Litany Reviews: cEvin Key and Ken Marshall's The Dragon Experience - by Corey Goldberg
cEvin Key's new album is also one of his oldest. No, it's not a reissue. 'The Dragon Experience' is a completely new album of previously unheard material recorded in '84 and '85. The old tapes were compiled and revived by longtime collaborator Ken 'Hiwatt' Marshall. These tracks date from the early, formative days of Skinny Puppy and offer us a deeper look at the musical era of which we have previously seen glimpses on Back and Forth series 2 and 3. Ken has done a great deal of work to make the old tapes work as an album of 2003, so much so that he gets double billing and dual writing credit. As a result, this album is much more sonically in tune with the times than some of the previous releases of early 4-track material. Those with an affectionate nostalgia for such primitive equipment might be wary of revisionist history, but that fear will dissipate as soon as they hear how amazingly fresh these tracks sound.
This is one of those vault releases that will leave you wondering how tracks of such quality could have gone unreleased. A number of forgotten classics await. Here are a few highlights:
'Metamorphosis (Theme from the Trial)' is a gorgeously flowing yet tension filled soundscape, presaging later excursions such as 'the Center Bullet'. Unlike many of his contemporaries, whose moments of reflective 'ambience' are merely a few layered tracks of pads, cEvin's atmospheric tracks have a melodic content the provides them with a sense of direction and pathos. With its swirling melodies, shuddering samples, and insistently prodding synths, 'Metamorphosis' exemplifies this quality. I think it is one of cEvin Key's best tracks period.
'Running (Back and Forth)' is a stunning track that seems to encapsulate the early verve of SP. Large chunks of the mix turn on and off providing brief bursts of vocals and shuddering drum machines, creating an insistent and almost threatening rhythm. Could this song contain the origin of the title of Puppy's legendary first homemade cassette...?
'Dr. Seymour' utilizes violent, percussive bursts of music, evoking the heavy drum production of early Skinny Puppy and Key's later gate-based techniques, all while retaining an infectious, ambling groove. 'Yo Yo Scrape' fans will enjoy this one.
'Incandescent Glow' sounds very much like a Puppy track that never happened. The synths of this bastard cousin of 'Dead Lines' and 'Last Call' may have shone too brightly for it to ever utilize Ogre, but thankfully now we get to hear it in all its glory.
'Ambient Fruit chapter 2' continues in the vein of the previous section (heard on BF6), offering a look into the early Puppy technique of using a delayed synth as a compositional tool that was refined on tracks like 'Film', 'Love', and 'Center Bullet'.
Another element that has always set cEvin's music apart from the crowd is that he almost always includes natural, acoustical sounds in his mixes in addition to the purely 'line-in' tracks. Be it a voice from an aged horror film, live percussion or just found sounds, these elements give his recordings an organic, live sensibility that is largely absent from much electronic music. Dragon Experience continues this trend. 'The Chamber' is something of an electronically accompanied sound collage, including something that sounds like shifting broken glass a la Download's 'Sidewinder'.
All of the trademark elements of early Puppy are here. At the core of a number of songs is a warm analogue- synth bass line. The unmistakable sound of cEvin's FX-processed 808 is present. Atmospheric dialogue samples permeate almost every track. Yet many of the tracks have a more overtly techno sound than we have previously heard from these early days. The instruments are somewhat cleaner and less heavily treated than most early Puppy. It's a subtle difference but it directly ties this album to the past few releases, such as 'Effector', 'III Steps Forward', or 'Ghost of Each Room'.
If there was any doubt, this album makes it clear that the techno-related elements of some of cEvin's recent work have always been a part of his music. This is music that pushes the edges of sonic creativity while simultaneously retaining an irresistible groove, the core formula for Skinny Puppy all along. Bridging past and present, 'The Dragon Experience' is not only an incredible archival album for those dedicated fans of Skinny Puppy but a work that will delight fans of his recent Download and solo albums as well.
Jun. 28, 2003