In Conversation is a feature in which the senior staff talk about a record we’ve been listening to. Not exactly a review, it’s pretty much exactly what it says on the tin: two music nerds having a conversation about an album with all the tangential nonsense, philosophical wanking, and hopefully insightful commentary that implies. This time we’re chatting up now 10 year old comeback LP of a band we hold nearest and dearest to our bitter old hearts…
The Greater Wrong of the Right
Bruce: Like we mentioned on a recent podcast, the post-reunion incarnation of Puppy is now just about as long as the legendary band’s first run. In fact, if you date the latter from S’Puppy’s formation in 1982 to the release of then-swan song The Process in 1996, we also have fourteen years separating the Dresden reunion show The Greater Wrong of the Right‘s new reissue on Metropolis. That’s a slight cherry-pick: Ogre’s departure from the band and Dwayne’s subsequent passing both happened in 1995, and Greater Wrong of the Right was released in 2004. Still, it feels like a lot’s happened since the idea of “new Puppy” went from daydream to tangible possibility, and I’m noticing that I’m listening to Greater Wrong with different ears than I first did ten years ago.
It’s tough to think back to the hype and expectations surrounding this record, not only due to sheer time but also to the changes in how we approach a record’s release in today’s world. If I’m remembering correctly, the video for “Pro-test” was released after the album, and I’m not sure if I can remember hearing any pre-release singles or previews; we were jumping into a new album by one of Our Thing’s most storied bands after a lengthy hiatus completely blind. With that in mind, what do you remember of your first impressions of Greater Wrong, and how do those differ from your thoughts in 2014?
Alex: Well, the release coincided with my move to Vancouver, so as you might imagine I was pretty excited to be here for that momentous occasion, nerd that I am. I mean, no matter what was on the CD I brought home from HMV, it was gonna be Skinny Puppy, and that was super important to me as a fan who was only just aware of the band when they nominally broke up. If nothing else, Greater Wrong of the Right has always felt like my invitation to a party I felt like I was late for, an invitation to be part of a legacy that meant a lot to me, even if it was just as a listener. So I’m always gonna love it for that sentimental reason.
Musically, I think the earliest impression I had was that it was a pretty good record, and that it felt very much like Ogre’s solo material. That’s at least partially attributable to Mark Walk’s involvement, ohGr has always had a rock edge to it as a project, and Mark is no doubt an element in that sound being present on Greater Wrong. Of course all kinds of people had a hand in it in various capacities (notably Statik from Collide and Otto Von Schirach amongst others), but I guess I still feel like this is an album informed more by what Ogre was up at the time than the sort of oddball stoner techno Cevin was doing. Can’t take anything away from Big Kevin here though: some of the high points like “Ghostman” are his style of manic weirdness through and through.
Listening to it again is a bit of a trip actually, as more records have come out and it’s faded further back into my own personal history it’s taken on something of a nostalgic quality that it naturally didn’t have on release. That’s adding a new dimension to my enjoyment for sure. How’s it holding up for you?
Bruce: I’ll definitely say that listening to it for the purposes of this piece feels a lot less fraught than my passes through it during the first couple of years since its release. I’m not sure that I’d necessarily call it nostalgic, but it’s nice to hear the swinging punch of “Immortal” again (a track which never really clicked for me until they opened their Seattle stop on the album’s tour), and the synthetic brass and martial drums on “Empte” still really don’t sound like anything else in any of the Puppy-related catalogue.
What really jumps out for me is how much of the record holds to the sort of sonic template which started, as you say, with some of the earlier Walk/Ogre collabs: rubbery breaks, pitched and stuttered vocals, and those orange, wide, slightly out of phase leads kicking around with the guitars. When it works, as on “Immortal”, it’s great, but “Neuwerld” never quite clicks for me, leaning too heavily on a chorus that’s left to stretch in the wind.
The track in that vein that I’m really still torn on is “Pro-test”, perhaps because it’s the one which has never really left club sets here in Van (and it’s cropped up in plenty of other towns I’ve passed through), or perhaps because of the video, discussion of which occupied every goth-industrial webspace for a couple of months after its release. It’s tough to look at it as a product of its time and determine whether it’s dated poorly or if it managed to push the structure of, say, ohGr’s “ChemTale” into a cool new direction. Your thoughts on how “Pro-test” hits in the streets in 2014?
Alex: I think I’ve made my peace with “Pro-Test”. I still think it’s pretty on the nose and kind of simple for a Puppy song, but you can’t really deny that it’s made a case for itself as the SP club track of the post-2K era. Like, it’s catchy, it’s easy to mix, and it sounds pretty much like Puppy although that guitar still feels kinda canned compared to the clipped and twisty things they used to do with the instrument back in the day. It’s not my favourite song on the record, but it’s still decent. And the video…well, Manson kind of did the same gag in the clip for his execrable “Tainted Love” cover (“WHAT IF GOTHICKY PEOPLE AFFECTED THE MANNERISMS OF RAP PEOPLES??? HAR HAR!”) but it’s a lot more charming in “Pro-Test”, probably because the dancing is fun to watch.
As for what I think the best track on the album is? Weirdly, I think it might be “Goneja”. It’s not the most Puppy sounding thing on Greater Wrong (I’d make a case for “Use Less” being more in line with the band’s definitive moments), but to me it might be the place where I feel like this incarnation of the band really hit their stride. The tracks that precede it have the same stuttery percussion and and high-pitched vocals, but “Goneja” is allowed to get real strange in the way the best new millennium Puppy songs are, like a really focused form of meandering and off-balance. I know that’s contradictory, but when I think about what Puppy songs I like from the last four years, they all share the funhouse weirdness of “Goneja”. It feels a bit like a brap, and I dig that.
So, the elephant in the room with this record has always been the lack of Dwayne for obvious reasons, and I don’t feel like I’m comfortable making any assumptions about how his absence affected things. I think it’s kind of lazy to point to how this doesn’t feel like a classic Puppy album and say “Well Dwayne wasn’t on it”, although I’m sure I’ve probably done that. As you and I have discussed lots of times, Puppy never held onto one specific sound for more than a couple records, and their ‘classic sound’ is pretty mutable, so I’m not sure what I or anyone else was expecting. It sounds different, although it has set the tone for everything that followed it. I dunno, do you have any feelings on how this album relates to “classic Skinny Puppy” and Dwayne’s absence?
Bruce: I couldn’t help but relisten to Greater Wrong through the filter of Alex Reed’s reading of Puppy’s aesthetics in Assimilate. Whatever your take on his interpretation of how gender figures into Puppy’s work, I think the general “body or self as source of horror and confusion” claim in Reed’s work makes for a nice point of contrast between Puppy’s first incarnation (or second, if you want to divide things up before and after Dwayne’s arrival) and that kicked off by Greater Wrong.
Regardless of any reason for this distinction you’d care to cite (Dwayne, drugs, Brian Mulroney), there seems to be a real shift both musically and lyrically. Things on Greater Wrong feel more brash, more forthright, more direct. There are the guitars and breaks, as we’ve pointed out, as well as a more tight approach to sequencing. Despite their profound influence on industrial culture, I’m not sure that Puppy ever sounded specifically mechanical before this record (Rabies being one notable exception). Previous records oozed, Greater Wrong ticks.
Like I said, I think that feeling is matched lyrically. I haven’t done a content analysis counting the use of personal pronouns before and after the break, but Ogre’s gaze seems turned more directly outward on this record than ever before. Puppy have always had political themes in their work, but those were always mixed with a self-examination/evisceration which isn’t here. That’s probably for the best: you’re not going to survive much past forty if you’re still writing songs like “Anger” based on legitimate contemporary feelings, and having a more balanced, mature Ogre trying to ape those earlier compositions would be just about the worst thing that could happen to the man’s legacy. Your take on the lyrics and final impressions of Greater Wrong, ten years on?
Alex: Oh dude, you’re asking the wrong person about Puppy lyrics. As much as I deride a lot of artists for just “painting with words”, I’ve always liked the impressionistic nature of Ogre’s stuff: he conveys meaning in an abstract way a lot of the time. Oftentimes the best Puppy lyrics to me have been the ones that just sound cool regardless of what they’re about. So in that context, yeah, I think the lyrics on Greater Wrong of the Right are just fine. The radical bent of latter era SP is manifest on “dOwnsizer” and “Neuwerld”, a lot of the songs on all the post-millennial records have been tied to the idea of revolution, the tone of which is set here. It’s not too heavy handed or in your face, it just feels kind of right, especially in presaging this century’s populist, digestible form of radicalism.
You know, I think I stand by this being the best of the ‘new’ Skinny Puppy albums. It’s really super consistent throughout, and although the charge of “Holy shit, Puppy is back!” has long since worn off, I still get a lot of enjoyment from it. I’m glad that Metropolis is re-releasing it, partially because as a collector of SP vinyls it’s nice to be able to get a new piece, but also because I like the idea that this era of one of my favourite bands is old enough to look at with a truly critical eye. For better or worse, this is the beginning of the only Puppy era I experienced live and in person as a fan and it’ll always be special to me for that reason if no other. Greater Wrong of the Right is an album by two giants of the genre learning how to work together again, and that tension of exploring new territory that you would normally get from a brand new collaboration is part of what makes it good. It’s the rebirth of a thing that has no small amount of personal meaning to me, a new incarnation that has well proven its viability. Ten years on, and this new/old/new again Puppy is still kind of exciting to me, and that says something.