Review Summary: A Short Masterpiece of Electro-Industrial
* Note: I use the words “I” and “me” excessively in this review. I hope it doesn’t come across as egotistical litter, but the music is too deep in my psyche to talk about it objectively.
Skinny Puppy created a lot of singles, but this one stands out as feeling more like an "album" instead of a mere “single”; I value each track almost as much as anything else in their catalogue. It also has my favorite cover art. It has, in my mind at least, the status of an “honorary EP.”
There were four tracks on the original CD release:
Track 1: Spasmolytic (Remix)
When I see "remix" I usually think “meh
, I guess I’ll check it out.” Industrial artists around 1990 were at the forefront of what today is a well-entrenched remix-culture, where remixes of whole albums are routinely released by many bands, including some gems that include but are not limited to great remix albums by Wumpscut, C-Lekktor, and Suicide Commando.
I'm open to remixes, but despite this wealth I can count on one hand the number of re-mixed songs that I value as much as the original, or vice-versa; it’s usually one or the other. But for me the remixed Spasmolytic has a value almost equal to the originial.
On the remix, the phantasmagoria of the synths that return immediately following the bare snare drum at around 2-minutes is unmatched, in my opinion, in thirty years of remix culture; unmatched even by anything on Puppy's most phantasmagoric album, Last Rights
Also on display are Ogre’s lyrical abilities, providing some of my favorite examples of modern poetry. Ogre growls:
A Knotted finger turning pages
In a book descending
What does it mean? Because I’m lyrically challenged I had no concrete idea when I first listened to it, and that was ideal.
If the rhythm of a phrase matches the beat of the drums and its meaning is vague, I’m good.
(A study of the lyrics reveals that they seem to be about an aging or malnourished prostitute -- with knotted fingers
finishing a book -- in the midst of a struggle with drug addiction: “Faded spirit of the gold toothed whore…./ Kicking the habit/ possession in the flesh.”)
Track 2: Shore Lined Poison (Remix)
Possibly the only example of a Puppy song where I like the remix better
than the original. The big difference is in the drums. It’s a perfect example of what I love about music: It’s fiendishly
difficult to describe in words what your ears can tell you with relative ease.
For starters, there are two layers of looped drum-patterns: A basically normal-sounding drum kit layered beneath something that sounds like a synthetic set of distorted timpani, that is, drums that have pitches, and therefore play percussive notes
. In short, the drum-pattern of the remix seems to end on a higher pitch than the album version, giving it greater intensity. (Criticism from an actual drummer would be invaluable here).
It’s also one of the relatively rare chorus-bearing songs they wrote.
Track 3: Harsh Stone White (Live In Denver)
Skinny Puppy is a band that a person usually has to “get.” I can’t remember ever knowing anyone -- back in the days when I hung out with physical people -- who was familiar with the band and was on the fence about them. Most people either “got” them and loved them or “didn’t” and thought they totally sucked.
I didn’t “get” -- or at least I didn’t love
-- our song here, Harsh Stone White,
until I saw it live. It has certain elements not found in the studio version. But outside of these it contains theatrical elements that can only
be experienced live. During the show at which I heard it, the machine-like rattling drum underneath the chorus -- a sort-of “double-bass drum” -- was accompanied by a strobe light which, amidst the general nightmarish surreality of the mysterious lighting effects and stage props and mist, was wildly, inexpressibly psychedelic. The picture on the cover of the single? I was there.
Before the show I had only a casual interest in the band; they were good but not totally awesome. But afterwards I was totally hooked and picked up their whole catalogue. Are there equally devoted Puppy fans out there who have never seen them live? There are plenty of bands I love that I haven’t seen, but Skinny Puppy might not have been one of them. In fact I sometimes wonder if it's possible that they cannot stand on their music alone (ouch!). I say this because I can never “unhear” their music in a way that is separate
from the aesthetic I absorbed at that show. Is it possible that their recorded music is incomplete somehow without a concert-goer’s memory; that the music is not a separate entity; that it has to be explained by its performance?
This thought disturbs me greatly. For if the effect of the music can only last as long as the lives of the band members and their audience, then this “you had to be there” kind of music won’t have the longevity, of say, a J.S. Bach, who lived 272-years ago and is still familiar to many (Bach currently has around 7.6 million listeners on Spotify). It hurts me deeply to speculate on this, but there it is. If it’s true, then hopefully some dedicated fans will simulate Puppy shows in the future. Why not? After all, Bach has been dead for thirteen generations, but his music is performed all the time, all the world over.
BTW: The official video for Spasmolytic is perhaps the best sample of their aesthetic outside of a concert.
Track 4: Walking on Ice (live excerpts: San Francisco/Dallas/Oklahoma City)
I once subjected a couple of unsuspecting friends (who weren’t into this sort of stuff) to the part on Walking on Ice that lies between the minutes of 3:20 and 8:34. They were reasonably disturbed. I mean, we were a 3rd of the way to being inebriated, and that certainly helped magnify the effect. But the combination of wild drumming leading to satanic phantom-operatic organ music leading to Ogre’s chorus of kaleidoscopic roaring of demon-polyphony is pretty intense when you’re sober too, I should think.
I once commented on this site to another Sputnik user that the introduction to a Suicide Commando song (The Gates of Oblivion) was superior in effect to Puppy’s ambient creations. I totally take that back.
Many artists have created stuff like it; Hocico, Acylum, Psyclon Nine, Dawn of Ashes, Velvet Acid Christ, Suicide Commando. But no one has done surreal-horror ambience better
than Skinny Puppy. Not even, I speculate, Throbbing Gristle. This track -- really this whole single -- is a gold-standard example of it.