Skinny Puppy’s return after eight years is undeniably bittersweet, because it reeks of missed opportunity. After a near decade of underground achievement, including a half-dozen full-length releases distributed by a major label in the U.S. and a top 20 Billboard Dance Chart smash (“Testure”), Skinny Puppy were poised at the top of the class of acts destined to break through in the alternative ’90s. As the first North American band to infuse experimental synth-pop with overt gothic influences and give the as-yet-unnamed industrial dance subgenre an overwhelmingly strong visual character, they were more deserving figureheads of the music than new kid Trent Reznor, and just as trailblazing and influential as Ministry’s Al Jourgensen. But like the figure skater destined to win the gold medal who then bashes in her own knee, Skinny Puppy dissolved into heroin addictions, studio fires, label problems, and ultimately death (keyboardist Dwayne Goettel died of an overdose in 1996), falling silent after their peak in 1991 with Last Rights, a harrowing record that infused heaps of white noise into dance music that had come so far unglued as to be almost beat-less. Its lone follow-up, 1996’s The Process, should have been Skinny Puppy’s The Downward Spiral or Psalm 69; instead, it was an unfocused, unfinished footnote to the story of a fearlessly experimental band that imploded when it should have prevailed. Eight years later, Skinny Puppy’s two founding members, Cevin Key and Nivek Ogre, have put the pieces back together and produced the record that would have been their ticket out of the insular goth/industrial ghetto if it had been released instead of The Process. Sadly, despite the fact that The Greater Wrong of the Right is a marvelous record, the only people who will pay it much attention in 2004 are those who have been waiting eagerly for the band to reunite since the Clinton era.
Although it is one of a handful of tracks on the album clearly intended for recognizable playability in clubs, “I’mmortal” is also a definitive, attention-grabbing opener, demonstrating Skinny Puppy’s new sound and intention immediately, as well as adequately representing the album to follow. The changes are immediately noticeable: cleaner, more prominent beats, rough (but not heavy) guitar to give the music lean power and texture, and Ogre’s voice presenting lyrical sentiments in semi-complete phrases rather than his old stream-of-consciousness approach, mixed upfront with very little distortion. Mark Walk, known mostly for his collaborations with Ogre in the recent OhGr solo project, is now credited as a member of Skinny Puppy as well as a co-producer. This may explain the track’s immediate similarity to the OhGr project, which tends to similarly frame Ogre in uncluttered, rhythmic backdrops intended not to interfere with his all-important delivery. In fact, “I’mmortal” may be the most accessible track ever released under the Skinny Puppy moniker.
The Greater Wrong of the Right‘s high quota of accessible, club-oriented tracks sets it apart from Skinny Puppy’s other works. Whereas late-’80s industrial cornerstones like Cleanse, Fold and Manipulate or VIVIsect VI offer up one standout track apiece (“Addiction”, “Testure”), the new record offers four or five of that caliber. “Neuwerld” carries forth the band’s pro-environmental message, which has always elevated the band above the profanity-spouting aggressors typically attracted to the band’s direct descendents (i.e., Tool, Marilyn Manson). It also filters Ogre’s voice through a number of speed adjustments and cut-up techniques, which may annoy potential new converts, but it reconfirms the unmistakable electronic wizardy of Cevin Key, who is never content to play it completely safe. “Downsizer” is similarly bent, and holds the honor of being the darkest track on the record. “Past Present” is a dance floor powerhouse, which renders newer EBM acts like VNV Nation or Covenant completely obsolete. The higher percentage of club tracks leaves little room on the record for the deliberately noisy, sample-laden aural sculpture at which Skinny Puppy came to excel by the dawn of the ’90s, but the 2004 edition of the band has no need for it.
Actually, the tracks that don’t directly relate to Skinny Puppy’s distant past comprise the artistic meat of the record (pun intended — Skinny Puppy are renowned animal rights activists and vegetarians). “Use Less” is the much-ballyhooed collaboration with Danny Carey from Tool and Wayne Static from Static-X. The track is triumphant and anthemic, reaching a new artistic high for Skinny Puppy, redressed as an alternative rock band and playing to rock’s conventions; it succeeds where similar efforts on The Process, like “Candle” and “Cult”, fell short. Neither of the collaborators make much of an impression, however; Static’s voice is virtually unnoticeable to those familiar with Ogre’s throat-grating past, and Carey’s live drums could just as easily have been performed by Key. The song, which laments our misuse of the depleted atmosphere, still stands as one of Skinny Puppy’s finest. “Empte” has a similar rock-like accessibility, with keyboard washes that elevate Ogre’s laments about spiritual emptiness to an ironic, heavenly level. Finally, the mindblowing “Pro-test” recasts Skinny Puppy as the grandfather of rap-metal; buoyed by a heavy, breakneck drum pattern and shards of metallic guitar, MC Ogre comfortably holds his own against an onslaught of production tricks and sound effects. His voice remains palatable but never loses its strength or clarity. Of the album’s ten tracks, “Pro-test” offers the greatest crossover potential.
Unfortunately, though, Skinny Puppy’s successes have all stemmed from a time when industrial music was still an evolving, underground movement, rather than a soundtrack for dress-up day at the mall. The time for the band’s commercial outbreak may have passed, but with its strong material, updated production, sonic complexity, and a force-of-nature vocalist with genuine charisma, Skinny Puppy are still welcome and necessary, even as counter-culture for a new Republican age.