[25 July 2013]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Weapon, the twelfth studio album from Skinny Puppy, is not your older brother’s Skinny Puppy. Well, it is and it isn’t. Those of us of a certain age in Canada certainly remember the originally Vancouver-based Skinny Puppy as a glitchy industrial and electronic band, and early songs such as “Dig It” and “Deep Down Trauma Hounds” were certainly tuneful to a degree, but the band had an abrasive side. While 1992’s Last Rights had an effective ballad in “Killing Game” (which was a first for the band), my dim high school memories were of a record that was sheer white noise: wall-to-wall with the sounds of drills and saws, anti-Novocaine for the soul. The sort of thing that, if my parents heard me listening to it, would probably wonder what kind of evil Satan music I was getting myself into. So to hear Weapon is like hearing a side of the band you might not have heard before beyond the 12-inch singles of their heyday: The record is pretty downright accessible and a gateway entry point for anyone remotely interested in the band, dialing down the experimental edges that Skinny Puppy was sometimes known for. And you should be interested in Skinny Puppy, especially if you dig Nine Inch Nails: “Down In It” from Pretty Hate Machine is an inspired rewrite of “Dig It”, according to Trent Reznor. The group’s influence might not be entirely mainstream, but it is there – in an entire sub-genre of gothic keyboard rock. Weapon is really a harkening back to the early stuff from the ‘80s, with a touch of 21st century modernity thrown in.
Weapon is about a particular theme, that of society ailing to a point where weapons are more or less commonplace in culture – the cover art even references this with its image of a spider constructed out of blades and guns. However, as usual (some things never change), singer Nivek Ogre’s vocals are guttural and hard to parse, and when you can make out what he’s saying, much of it comes off as being very stream-of-consciousness. That’s of little concern, though, because Weapon is such a tuneful beast, one that isn’t afraid to go all Falling Down on you. Still, there’s a sense of the world growing weary for the band: Opening salvo “wornin’” sees Ogre sighing, “I’ve been out, so out of it / I’ve been hiding out”. It’s that song that leads off an extremely compelling opening trifecta: “wornin’” is clearly the sound of a band playing some old 8-bit video games, and provides a soundtrack to manning the controls of your vintage Nintendo in much the same way friends of mine used to play video games back in the day with the sound off and Ministry’s “Flashback” playing on repeat on the stereo. But it gets even better with the robotic “illisiT”, which is the sound of Armageddon going off while Ogre sings of the “criminal age” of terror. And “saLvo” has a panoramic, widescreen feel to it – a ghostly song that soars deep into the darkest of nights.
The rest of the album is more or less variations on the same. “tsudanama” is the kind of song that again references the sounds of video games, but imagine Super Mario Bros. running completely amok. “solvent” is complete glitch-rock, and achieves a bombastic lift-off not thought possible in keyboard-based music. “paragUn” winds up harkening back to the group’s ‘80s sound with a little added crunch and gloss in equal measure. Meanwhile, “survivalisto” is full of new wave keyboard squiggle, and I have to wonder if the group had dusted off their old Gary Numan albums in bringing this conception to life. At album’s end, “terminal” is full on Goth ballad full of operatic voices. It’s not quite a “Killing Game”, but it successfully brings the album down to a slow simmer.
Weapon does what it does so satisfyingly well, that it makes you rethink the concept of industrial music. While NIN’s Pretty Hate Machine was a keyboard based album, you think of the more metallic “Head Like a Hole” and what followed in that band’s catalogue as what the definition of modern industrial should be like, hammered home by Ministry’s following of the same path in the early ‘90s. But Skinny Puppy here make keyboards sound just as devious and menacing without going too far over the top: this is certainly death disco that you can dance to. And, speaking of “over the top”, this reminds me of something. I used to think that Ministry’s The Mind Is a Terrible Thing to Taste was a completely dark and evil album in my teen years, until I revisited it again a few years later in university and was struck as to how tongue-in-cheek the whole thing was. It was almost like listening to music that would have easily underpinned anime. And so the same can be said for Weapon, which ultimately winds up being a fun album in that same “I can’t believe what funhouse of horrors Skinny Puppy is about to unleash now!” kind of way. There’s none of the Brillo pad shrillness of a record like Last Rights, and the band has honed its sound to a point where it is remarkably commercial in ambition to an extent. While Weapon probably won’t sell a million units, and will be likely consigned to the group’s cult-like fan base, there’s still the possibility of introduction to the band that the album offers to those who weren’t old enough to appreciate Skinny Puppy at their late ‘80s/early ‘90s peak. While it’s true that Weapon doesn’t reinvent the wheel, and it sounds like a mish-mash of ‘80s ideas in song structure with 2013 technology, but I’d be damned if you don’t want to pump your fist and yell to this. In other words, “Dig It”. Well, I certainly do at least.