I’ve been listening to Skinny Puppy for about 26 years– since just before the release of their fourth full album, VIVIsectVI. In that time, they’ve released 8 more albums, explored a wide range of industrial nightmare stylings, had one member go through rehab, another die of a drug overdose, broken up, and reunited. I saw them in concert once, saw two shows that included individual members (Pigface and Download), and I’m seeing them again this month. As a young teen, discovering Pink Floyd, Marillion, and Bauhaus after they had splintered, I wished I could have been there to follow any of those bands’ growth. As it turns out, I got to have that experience with Skinny Puppy. It’s been a privilege. I hope it goes on for many more years.
You may have seen a news story going around about the music of Skinny Puppy being used to torture prisoners in Guantanamo. I find this disturbing for many reasons. Foremost, of course, is that torture is going on at all. As I’ve said in this space before, torture is utterly unconscionable. There is no justification for it. Even if it yielded useful information (which it doesn’t), deliberately dehumanizing another human being is just about the most evil, despicable thing I can imagine. The fact that our government continues to practice it makes me want to find an overpass and just scream “STOP THE TORTURE” like a lunatic until my throat gives out. Or, failing that, listen to a track like Hardset Head or Hexonxonx or Pro-Test at full volume, and let the pounding, roaring noise absorb enough outrage that I can function like a person.
Aside from the cathartic effect, Skinny Puppy made me feel powerful when I was a runty teenage weirdo. I knew that the hulking stoners endlessly reproducing Metallica logos in drawing class would not stand up to 30 seconds of Skinny Puppy. The same went for the cool kids at the top of the pecking order with their Huey Lewis and the News. Not merely loud, not simply aggressive, Skinny Puppy is challenging. In the 80s they challenged the whole notion of popular music. Today’s breakbeat and ubiquitous sampling owe debts to Skinny Puppy that will forever go unacknowledged. Which is fine. To cross over into the mainstream was never their intention. Us fans get to live forever in that “before they sold out” world.
Using Skinny Puppy’s artfully sculpted sensory assault as a blunt instrument against prisoners is just about the most banal expression of mainstream cluelessness there is. The worst part, though, is that I’m sure I’ve said at some point in the past (like when US forces were trying to drive Manuel Noriega out of the Vatican embassy with Guns ‘n’ Roses) “If those idiots knew what caustic music really was they’d be using Skinny Puppy!” Now, at last, someone in Guantanamo has discovered my favorite audio sculptors. Maybe it was a fan who decided their music would be an effective torture device, or maybe it was some Hootie and the Blowfish frat boy. I don’t know which would be worse.
The band’s response is true to form. Consummate artists, acidic commentators, they’ve embraced the role thrust upon them by American torturers and invoiced the US government for $666,000. Then they titled their newest release Weapon, and made it a critique of our current state of lawlessness in pursuit of security. It’s probably the most publicity Skinny Puppy has ever gotten, and it’s drawing attention to the most glaring neglected atrocity in America. If the statements issued by cEvin Key about this event seem muted, there is always the music for channeling the outrage.
There’s a nice review of Weapon here.
Note: I’m sorry for hurling the term “mainstream” around like a club. As a grown-up I no longer bear the mainstream (whatever that means) indiscriminate ill will. Many are lovely people whose company I enjoy.