musical chops (no, seriously) and the presence to back up their ambitions and pretensions. Other bands would paint their faces and go “boo!”, but Skinny Puppy would stand at the window and stare down into the street at you until you screamed and ran. They weren't trying to scare you, see; they were embodying something frightening beyond even themselves, which is always scarier.
It's never a good idea to try and put words immediately to the music you hear, but such was, and is, my sin. The first words that leapt to mind on hearing the opening cuts of side two (the tape we’d been given had been sequenced wrong), was: “This is organic.” For a band whose only non-electronic instrument was vocalist (I can’t call him a “singer” here) Kevin Ogilvie (a/k/a “Ogre”)’s rasp-saw voice—and even then it might as well have been one, given how heavily it had been processed—they didn’t have the cold, bleeping, mechanical sound I would have associated with a band crammed to the earlobes with synthesizers. Half-meat, half-machine, with each half being used to torture the worst out of the other, and adorned with lyrics that resembled the rambling scrawls of mental patients, and were printed in all-uppercase run-on paragraphs to boot. The PMRC still had their hands full with the likes of Twisted Sister and Judas Priest; present them with this stuff and their foreheads might well have split open a la the pineal-gland monster in From Beyond.
I might have been better prepared for them had I heard Suicide first, whose sound was even cruder and more primal—and dated from a good ten years earlier—but had the same man-meets-machine flavor to it. Except where Suicide had a sound like a “transistorized Elvis” (as another critic put it), Skinny Puppy sounded like the music going through whatever was left of the mind of one of the animatronic dead-animal props the band used in a number of its stage shows. This wasn’t even the music of the street; this was the music of the gutter (“Addiction”), the insane asylum (“Draining Faces”), the human scrap heap (“Second Tooth”), the operating table (“The Mourn”), and the lab cage, the connotations of which served as the loose inspiration for the band’s naming. And none of it had a thing to do with whatever was coming out of the radio that year, although at the time that for me was more of a point of entry than the ultimate proof of the music's value.
Even on that first listening, I could hear more than just noise and rage and psychodrama. The two instrumentalists for the band, Kevin Crompton (aka cEvin Key) and Dwayne Goettel, had both served time in other, more musically-accessible bands (Images In Vogue and Psyche), and within the maelstrom of each song there was always the spinal column of a melody. There was songwriting going on, but it was easy to lose sight of it inside the mess of electronics and sampled sounds, and also behind the perpetual ongoing molten exorcism of personal demons. The point was not simply to shock or mortify the listener, but to recreate a state of mind where shock and mortification had already taken their toll. To repeat a favorite quote of mine: “Stuff like this scares me, because at times it makes perfect sense.”
Cleanse Fold and Manipulate was far from their first record (it was their third or fourth, depending on how you slice it), but it’s always difficult to think of any band’s personal significance except through the point of your first contact with them. For the first time I’d discovered firsthand what people meant by a band being the soundtrack to their lives. It wasn’t that my life was so miserable that the bleakness of a band like Skinny Puppy served as an uplifting contrast (as the author of Go Ask Ogre would detail)—it was that I wanted my own inner life to be this eldritch and excessive, but it wouldn’t be a while before I discovered that wasn’t always such a hot idea.
New York City
Other Lives Of The Mind