LIVE: Skinny Puppy, Wonder Ballroom, Portland, OR

By Yousef Hatlani – All Photos by Yousef Hatlani

I discovered Skinny Puppy ten years ago. An impressionable 16 year-old at the time, the sounds characteristic of Industrial music had been knocking around in my head in 2004 for a couple years—thanks to positive first impressions of Atari Teenage Riot and Static-X (neither of which have aged very well since). Naturally, it didn’t take very long for the immersive world of Nine Inch Nails to completely enrapture my attention with their sonically dense catalog of meticulously detailed aesthetics—every distorted beat, every synth line, every lyric, every piece of artwork and every frame of every video seemed fastidiously thought out and perfectly executed. This was something I could really sink my teeth into. It was genuine and inspiring.

That summer, I decided to check out a name that had followed Nine Inch Nails around every turn where they’d been mentioned: the recently reunited Skinny Puppy, who had put out their first new record in almost a decade just a couple months prior: the politically aware and musically accessible The Greater Wrong of the Right, the band’s first album without key members Dave “Rave” Ogilvie and Dwayne Goettel, whose death in 1996 broke the group up for four years. It was in them that I had finally found another group with the same engrossing qualities as Trent Reznor’s output—the kind of discipline that greatly augmented my understanding of attention to detail, my overall appreciation of electronic music and of music in general.

I then tried visiting their earlier output—namely 1990’s Too Dark Park, but it seemed too abrasive for me at the time; too many harsh electronics, too much blood in their videos, too many screams. “Is that a dead dog?”, I thought. “Oh god, this is too creepy for me. I’ll stick with The Downward Spiral and The Greater Wrong of the Right”’ It wasn’t until the summer of 2008, after I’d turned 21, that suddenly everything clicked—the same summer I discovered many integral indie bands like Cocteau Twins, the Replacements, Hüsker Dü and the Jesus Lizard. But it was Skinny Puppy that had really rocked my world.

You could realistically say it was that first drumbeat in the song “Dogshit”, the opening track off of their 1987 opus VIVIsectVI, or even the first time I heard the chorus to the band’s signature track “Worlock” from 1989’s Rabies. This was something I knew existed, but did not know could be accomplished so perfectly and passionately. The shards of distortion yielded so many brash emotions and seemingly bypassed what could be expressed with traditional instrumentation. It was unlike anything I’d ever heard before—and apparently, unlike anything a lot of people had heard before; Skinny Puppy were not very popular with my friends, nor almost anyone I went to college with and especially not with my own family. I once put on “Convulsion,” the opening track to Too Dark Park, and my mom thought my computer was dying. I can understand. But this was my own special thing; it enabled much introspection, an ability to feel centered and focused. I listened to a lot of music, but Skinny Puppy was my band—and everyone who knew me knew that. To top it off, I later bought every album of theirs on CD, vinyl AND tape (not uncommon for dedicated fans, I later learned).

Skinny Puppy merch at the Wonder Ballroom. Photo by Yousef Hatlani.Skinny Puppy merch at the Wonder Ballroom //Photo credit: Yousef Hatlani 

Fast forward to the Wonder Ballroom on March 2nd, 2014. I had already seen Skinny Puppy at the Wonder in November 2009, and have also since seen founding member cEvin Key twice solo and vocalist Nivek Ogre with his band, ohGr, twice—having seized literally every opportunity to see them when passing through Portland, OR. This is also not an uncommon practice for hardcore fans (and there are a lot of them). But back in ’09, Skinny Puppy’s draw surprisingly did not seem to be that strong—even a scalper outside the venue complained about the lack of people coming to the show, compared to their stop in Portland during 2004’s reunion tour. Fans were nonetheless enthralled and created an emphatic atmosphere, making for a great show. But Sunday night’s show at the Wonder was a different story.

This time around, the venue was completely sold out. No extra tickets. No more spots on the list. Nada. Sorry, dude (a phrase I had to throw around quite a few times while waiting outside.) Fans waited in the wind and rain, many of them first timers, for their chance to see these Industrial titans—icons of the genre, respected by all. This apparent surge in popularity can be attributed to a lot of things, namely the release of two albums since their last Portland show: 2011’s hanDover and 2013’s Weapon. This is also a band that has now been around for over thirty years, and several aspects of their sound have infiltrated the tastes of young, curious listeners with an ear for both the Avant Garde, early electronic music and more mainstream acts thanks to the success of artists like Nine Inch Nails, Aphex Twin and even Tool, who have name checked Skinny Puppy as an influence more than once. How much of this really happened between 2009 and 2014? Who knows? What was immediately evident was that there was finally a lot of love for Skinny Puppy going around, and the circumstances are more of a curiosity to me than a focus.

BAAL // Photo credit: Yousef Hatlani.

The first act of the night was three piece Japanese Industrial Metal band BAAL (apparently pronounced “Bale.” Yes, like Christian Bale.) Though they won the already amped audience over quite easily with their brandishing of makeup, backing tracks, seven string guitar chugs and emphatic shouting, the music itself was not entirely dissimilar to that of Slipknot or Fear Factory—and one could argue that those bands still have more diversity. But that might also be what put them over so well, since the crowd was enjoying it, after all—albeit circumstantially. Enthusiasm? They’ve got it; they were very appreciative and happy to be there, and were certainly very professional. But the group needed much more variety to truly maintain the crowd’s attention.

Following this, the stage was set and smoke enveloped the room as anticipation quickly built; there were concerns about Ogre’s health, as he revealed in a post to Skinny Puppy’s Facebook page earlier in the day that he had suffered from food poisoning prior to the band’s show in Seattle the previous evening and was left unable to perform an encore that night—the first instance of its kind in the band’s 30+ year career. Nevertheless, he assured fans that the show must go on.

Of course, had you been unaware of this, I doubt that you would have guessed it was the case that night; treading and jerking theatrically in one of his signature/sinister costumes (while wielding a Bowie knife and an umbrella made to look like the nuclear power symbol), Ogre delivered his distinctive intensity amidst a backdrop of masterfully arranged projections and a giant fallout shelter box. Founding member/keyboardist/multi-instrumentalist cEvin Key and touring drummer Justin Bennett have also never sounded better or looked more enthused.

Skinny Puppy frontman Nivek Ogre, donning his first costume of the night. Photo by Yousef Hatlani.Skinny Puppy frontman Nivek Ogre // Photo credit: Yousef Hatlani

The group played for about an hour and a half, offering a set that—for the first time—consisted almost equally of newer songs and choice cuts from their classic oeuvre. Fan favorites “First Aid,” “The Choke,” “Deep Down Trauma Hounds: and “Hexonxonx: were all played—the latter seeing Ogre drinking and spitting out illuminated green water into the crowd, a reference to the song’s subject matter about oil mega-corporation Exxon. The group also performed their timeless track and gateway drug ‘Worlock,’ a song I’ve listened to a million fucking times but has never aged a wink and still sounded better that night than I’ve literally ever heard. Newer songs included “illisiT,” “wornin,” “plasiCage”—all from new album Weapon, as well as “Village” from 2011’s hanDover, and those took on a powerful new form in the live setting as well. Luckily for Portland, the trio came back out for an encore that included two songs from their very first release: the 1984 EP Remission. The first of these was “Far Too Frail”, another signature track that unfortunately does not get included in their setlists all too often, and their definitive closer “Smothered Hope”, surprisingly the only time thus far I’ve ever heard it live (it was not included during their last set in town).

Multi-instrumentalist/keyboardist cEvin Key, apparently noticing me. Photo by Yousef Hatlani.cEvin Key of Skinny Puppy, apparently noticing me. // Photo credit: Yousef Hatlani

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention how important the visual facet to this show was; Skinny Puppy is an extremely visual band. Everything in the show, from costumes to projections to props, is typically interacted with to create a narrative. Perhaps not unlike the notion of the group’s 2004 reunion tour, the overall theme tonight was the threat of nuclear war, the US deficit and Big Brother. Ogre went through no less than four costume changes, beginning the show as a grim reaper-esque foreteller of nuclear winter and moving on to reveal himself as roadkill for a decent portion of the set. Later, he quickly maneuvered his way into a lab coat from behind the giant fallout shelter box, assuming the role of a government prisoner being subjected to an experiment. At the conclusion of their set, he was stuffed into said fallout shelter by two costumed stagehands and yanked away, reemerging during the encore unmasked in a tank top, boots and jeans as the fittest 50 year old I’ve ever seen: slender, energetic, graceful and focused. It prompted me to consider exercising again, because I don’t think I’ve ever looked that good in my whole life.

Touring drummer Justin Bennett. Photo by Yousef Hatlani.Touring drummer Justin Bennett // Photo credit: Yousef Hatlani.

Like many of the shows I’ve seen recently for Faces on the Radio of bands I grew up listening to – Pearl Jam, Nine Inch Nails, Phil Anselmo, et al. –  my apprehensions prior to the show about it falling flat or appearing tired were dashed as soon as the first note echoed throughout the venue. Skinny Puppy predates all of those aforementioned artists and has always rigorously exceeded fan’s expectations in the live setting, an invincible work ethic that has kept them going uninterruptedly since their 2004 reunion. With this discipline stronger than ever—even overcoming food poisoning to perform for us—and public interest at its apparent highest in recent memory, this just might have been the most vital time to see them since their reunion a decade ago, when I discovered them.

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