Litany Reviews: Skinny Puppy's Mythmaker - by Corey Goldberg
Skinny Puppy's 2004 reunion album, The Greater Wrong of the Right, reestablished the band as a creative entity. It proved that Ogre and cEvin Key still have something to say. The world tour that followed demonstrated that they still have a legion of fans aching to hear it. With that accomplished, where would they take the project next? Their new album, Mythmaker, sees the band once again pushing the boundaries of what a Skinny Puppy record can be, taking their almost 25-year-old project to new realms of pathos and electronic madness.
The album opener, "Magnifishit," announces this journey into new territory. Ogre's vocal is harmonized to form a massive texture, including accompanying harmony lines, set against orchestral percussion and punctuated with synths. In one of the most gorgeous moments on a Puppy record, the tension filled drum roll finally breaks into a synth string-propelled beat, unveiling the song's true cinematic scope. This is opening credits music for the great unmade film masterpiece of our time. New elements such as a vocal counter melody are introduced, offsetting the track's insistent motion as it marches onward. Ogre mocks the perspective of someone who believes his/herself to be "master of it all" with his snide "oh yeah." Ogre's voice is the central element in the composition. The days of Ogre ranting over the top of a completed instrumental track, his voice controlled and confined by the effects used, are over. With its almost prog-level scale, "Magnifishit" is unlike anything they've achieved before. Yet in some sense it is a logical progression of the passion that has always been at the core of their sound.
"Haze" takes a similarly dramatic path with bombastic, stepwise, whole-note chords thundering through what is alternately a delicate and vaguely Eastern-sounding track, underpinned by an elegant keyboard melody throughout. Moments of calm are continually disturbed by gradually more intense portions, building to a storm in the final moments. The heavy use of vocoder effects on some parts of Ogre's vocal and the broad gestures of the drums and guitar might initially distract from the gorgeous analog-sounding synth work and the delicately interwoven instrumental parts that begin to appear as the track gathers its arsenal.
"Pedafly" is the album's mosh pit stomper, held together by a fantastically powerful drum track and analog bass line. It seems like Puppy showing those who have tried to make industrial rock anthems just how it would be done. Those longing for sinister aggression from this record need look no further. Yet the door in this darkened room suddenly opens upon a bridge section that allows light to pour in. Are we given respite? The reentrance of the bass line and then drums threaten the mood again making the return of the main section undeniable and ever so satisfying as the door slams shut. Another track so vivid in its tense energy that it aches for a film to underscore.
"Jaher" could be the album's ghostly ballad, in the vein of "Candle". Yet it has the sense of being the specter of a song that no longer exists. With Ogre's voice at the center, supported by a subtle bass line, other elements such as an acoustic guitar or piano part are draped around the song only to disappear back into the reverb, having made only faint impressions as phantom presences. Ogre's voice must stand or fall on its own merits. Building from half-spoken fragments to rhythmically strong phrases, he intones, "in the sting of luck my god feels false and sold." "Jaher" uses the style of the band's earlier forays into atmospherics on instrumental tracks like "Fritter" and "Epilogue" to sculpt a song via intimation and suggestion. This may be the first Puppy track based solely upon understatement. Seemingly ephemeral, it is seductive and ultimately breathtaking in its achievement.
"Pasturn" is an essentially electronic track that is musically evocative of cEvin's recent work on The Ghost of Each Room and Download's Effector. A virtual orchestra of synth sounds complement each other to form a dense, living texture. The dramatic tension and sense of motion that have been trademarks of their work since tracks like "Solvent" are to the fore, propelled by delicious bass line and head-spinning percussion. The spooky theremin-style harmony synths recall their earliest work. Ogre's vocal melds perfectly, teasing and pulling at the underlying rhythm. He is guided, rather than overpowered, by effects that manipulate the pitch and rhythmic phrasing. The lyrics reveal a new tone, one of regret, perhaps even with a tinge of nostalgia, ("Fragrance of your past is in the right color - Look back to the place where the sun comes through and hits your face. Changes the light. A light that's gone out in my closet clothes worn out only remnants of embittered. A suit of armor.") but with a sense of calm purpose and understanding of the ends of things ("Hope is all I needed to explore another day returning back to say I can't do that. I cannot do this anymore. So goodbye.") This may be one of the best tracks that Skinny Puppy has ever released.
"Ambiantz," the only truly dance-friendly track on the album, simultaneously evokes recent Download and the band's core electronic influences with its spooky keyboard runs and bouncy groove. Ogre's processed vocal glides over the gurgling bass line. This is the band that made "Sleeping Beast" and "Glass Houses" 23 years on. And it's addictive. In "Politikil" Ogre's mocking delivery appropriately descends into electronic gibberish before he asks "are you over the suck?" The song grooves effortlessly grounded by a slightly behind the beat bass line. "Lestiduz" is an odd song featuring Otto von Schirach, based on a rhythm track processed until it becomes a mutated alternate universe twin of itself. The wobbly bass line gives a foundation to percussive glitchy noise and Ogre's chanting vocal with the refrain "disorientation time." In "Dal," Ogre's artificially pitched vocal rides atop a persistent electronic rhythm, reinforced by crunchy percussive noise. Slow, big guitar chords interrupt with a transitional section. The percussive glitching applies the organic, lived-in roughness that has always been central to Puppy in a new way. The breakbeat-based "Ugli" similarly utilizes glitched percussion. Thick slabs of vaguely determinate sound fill the mix in much the same way that snatches of radio filtered through "Anger." Based upon a sinister keyboard hook, "Ugli" is like traditional "industrial" updated for the laptop capable era. With its downright dirty sound aiding a dance rhythm pressed to the extent of aggression, it works.
Mythmaker is unlike anything Skinny Puppy has yet released, augmenting their basic sound with progressive-rock level drama and glitched noise. It is inevitable that some fans will initially be shocked by these aspects of the album's direction and attribute them to the tastes of newer member/producer Mark Walk or collaborator Otto von Schirach. But none of these qualities are new to Puppy. Here they are merely given greater prominence and emerge in new forms. Over the course of the record the band touches upon their most aggressive, contemplative, powerful, and groovy sounds - sometimes all over the course of the same song. Like all of their work, it rewards repeated listening. Hitherto unheard elements of thought-familiar tracks will continue to rise to the surface. It strikes me as their most cinematic. With cEvin Key set to enter the world of film scoring via Scaremeister, this album seems a perfect example of his capabilities. One can imagine movies to go along with these tracks but with Ogre at the center, as he is on this record, you simply don't need visuals. In a sense, cEvin is already creating soundtracks, just not to accompany film, but to accompany Ogre.
Jan. 11, 2007