Back With a Bite

A resurrected Skinny Puppy still shows some teeth.

Skinny Puppy Agora Theatre, 5000 Euclid Avenue 9 p.m. Saturday, November 13; $22.50 advance/$25 day of show, 216-241-5555
The filth that binds: Old pals Key (left) and Ogre enjoy - some quality time together.
The filth that binds: Old pals Key (left) and Ogre enjoy some quality time together.
After a Skinny Puppy concert this summer, electronic keyboarder cEvin Key was greeted by an enthralled female fan, joyous at having just seen Key's reunited band perform after a 10-year absence. Smiling, she offered Key a gift. Into the palm of his hand she placed a baggie filled with an unidentified substance.

"What's this?" Key asked. "Heroin," she replied with an idiot's grin.

"Are you stupid?" Key shouted. "Do you have no clue what we've gone through?"

Drug use has taken a catastrophic toll on Canada's legendary proto-industrial outfit. With a sticker announcing "The Final Skinny Puppy Album," 1996's The Process was released after keyboard player Dwayne Goettel's death by overdose and singer Nivek Ogre's resignation. "We've learned the hard way that hard drugs suck," Key says from his adopted home in Los Angeles. "Some of us realized that at one point, some at other points, so we were never really on the same page when we made The Process. That screwed us up."

So screwed up that longtime friends Key (born Kevin Crompton) and Ogre (Kevin Ogilvie) spent the remainder of the decade estranged.

Skinny Puppy came together in 1982, when 20-year-old Vancouverites Key and Ogre, fans of such experimental noisiness as Throbbing Gristle and Cabaret Voltaire, wanted to graft some of the crazy beats they heard in their heads onto a wall of static. Key came up with punishing drum-machine workouts. Over that barrage of evil, Ogre's perversely abnormal growl cut through, terribly twisted and mangled, to sound monstrously inhuman.

With primitive electronics, keyboards, tapes, and synthesizers as well as bass and guitar, Key produced most of the noise, though Bill Leeb -- who went on to form Front Line Assembly and Delerium -- was an early collaborator. By 1984, the group had released a homemade cassette of material culled from what more conventional bands would call "jams." Skinny Puppy called them "braps."

"We'd stay up all weekend, set up the gear, and improvise a lot," Key says. "We used to say, 'Are we brapping?' We liked to make up words." Because of the music's mighty rhythmic structure, it moved bodies on the dance floor. But even within the sunless goth-industrial canon, calling Skinny Puppy "dark" was like saying absolute zero is "nippy."

In 1985, the Puppy unleashed Bites and Remission, two slabs of convulsive, almost seizure-inducing "dance" music tempered by Key's searing beats and synths and Ogre's terrifying voice. By the time of 1987's Cleanse, Fold, and Manipulate, the band was taking on radical politics, drug addiction, environmental degradation, and animal rights as topics of discourse. Skinny Puppy's live spectacle -- a blood-drenched miasma of ear-splitting synthetics, videodrome nightmares, an assortment of Cronenbergesque props, and Ogre's frightening appearance -- was legendary.

By the time of Rabies (1989) and Too Dark Park (1990), the band members, with an affinity for their city's infamous high-test hydroponic -- which they'd dubbed "wheelchair weed" -- had discovered real dope. Ogre fell prey big time. But the band thickened up its sound yet again with heavy guitars (Ministry's Al Jourgensen was all over Rabies) and a series of experimental and disturbing videos. Last Rights (1992) revealed the first fractures, what with Ogre in recovery and his energy zapped.

Sessions for the band's next album started the following year, but the project was fraught with difficulties from the beginning. In the summer of 1995, Key walked out entirely, and Goettel was found dead at his parents' home in Edmonton.

"I didn't even see him in a tailspin, and that's the hardest thing for me," Ogre says. "He kept beauty and serenity in everything he did, and you could hear it in each note he played."

With help from producer David "Rave" Ogilvie, Key finished the last album -- titled The Process after the California cult/church -- but it wasn't well received. (Acoustic guitar? Ogre actually singing? Oh, the humanity!) Skinny Puppy slithered quietly into history.

Fast-forward to 2000, when a pair of rich Skinny Puppy fans from Germany dangled a carrot the band couldn't pass up. The reformed Puppy returned that August at a massive Dresden festival, performing a set heavy on old hits.

"[The promoters] made an offer no one could ever turn down," Key says. "It wasn't a dollar-value as much as a production-value issue. They were willing to do whatever it took to make Skinny Puppy come to life again."

Instead of pocketing the cash and revisiting old territory, Ogre and Key sat down and plotted new strategy, emerging with The Greater Wrong of the Right in May 2004. With its politically loaded title, Wrong certainly takes on injustice on songs like "Pro-test," but its Limp Bizkit rapping reveals too many concessions made to nü-metal minions. The interestingly glum "UseLess" takes the songwriting advances made on The Process to a more commercial realm. Best of all is the moody '80s throwback "Past Present," which recalls the glory days with a pulsating sequencer and haunting synth line.

"'Past Present' was all about us taking the exact tools -- and I mean the exact same machines -- that we used 20 years ago," Key says. But Wrong has some future in it, particularly in the form of South Florida's famous IDM/glitch wizard Otto von Schirach.

Schirach's noise sparkles on "Goneja," one of the album's high points -- which brings us back to Ogre and Key, living it up in Jamaica. They spent a week there this summer. In Jamaica, the old pals embraced teenage indulgences and further solidified their partnership, Key says. "We have an amazing situation, me and Ogre. There's no negative wall standing in front of us.

"I can honestly say the only thing that works with music is weed. We're really good boys now -- we have a few drinks, and we smoke weed. Every other drug only pulled us away from being better at what we could have been."

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