Litany Liner Notes: Doubting Thomas - The Infidel (Special Edition 20 Year Anniversary) - by Corey Goldberg
By the time Skinny Puppy began what would become VIVIsectVI there was an established working method for approaching a new album. The musicians, cEvin Key and Dwayne Goettel, would prepare a group of instrumental demos. These would be presented to singer Ogre and producer Dave Ogilvie, who would decide which among the submitted tracks were suited for further development. The leftover tracks from Key and Goettel's writing sessions would sometimes find a home as a b-side or in their differently skewed projects like The Tear Garden or Hilt. But some of tracks the duo wrote simply didn't seem to fit any of their existing outlets. After the pair relocated to Toronto, a new "mystery music" as Key put it, began finding its way into their writing sessions for VIVIsectVI and Rabies. "We wrote a better part of [what became The Infidel] in our apartment, while the east coast winter bashed pretty hard outside," Key recalls, "I remember that being pretty inspirational. It was so cold, and so much ice and snow there in Toronto. It was quite a cool thing to stumble on something that sounded new that wasn't based on the same concepts as Skinny Puppy or our other sides. We put the songs on a cassette one by one when they would appear. Soon the cassette grew into a fairly long listen. We realized that we had begun a theme of tracks that were seemingly well suited for each other, and didn't have the telltale SP, Tear Garden or Hilt sounds within."
Without realizing it, cEvin and Dwayne had compiled an album's worth of material. The idea of releasing these tracks quickly garnered attention. "I received offers from a few labels who were interested," Key recalls, "but it was Waxtrax who really showed they wanted the LP." At the time, the future of Skinny Puppy seemed tenuous at best. cEvin and Dwayne's negative outlook on the band's future provided this new project with its rather descriptive name: Doubting Thomas. In 1990 they began the process of transforming the recordings into an album. Key explains the process:
"We had the framework for the songs, though they weren't arranged yet. They had been stored in a way where we would write down the parts of the song and then connect the same instruments back up to recreate the track. We went into Vancouver studios for a month working on the ideas each day and then mixing them with Rave and Tom Ellard. After they were mixed I took the pieces into the next studio with Marc Raemar and we arranged the songs on a system called the SSL Screensound, which was a very early digital multitrack editor. The tape voices and FX were then overlaid on the new arrangements, which were then mixed again to create the finished LP."
Although Skinny Puppy's records included a number of instrumental tracks, this was their first album that essentially lacked a lead vocal. This necessitated a different approach. "At the time there wasn't really a term yet for 'ambient' music, unless you were working with Tomita or Tangerine Dream," Key notes, "so we basically wanted to create an LP that had a sense of the mind, something that would take you away and evoke a thought or emotion. That's when we really discovered the power of working with tapes and voices within the music."
Sampled dialogue from film, TV and radio had been a part of Skinny Puppy's musical recipe since the earliest recordings. However, in Doubting Thomas these found voices took center stage, inflecting the music with a sense of narrative and emotional potency. The samples seem to have carried with them a small piece of the fabric of the distant sonic universe from which they have journeyed. "I really like how the tape voices tell a story within the LP that are very human," Key explains, "when the voices [were] right the song would become a platform for a message. One of my favorite tapes I ever had was one that I had recorded late night in Montego Bay Jamaica in 1988. It was a radio program with several people talking about heartbreak. I knew that one day I really had to find a way to use them, and in Yowtch they made their message clear. To this day still it is one of my favorite personal tracks."
The samples of mythology and religion scholar Joseph Campbell in Saved are particularly affecting. "Campbell's 'The Power of Myth' blew us all away at that time," Key remembers. "We felt that at certain points that he sounded like the voice of God. In Saved it's an effort to help answer those questions of the mind. The ones we avoid everyday. I think his words are extremely powerful and evoke many pictures. It was unique at the time, to hear spoken word, and especially words with such deep meaning."
The album was produced around the period between Skinny Puppy's Rabies and Too Dark Park, two albums that, although released in consecutive years, seem worlds apart. The sonic gap between them is in some ways bridged by The Infidel. On this album we hear cEvin and Dwayne begin to abandon the locked in backbeat dance rhythms that had begun to become an industrial cliché, On tracks like Yowtch and F862 ("F862 was Dwayne's cat's name. Fatezaku") they explored a broader rhythmic concept. cEvin Key had been using delay effects to manipulate drum machines into a melodic role since Puppy's early days, but these subsequent tracks evoke a distinct world sensibility with their tuned percussion. cEvin elaborates: "Both tracks are a combination of sequenced/programmed drums with live playing syncopated within. Most notable is a thing I really love and that is to use rototoms as their ability to tune and detune could really bring interesting rhythmic textures. If you listen to both tracks you can hear them pretty much up front. I think at first when the more tribal or cinematic tracks would come up we would try and see where they wanted to go without trying to add typical modern ideas. More or less trying to help the music take us to where it wanted to go. The idea behind Turn a New Leaf was really based on a track that Gary G. from Radio One Jamaica - now Irie FM - used to talk over for hours on end. So sometimes things were inspired from other tribal vibes."
IDL is the one track on the album that does include a non-sampled singing voice. cEvin explains the significance of the cryptic title: "Ideal. I think we met Naomi through Scott from Waxtrax. Really quite strange because she came in and really felt the track. We knew she had been working with Sarah Maclachlan for a bit as a background vocalist, so it was really a collab. It was strange that really after that I have not seen her again. I was hoping that we would all hear about her in the future with her own career."
MacLeod's vocal on IDL recalls Water, Dwayne's Cocteau Twins-influenced pre-Puppy project with Mandy Cousins. In an interview for Litany.net, Mandy mentioned that Dwayne had sent her some music that he and cEvin had worked on with the notion of having her add some vocals. Did this have any connection with the Doubting Thomas material:
"We had the intention to continue DT, and we did talk to Mandy at one point in Vancouver. I think we met one time. I [first] met Dwayne through seeing a Water performance in Edmonton in early 1986. They were both amazing. I would have liked to see more recordings happen with both Mandy and Naomi."
The mystery of what music Dwayne had sent Mandy remains unsolved, at least for now. But cEvin adds another glance at what was not to be, saying "one big secret about The Infidel is that the LP was moments away from having a male vocal on it as well. That singer? The very unlikely Geoff Tate from Queensryche. Yes, they were recording in the next studio and we would speak each day while making our own LPs. One day we were about to try some words but ended up not. Cute story."
Another collaborator involved with a few Doubting Thomas tracks was Tom Ellard of Severed Heads. "Tom Ellard we had of course met through the mail tape exchanges of the early 80s in the inception of the experimental scene," Key explains, "We kept in touch and promoted a live show in Vancouver for Severed Heads in the early 80s. We went in the studio together in 1985 and made Assimilate. Then we toured the US / Canada and Europe with Tom in 1986. So we had established quite a friendship. While Tom was on tour in 1990 he stopped in the studio, and in classic Tom mode, went straight for the mixing desk. We had made a couple of tracks that were really unusual and we didn't really know what to do with them. So we asked Tom and he had a vision. Tom is a genius and a very fun guy to work with." Ellard recalls only a limited contribution. "My involvement was extremely minimal," he says. "I once visited a studio where they were recording. It was social visit to Vancouver to reaffirm friendship with the Canadians, I wasn't there for any work, and was kindly being driven around by a friend from Seattle. They were fussing around with a voice sample and various odds and sods and nothing was really coming together in a hurry. I offered a few suggestions about filtering things, but stayed for only part of their booking, then went off for some drinks. I was surprised by a credit that appeared on the record. Really not sure why they mentioned it."
The album was released in 1991 via Waxtrax in North America and Third Mind in Europe along with a companion EP. The EP would soon go out of print, not having been reissued by TVT after their absorption of the Waxtrax catalog. The EP was reissued in 1997 in an expanded format by Metropolis in North America and Offbeat in Europe. This two CD expanded and remastered edition collects both the album and EP for the first time. Key explains that "many people were writing and asking how they could find it, and if there were any [potential] bonus tracks around still. As well, the current version available through TVT has never paid us one cent of a royalty or a statement. So it was a way to make something personal and special with that material." Of this remaster, Key says, "I think Brad Vance had to make it sound better than Brian Big Bass Gardner in his prime day. I think Brad felt that the new equipment of today could make it better. I think he did that."
This deluxe edition includes six previously unreleased tracks. "It's a very cool thing to hear something that didn't get used or finished," Key ponders, "but you hear what was special about the idea, and why we would have liked it. It's great to have the years of not hearing them, because now you can instantly find a way to edit together something from them that seem to be most special parts. All the new tracks were made that way from scraps of ideas, and so in that sense in feels great to be able to include those for that reason, because in a year or so those tracks would never have been heard, as most of the digital tapes they are stored on have deteriorated. They were tracks that at the time we would write as contenders for future work. We would do a rough mix. And this is where these ideas come from. I edited them as though we were still thinking about the next step, and then song structures again form and feel more like finished tracks."
The Infidel remains one of Key's favorite works, a culmination of some of the original notions of Skinny Puppy. "I remember listening to it once on the tape in 1989 and thinking about what Doubting Thomas could be," he says, "and more or less saw the idea for the Infidel in my mind. That fine line between movie samples and music that creates a new statement. Really, if you look at early SP like Double Cross, Film, Love and the other tracks like this, it really has been something that keeps coming up from day one."
Although DT was certainly never envisioned as a replacement for Skinny Puppy, the refocusing on Puppy that occurred with and following Last Rights necessarily meant that DT and other projects would be set aside. Some elements of DT found their way back into the Puppy fold. "Riverzend is really a Doubting Thomas track that made it into the SP world," Key claims. Shortly after The Infidel's release, cEvin mentioned plans for a second DT album to be recorded in 1993 in Jamaica with some poets, but this was not to be. Ideas and talk of another album persisted, however. "We created quite a few tracks in 1994 when Dwayne and I started Subconscious Studios in Vancouver," cEvin says. "Many jams were made, and we spoke a lot about what we were going to do with tracks like Meteorite when they we coming up. Originally they were going to be the basis for a lot of new DT that was to come." Two of these new tracks eventually saw release on the 1997 expanded reissue of the Father Don't Cry EP and are also included in this edition. "At that same moment," Key continues, "I had also started the work on tracks made in Malibu [for The Process] that obviously weren't the Puppy tracks. Most went on to be part of Download's Inception, Furnace or [the solo album] Music for Cats. So, essentially, DT became Download when it expanded." Evolving from DT and the disintegration of Skinny Puppy, Download soon became Key's primary vehicle. Fittingly, Download's 1996 tour saw the inclusion of DT's Clocks in the set list. "I found the parts to the track that could make it possible to perform," Key explains, "and felt it was a track that had some room for live parts to be incorporated."
But the Doubting Thomas story doesn't end with Download. Key and Goettel often described the music as a set of soundtracks for imaginary films ("Theme from Pressurehead" belonging to an actual movie concept of Gary Blair Smith's that was never made). Now, some twenty years after the initial cold winter night recordings of these "mystery" tracks, cEvin Key is poised to enter the film world with his Scaremeister project. Does he see The Infidel as having paved the way for his current work?
"Yes. I am just starting on perhaps one of my biggest projects yet for Scaremeister. I have partnered with Hiwatt Marshall, Otto VonShirach, and friends for what we hope to be our biggest trip yet. I am also working on a third Skinny Puppy LP for SPV with Ogre, Mark Walk and the team. So it's a busy time."
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