The Forum, London
18 July 2010
Skinny Puppy shows are pretty much bound to be weird, and more than a tad befuddling; bemusing even. Where else can a grown man shimmy onstage dressed like cross between a lightshow-bejewelled Torquemada and the dead king of Sutton Hoo, all pointy white cone-hat and empty-socketed stare against a background of videogame corridors – which it soon transpires on further exposure are probably filmed in the real world – and a panorama of desert warfare fallout and urban debris colour-filtered into psychedelic abstraction. Skinny Puppy’s musical approach is somewhat similar to their visual sense; distorting, inverting and making the organisation of commonplace sounds unfamiliar and more than a bit digitally outré. Slipping wraith-like between the precise boundaries of genre with an unnerving adroitness, walking the tightrope between the acceptably rhythmic and disjointedly off the wall in spaces where industrial meets cybergoth, from acid-test to rave and back again, like a bad-yet-intense trip on a cocktail of ketamine, adrenachrome and maybe some other made-up drugs tailored to the set and setting; and perhaps even clarky-cat or cake will be promised.
There are no hipsters easily visible here to witness a subcultural spectacle which as surely so far beyond irony as to make the pose of being part of it faintly ridiculous – whatever else goths and industrial-heads can be accused of, it is generally not disloyalty to their scene or its heroes. Likewise, Skinny Puppy’s music and imagery are so far out of time (rather than being exactly timeless), thanks to their almost dogmatic adherence to the ritualised visuals and sounds of a genre which had its peak shortly before the moment when network living become an actual – and far less romantic – way of life, ageing cyberpunks (them and perhaps their audience) both ahead and apparently almost rigidly of their times.
Hands wrapped in a mass of bandages, Ogre is the unavoidable focus for the entire show, theatrical, even more than a little industrial-operatic in his passionately intense delivery; but this is not music which is easy to grasp, to draw close to. The very Eighties FM keyboard sounds which cEvin Key favours swell and trill with a cinematic feel which would make John Carpenter proud; yet laid bare in the swimming, dubbed-up maze of noises Key immerses them in, as “Hatekill” kicks in some suitably hard beats and synth stabs among the shouted imprecations against the general shittiness of Twentifirst Century existence. Skinny Puppy exist in a strange electronic counter-music world as bastardized original cyperpunks, anti-JM Jarres whose soundclash of hardbeat and techno is shorn of its utopianism. Shot through with breakbeats and dub references, the whole made epic and clinging to the primal sound of rock stripped of any need for guitars – and certainly not the sampling thereof – while Justin Bennett takes care of the ritualistic pounding of his drumkit.
At one point Ogre pulls aside the sheets covering a large box at the side of the stage with a monitor set on top, losing himself into its blood-dripping interior like a unheimlich stage magician, only to manifest onscreen and on the back projections as a fearsomely-cartoonish vision of a ghoul in the machine. The effect of this is certainly disconcerting: the spectacle of this demonic, masked and disembodied figure ranting almost incoherently – but with a purpose – into the brain-machine raved-up kaleidoscope of the lightshow is both perplexing, and just what should be expected of skinny Puppy live and direct. As Ogre’s cone hat, a US flag filtered out to red-shift intensity projected onto it, starts smoking fitfully from its tip out into the venue, he wields one of those characteristic industrial singer’s props, in his case a stainless steel cross morphed into a bishop’s mitre at each end, rather more technoid than Al Jourgenson‘s very metalhead variation on the theme made of bones. Can he really be singing “Jesus want to be hardbeat?” Anything is possible from this most eccentric and wilfully lateral of dystopian not-rock groups, whose tropes of a subculture that probably wishes deep down that the world could be a kind and better place, but are simultaneously revelling in the realization that it never, ever will.
The overall effect is like being at a revivalist Hallowe’en rave where the punch has been spiked with particularly brown acid, complete with trompe l’oeil FX. There is often close to too much reverb and echo on the vocals, mixed with bizarre costume changes, flickering hallucinatory backdrops of fiery landscapes and solarised political and religious imagery, all set to a equally hellishly disjointed sense of rhythm. Eventually “Assimilate” pounds out their signature rejection of mundanity, finally getting the crowd moving to a ultradisco groove, because, as it is well known, to be part of a revolution without dancing (and funny carnival costumes) would be very, very dull. The hardcore industrial goth crowd out, if not in full force, then in vocal strength, swells towards the stage, calling Skinny Puppy back for an encore. They are are treated to the sight of Ogre stripped of his finery – and perhaps flummery – for the final song of the evening in the form of a welcome blast into the buzzing, lurching lament for the state of the world that is “Worlock.” With Ogre in his slicked-back hair and vest, twirling his mic like an electro-techno version of Peter Murphy, it’s at this point that Skinny Puppy’s deeply rooted connection to the goth-industrial death-disco bloodline is most evident, as the ageing kids in their side-swiped, dyed-black hair throwing punchy dancefloor moves lap up their last chance to dance to the harsh, hard beats which are angular, yet comfortingly familiar to any long-term denizen of Slimelite.