There’s not much difference between a playground bully, a corporate CEO and the self-absorbed figureheads of many of the world’s current administrations. They’ll all tell you that by surrendering your lunch money or tax dollars, they’re working toward “your best interests.” And we all realize these people are merely imposing a will of their own choosing to enhance their own mythology. Of course, fake benevolence isn’t the sole domain of public figures: Life has taught us the most insidious masters of manipulation come in more covert and intimate forms. Consider your friends, lovers and spouses.
Nobody knows these constructs like Ogre and cEVIN Key, the braintrust behind Skinny Puppy, who, while entering their third decade working together, remain the world’s most forward-thinking electronic/industrial-rock unit. Mythmaker, their 13th disc and second for SPV, is a harrowing song cycle framed in dark, intriguing atmospheres that explore the concept of control and the manipulation of culture that falsely enhances the lives of the duplicitous.
“Between [the first SPV release, 2005’s] The Greater Wrong Of The Right and this record, I went through tumultuous upward and downward spirals within various relationships,” reveals Ogre, who found inescapable parallels between the manipulative aspects of public figures and levels of deceit within his own circle of friends. “The lyrics on this record were inspired by me doing a very detailed post-mortem on several very important relationships in my life. The personality types were different, but their psychological makeup was quite the same. I expanded from my interpersonal realm, and expanding [the songs] into an externalized theme.” He’s hesitant to acknowledge the names of the specific parties, wisely realizing “the people involved would take power from it.
"Control is the central concept to the record, the idea where mythic archetypes are clung to in an effort to preserve their own fucked-up sensibility,” he continues. “The most amazing thing that I’ve found is that people usually look outwards and project on others what they hate the most about themselves. At the core, Mythmaker surrounds the things people do, calculatingly or not, to either prop themselves up—like MySpace—or protect themselves.”
Skinny Puppy’s art has never been something to be taken at face value, and careful attention to Ogre’s commentaries on Mythmaker will reveal an underlying sense of seething. The opening “magnifishit” (with the disturbing line “I am the maggot’s muscle/magnet missile/your mother’s pisshole”) is a send-up of alt-culture braggadocio intended to be demeaned. On the urgent “politikiL” the singer asks rhetorically, “Are you up for the suck?” effectively summarizing the deceit and half-truths fed to the legion of the media-pacified. The simultaneous percolating and grinding “ugLi” (with its refrain “Jesus wants to be ugly”), is not an attack on spirituality, but a treatise on how religion is used as a tool by the morally bankrupt as a means of control. “I wrote those lyrics over a year ago, because I felt that the concept of Jesus was being used in an ugly fashion,” says the singer. “Now, you’re seeing a large body of the Christian movement questioning that utopian union and questioning the morality of the current administration.”
Produced by Mark Walk and “the Scaremeister” (who, for some mysterious reason, you never see in the same room at the same time with Key) at Key’s Subconcious studio, Mythmaker maintains the contemporary feel the band explored on 2005’s The Greater Wrong Of The Right, while retaining all of the sonic nuances that have become legendary in the Puppy realm. Ogre’s vocals—often sung through vocoders and ring modulators—work effectively as both public announcements to a diseased world (Blade Runner, anyone?), as well as the chilling voice inside the skull that houses a dangerous mind. Key has split his considerable musical expertise between the realm of vintage analogue synthesizers and virtual gear, while installing all of Puppy’s signifying elements (soundbites, time-stretching and that trademark distorted-bass pulsing) for a power that remains positively resonant. Factor in contributions from longtime Skinny associates as Ken “Hiwatt” Marshall, and new-school electro maniac Otto Von Schirach, and you have a disc that is just as engaging as such Puppy hallmarks as Too Dark Park and Mind: The Perpetual Intercourse.
“With the last album, I think we weren’t believing that we were actually making an album,” Key says, laughing. “It was more like a re-gathering of the spirit and the incentive. It was more like a collaborative effort with other people, than focusing back in on the basic components of what makes Skinny Puppy.”
Key is also quick to acknowledge Mark Walk’s unerring sense of the appropriate, which played an important role in Mythmaker’s conception. “In the past, we’d write a piece of music and it wouldn’t change in its arrangement. In this case, we wrote 25 pieces of music—they weren’t arranged or finished in any way—gave them to Mark and he gave suggestions on how to recontextualize them. He said to me, ‘You know, the Beatles used to do three or four versions of each song. But who knows which one was the right one?’ We were stripping down things, rebuilding them and seeing what would help. When you write a piece of music, you often get attached to the original form. For someone to essentially come along, rip it down and say, ‘How about this?’ opens up another door and drives you forward. Then Hiwatt would come in and put another spin on it, which he calls ‘finding the heart of it.’ Mark and Ken are part of the ‘deeper team,’ so to speak.” Indeed, Mythmaker’s inspired sound-shifting—from the art-rock pomp of “haZe” to the six-stringed menace of “pedafly” to the rhythmic glitches on “lestiduZ” to the gritty distortion marinating in “ambiantz”—clearly comes off as going forward in all directions.
It is to their credit—and longevity—that Skinny Puppy have been able to simultaneously cast light on societal ills and expand the sonic notions of their music with considerable aplomb. Consider that many of Ogre and Key’s longtime colleagues are resigned to frequently remaking their old records as some sort of self-fulfilling prophecy, while the new guard have nothing to offer outside the realm of bigger hard drives and severe haircuts. Mythmaker separates both the pretenders—and the resigned—from the sonic anthropology that has been Puppy’s stock in trade. The old adage of “art imitating life” is patently cliché; however, a closer inspection of the big picture guarantees that Skinny Puppy won’t be delivering love songs, party anthems or rock-radio miasma anytime soon. Hell, Ogre and Key are hardwired in a way that practically mandates them from following roads paved by others—or the ones they’ve built themselves.
“I find it so hard to believe that we’ve been around for a quarter century and still making music,” says Key, in earnest. “When I hear Mythmaker, it brings the same feelings I had from the very first time we made music. It’s a really odd thing. I think our ability to stick to our guns and be true to ourselves all along has been quite amazing. If I had to sum up Skinny Puppy, I’d say it’s been not knowing how to control style, as much as it’s been about working with concepts.”
“The experience of this record has made me examine my own issues of control,” says Ogre. “Not about controlling other people, but control of my own ability to accept certain situations. I’m hoping in 2007, I’ll feel a little more at peace with myself.”
Music fans can only wonder what that would sound like….