Monday, December 15, 2008

Skinny Puppy - Last Rights

I've always regarded Canadian Industrial band Skinny Puppy's 1992 album 'Last Rights' as a failure - a bloated album. If the band's 1990 album 'Too Dark Park' already teetered on the edge of the swollen, the 1992 album certainly was overdone. Nivek Ogre's vocals had devolved from anguish into kitsch sentimentality; the music was "... a scribble effacing all lines, a scramble effacing all sounds ..." (Deleuze & Guattari), a "statistical heap" of samples; the album as a whole somehow smacked of puerile Hollywood Gothic.

It was the last Skinny Puppy album I bought. In fact, the album was one of the reasons I abandoned the Industrial aesthetic and crossed over to the nascent IDM scene, a scene which I would abandon for Black and Doom Metal when IDM became too complacent and anodyne. To experience once more something filthy, something guilty! Writing my post on South Korean Black Metal band Pyha's 2008 album 'The Haunted House', made me go back to the Skinny Puppy album.

I must say the sixteen years which have passed since 'Last Rights' was released, have been kind to the album. It is as if time has assembled the scribble, the scramble that I used to hear into a consistency; as if time has simplified, creatively limited, selected the album's overabundance of sounds. The hands of the clock have achieved what the hands of the musicians could not.

By what means has the clock done this?

In 'The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction', Walter Benjamin writes that "Within major historical periods, along with changes in the overall mode of being of the human collective, there are also changes in the manner of its sense perception." Certainly, my manner of sense perception has changed in the last sixteen years.

In part, this change is due to technological advances: the stereo equipment I own is much better than the one I had when the album came out, the acoustic spatiality of my Elac speakers making the disparate elements that constitute the album more clearly discernible. Furthermore, where the production style of 'Last Rights' seemed too rich, in fact downright Hollywoodesque at the time, now - in this age of compression and subsonics and 5.1 surround sound - it sounds quite restrained.

But my manner of sense perception has also been affected by changes in my personal mode of being. The passing years have expanded my musical horizon. Thus, 'Last Rights' has found a place in the procession of musical genres that I have liked. For example, the final track, 'Download', foreshadows the glitch music aesthetic by several years. My appreciation of chaotic music, pomposity and cartoonesque histrionics has grown through listening to Black Metal. And listening to Free Jazz has engendered an interest in (over-)ripe, late-style music in which complexity and chaos go hand in hand. The expansion of my musical repertoire has provided an enriching context for Skinny Puppy's album, and has allowed me when listening to select, capture and extract certain aspects of the album and thereby to effect a certain simplicity. Furthermore, my biographical aging has had an effect on my mode of perception. When I was young, I was more sectarian in my musical tastes than I am now; 'Last Rights' accords better with my current eclecticism than with my former purism. And in all probability, a barely-acknowledged nostalgia to the time when I was twenty-something plays a role also.

Finally, I like it that 'Last Rights' is completely outdated and utterly unfashionable. As noted by Walter Benjamin, the Surrealists had been "...the first to perceive the revolutionary energies that appear in the 'outmoded' - in the first iron constructions, the first factory buildings the earliest photos, objects that have begun to be extinct, grand pianos, the dresses of five years ago, fashionable restaurants when the vogue has begun to ebb from them. The relation of these things to revolution - no one can have a more exact concept of it than these authors. No one before these visionaries and augurs perceived how destitution - not only social but architectonic, the poverty of interiors, enslaved and enslaving objects - can be suddenly transformed into revolutionary nihilism."

'Last Rights': a dress of five years ago, slightly dusty, taken from its cupboard to contemplate for a few brief moments, and then put back.

Post scriptum

Here is the video for 'Killing Game'.

And here a (crappy-looking) live performance of 'Love in Vein'.


luminous insect said...

Last Rights was definitely a seminal album for me, but like you I grew away from it for IDM (although my timescale is quite different, I was 6 in 1992), so of course I got into the shoddy tail end of IDM. I didn't have much musical insight nor diversity then; in a weird way Last Rights and the Download side project were what showed me that music could be cinematic. But I realized that right after I moved out of listening pretty much exclusively to SP and its related projects a certain incoherence in their vision had revealed itself by Last Rights (an incoherence which later nearly destroyed the mediocre Process album and spoils their post-reunion schlock). However, in a sort of listener-artist connection way I appreciate the incoherence as an artistic statement in itself; I still sort of ascribe to the mythology of Skinny Puppy that this was about as strung out as an album can get (i.e. the rumours of a drug overdose being recorded in the middle of Knowhere?), they really were lost and confused. But I'm not so pretentious to think the album doesn't have any flaws. Time for me has changed what elements stand out in this album, mostly from experience making and listening to music that explores disarrayed electronic sounds, the superior sound engineering element stands out the most. The major flaw is the sort of 80s synth naïveté they always showed and never changed, that developed sometimes into exquisite sound images, usually due to all the other incidental elements around it, but all too frequently developed into cartoonish images.

I don't really know a good comparison (working in the same palette of sound) that would make this album seem restrained. Jonathan Dean of Brainwashed once compared Venetian Snares' two "horror" masterpieces Doll Doll Doll and Find Candace to Last Rights and Too Dark Park, and while I see those Snares albums as having more of the individual control, tension, and fury of noise music, I think it is a fair comparison. Given Download's development into a respectable (at least to me) sorta-IDM sound, I think Venetian Snares (when in his coherent, dark element) is a good blueprint for how SP's sound should have developed. Of course V. Snares stems from an additional decade of glitch-techno music, and is more often than not significantly shallower than SP.

A couple other things, I agree with what you said about this album in your Pyha post, it would have more been interesting if the album had moved their politics to the body, rather than forsake politics for drug-bound insularity and confused angst. One thing I thought that could have blossomed out of Too Dark Park's concern for the environment would have been into the spiritual connection to nature seen in Black Metal (which in a weird way was sort of touched upon with later Download work). But that's a pretty ambitious thought.

valter said...

Thank you, phosphorescent bug, for your comments!

I'd be very interested to hear what music you are making - do you have a MySpace page or suchlike?

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