Yes, it’s rare that a record review lands as a feature here on ID:UD, but, as Alex said while we were writing out our thoughts on their latest album, “Skinny Puppy is a big fucking deal to us”. It’s true. Puppy is a big deal to us as DJs of and writers on Our Thing. Puppy is a big deal to us as Vancouverites. Perhaps most importantly, though, Puppy is a big deal to us as a couple of people who had our preconceptions of what music was and how it was “supposed” to operate blown apart by S’Puppy records as teenagers. So, the occasion of a new record from Ogilvie and Crompton is the kind of thing we make a meal out of. However long this piece ends up being, know that we spent three times as much time talking about the significance of the band in our respective musical cosmologies before we even got around to talking about Handover.
Listening to a new Skinny Puppy record is a fraught affair for most longtime fans. In our experience folks generally fall into two groups, those that generally don’t care for the post reunion albums, but are gamely giving the new one a shot just in case it sounds like Too Dark Park, and those whose devotion to Puppy is such that the excitement over new material supersedes any question of quality. Complaints, accurate or not, about each of the new LPs almost seem to emerge before their releases. Greater Wrong: “It’s too poppy and/or different from ‘classic’ Puppy!” (Classic Puppy being whichever one of about six different albums – which all sound completely different – the listener heard first) Mythmaker: “It sounds too much like Greater Wrong!” Handover: “It’s too weird!” (Yes, that’s right, we’ve heard complaints that a Puppy record is “too weird”)
We’re certainly not suggesting that we stand fully outside of the nattering when it comes to Handover, as we’re lukewarm on the post-reunion albums (although we like The Greater Wrong of the Right more than the tepid Mythmaker), though we remember defending them pretty vehemently when they came out. The band has always had a protean quality that makes it difficult to set expectations, especially when taking into account the array of styles their respective work in ohGr and Download have taken. When it comes down to it, though, we want a new Puppy record to be good, but not if it means cynically cashing in on past experiments, half of which are successful specifically because they were departures from what came before. Our copies of Last Rights and Cleanse, Fold and Manipulate are on the shelf whenever we need them. So by that standard – the unceasing push into new territory – we’re happy to declare Handover a success.
With that said, this may be the Puppy album that cuts closest to Ogre and cEvin’s individual contemporary muses. The record seems split between tracks which fuse the rubbery stoner techno of Download with the experimentation Ogre’s shown on his last two solo discs, and tracks which show Puppy’s more vulnerable, personal side. At least half of the former equation is probably attributable to the contributions of longtime collaborator Mark Walk and engineer/producer Ken Marshall, both fixtures of Ogre’s solo work and the current incarnation of Puppy (in fact, there was a rumour making the rounds that part of the delay in Handover‘s release was that songs intended for the record were cut and remade into ohGr’s excellent Undeveloped album from earlier this year). As for the latter mood, it’s difficult to listen to tracks like “Ashas” and “Wavy” without thinking of the spirit, if not the exact sound, of earlier emotional songs like “Killing Game” and “Cult”. With that in mind, Handover might also be the most disconcerting S’Puppy related release since Rx’s Bedside Toxicology. Crinkling synths and drums trill in a manner which make you feel like your soul is being rubbed the wrong way (opinions on how enjoyable that might be will vary) on lead track “Ovirt” as well as “Point” and “Brownstone”.
We’ll put the kibosh on drawing comparisons back to earlier moments in The Two Kevins’ catalogs, as, like we said earlier, Handover is a great stand-alone record. The album-long build from peculiar melancholy to naked anger is unsettlingly open and honest, beyond just proving that SP know how to sequence an album and still care to do so. Take the placement of the catchy near-pop of “Gambatte” squarely in the middle of things: it’s a seemingly peculiar choice but divides the album handily in two, the sort of thing critics from previous generations celebrate as a “four corners” approach. With album craft a victim of murder by iPod, it’s a pleasure to hear that people still actually care about making albums that have emotional if not narrative thrust.
It’s in that build that real power of Handover‘s later moments becomes apparent. When things finally explode on the aggressive, dangerous sounding “Village” it’s perfectly preceded by the simmering menace of “Vyrisus”, the kind of set-up and execution that has always made Puppy the kind of band people tend to speak about in terms of their albums rather than their songs. Both songs are probably the best club material the band has produced since reformation, but not at the expense of complexity or depth. Over a club sound system they sound great, but in the context of what precedes them they’re downright cathartic, especially when followed by “Noisex” – a fevered and somehow sad moment of deconstruction, pulling apart what remains in the aftermath of the climax.
We almost hesitate to mention this for fear of sounding disrespectful, but we realised as we were digesting Handover that this is perhaps the first time since his passing that we haven’t consciously wondered how the presence of Dwayne Goettel might have affected a Skinny Puppy record (whether The Process can be included in that statement or not is iffy, as the stories about its recording are so horrifyingly depressing we’d prefer not to think about them). The contribution the Duck made to Puppy remains evident in the sonic leap between Bites and Mind: The Perpetual Intercourse, and his absence couldn’t help but be noted on the initial reformation albums. Handover is different. It’s not as though Handover has made us forget about everything Dwayne brought to the table, it’s just that it feels as though Ogre and Key have found a way to “be” Puppy after his death for the first time.
It’s typical of these sorts of meandering review-cum-personal retrospectives to try to create a sense of what a band “means” in whatever year it happens to be. We can’t really do that for Skinny Puppy. Although obviously like most of the folks who DJ, write, dance and otherwise participate in Our Thing we have a personal stake in the band, we can’t even hope to encapsulate their importance to folks across that spectrum. It’s that level of investment that’ll inform how any given person receives Handover, good or bad, although we daresay the fairly positive reception the album seems to be receiving outside our HQ is heartening. Beyond just wanting a new Puppy record to be challenging and worthy of discussion, or (even more nebulously) “good”, we want it to be something worthy of that kind of rumination. Handover is that.