In Conversation is a feature in which the senior staff talk about a recent record we’re 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 week we hash out our feelings with regards to the new album from one of the most influential and important artists in the history of our genre, and our city…
Alex: I feel like I need to qualify this whole exchange before we even get started, because my thoughts about Weapon are kind of complicated, and I don’t want it to come off like I’m slagging the record. So just to be clear before I write another word: I think Weapon is a good record, and my reservations and complaints about it stem from my relationship with Skinny Puppy’s work (which I could probably write about forever given an indulgent enough audience). Does that make sense? SP are a band that people have strong feelings about, if you need evidence of that you need look no further than the way people have discussed the post-reunion albums up ’til now, conversations that are dominated by nostalgia and personal recollections about the band almost as a rule. The break-up (and if we’re being honest, Dwayne’s death, may he rest in peace) provided folks with an easily encapsulated “Golden Age of Puppy” to valorize, so even a record like The Process that people had mixed feelings about when it came out has been attached to a legacy that the new material can’t possibly live up to.
Which is probably why I’m taken aback by how generally positive the response to Weapon has been. There’s a theory I have about that, that with Puppy being the post-industrial band, and with the current vogue for 80s industrial in full-swing, they’re symbols of an era that people in and out of the scene agree was just “better” for lack of another term. I mean, can you imagine Vice writing nice things about SP even a couple years ago? I can’t. So they get a certain amount of good will just based on that, which either colours people’s listening positively or makes them more openminded than they were towards Mythmaker or Handover depending on how cynical you are. Thoughts?
Bruce: I’m similarly puzzled. The hype cycle seems to be wholly separate from Weapon‘s quality. Regardless of how we’d evaluate it within the Puppy oeuvre (and hopefully we’ll get to that and its specific qualities sooner rather than later), it doesn’t mark a significant enough departure in sound or strength (for better or for worse) from Mythmaker or Handover to merit this odd bump. I mean, if whatever’s going on shifts units, puts hash on The Kevins’ plates, or just gets people checking their records who otherwise wouldn’t listen to Puppy, then I’m all for it. It’s just that the pervasive “Skinny Puppy are back!” narrative seems to originate out of a mixture of revisionism and plum ignorance.
I’m not sure that whatever recent increase in interest in 80s industrial there has been is sufficient explanation. I mean, are organs as large as Vice giving any shine to By Any Means Necessary or Youth Code (who did admittedly get some coverage in Brooklyn Vegan), or, conversely, recent records by more obscure but no less foundational bands like Portion Control or Pankow? It’s not just coming from outside of the industrial world, either. I’m noticing far more buzz about Weapon on Twitter and FB (both ID:UD’s feeds and my personal ones) than I did about Mythmaker and Handover combined from people who are die-hard industrial fans. If there was a full-court PR blitz, I think we must have slept through it, so I remain utterly stymied by all this hubbub.
Let’s leave the hype aside and get down to brass tacks. What do you think Puppy are bringing to the table this time? Has listening to it borne out cEvin’s pre-release comments about making an old-school, all electronic Puppy record for you?
Alex: It depends? I guess I’m not sure what an old school Puppy record sounds like, since pretty much every one of the classic era albums is different. For sure there are moments that I think are obvious nods to the Bites/Remission era, specifically “Salvo” and the new version of “Solvent”, but to be honest those aren’t the parts of Weapon I like the best. I think cEvin’s comments may have had more to do with workflow and composition than actually setting out to recapture a classic sound. Friend of the site Rob K pointed out that the songs on the LP seem a bit more surgical and less “wall of sound” than on the previous couple album and without overstating my knowledge of technical matters, perhaps dealing with older and more temperamental synth equipment leads to a more measured approach to creation. From that standpoint the record is a testament to how skilled the band is in a studio setting; the production and sound design is universally fantastic regardless of what tools were used. Listen to the way all the sounds on “paraGun” breathe, expanding and contracting in a way that seems completely organic and alive. Even if I hated every song on this record I wouldn’t even think of taking anything away from them on the production front.
As far as the rest of the songs go, I really dig the weird, blocky progression and noodly synth squeals on “tsudanama”, and the Pink Dots-like keyboard sounds on “gLowbeL” a lot. There’s an eclecticism to the sound of the album that I can get behind, a lot of different ideas woven through each song so even when one thing sticks out as half-baked (Ogre’s increasingly mechanical vocal processing on “illisiT” the spoken outro to “saLvo”, the weird squiggle that appears at the beginning of “paraGun”) they don’t derail the whole song. To circle it back around to your question, I actually think it reminds me more of the first couple ohGr albums more than any classic Puppy album. Incidentally, this is the first time that Mark Walk (Ogre’s right hand guy in ohGr) has been credited as a full member of SP, although he’s been all over the last few Puppy records as a performer and producer, so I don’t know that I can reasonably lay that at his feet. What do you think?
Bruce: Blocky’s a good word. No matter how layered or complex things get, there’s always a clear, discrete schematic of the various sounds that I can plot out in my head on this record (not unlike Haujobb’s New World March a while back). In addition to that bubbly LPD/Tear Garden feel, there are clearly sequenced 8-bit passages throughout; that, in combination with the ohGr similarities, puts Weapon in the odd position of connoting Volt 9000, an act we’ve discussed on this site as being notable for referencing ohGr rather than Puppy. The woozier, smeared sonic palette of Handover, as well as plenty of Puppy’s more psyched-out early works, is nowehere to be found in Weapon‘s precise arrangements. The “Solvent” remake, which I enjoy a good deal, reminds me of the then-controversial Walk/Ogre helmed redux of “Smothered Hope” from Remix Dystemper (a track I originally loathed but have strongly come around on).
For all of that, I do think that Key’s contributions come through clear and strong as well. The bendy lead of “Paragun” and the thickly stacked percussion tracks feel like they could’ve come from The Dragon Experience. We talked a bit in our review of Handover about how that album sounded like a long-running band discovering a new way to “be” that band. Weapon feels a lot less unified, despite those commonalities of sound which we’ve been talking about, with each track feeling like it could be a stand-alone piece (or perhaps a collaboration on a solo record) rather than part of a greater whole. That seems ironic given all the talk about Weapon being a semi-concept record. How do you feel about the thematic content of the LP?
Alex: Honestly, if I hadn’t read about it and looked at the album art I’d be hard-pressed to figure out what the premise of the album is. I gather it’s something about the nature of our relationship with weapons of various kinds, but it’s a bit hard to decipher if you’re just listening to the lyrics. That’s similarly true of Puppy’s other pseudo-concept album The Process, so draw your own conclusions. I’m generally down with the abstract, impressionist lyrics Ogre has been employing since basically forever at this point, although there are a couple head scratchers (two separate references to ice cream?) and at least one eye-rolling chorus (the repetition of “Screw it!” on “saLvo” comes off as silly). Here’s the thing though: even when I couldn’t really puzzle out the meaning of classic Puppy songs, I could always derive some meaning from their delivery. Like “Love in Vein” for example, that song has an almost physical effect on me when I hear it, and to this day I couldn’t really tell you what it means, except that it’s broadly about heroin. I’ve listened to Weapon about ten times through, and even when I’m actively trying to put together the themes I’m coming up mostly empty.
Which sort of relates to the big issue I have with the record: I just can’t imagine anyone having any real emotional connection with it. That’s been more or less true of the past couple albums (although I did get some real cathartic release from some Handover when it dropped), and I’m totally willing to admit it may just be me getting on in years, but nothing on here stirs me in any way. I can appreciate a lot of it technically, and there’s things on it that actively engage with me intellectually, but that sense of being really moved isn’t there and that bothers me in ways I’m having a hard time quantifying. It’s a personal gripe, and no doubt some people will point to the mournful “terminal” as an example of how Puppy can still bring the sentiment, but it’s just not grabbing me on that base level. I’m probably just getting old.
So yeah, not a bad record, not a great one, but an okay one. It’s fine. It’s still better than plenty of other stuff, and I haven’t given up on it as I think there’s still lots to examine and draw meaning from, I’m gonna sit with it for a while and let it sink in further. My snap judgement is that it’s a technically accomplished LP with some pretty good songs on it, and that it’ll likely land squarely in the middle of the “new” Puppy albums with a few years distance. You?
Bruce: I’m more or less in agreement. Part of that general discontinuity I was talking about is a very “yes, no, okay” checklist type reaction to the songs as they come. I’m enjoying loops, grooves, melodies, but in an abstract, piecemeal way, which isn’t something I’m used to with Puppy. I do like Weapon more than Mythmaker, but it feels far more disjointed, almost like a fun odd and sods record (Back And Forth Series 8 perhaps) rather than an LP proper. The most frisson Weapon offers me likely stems from “Plasticage”, with its immediate beat and catchy but unnerving chord progression building towards a mammoth chorus (not the most common tack in the Puppy playbook, with “The Choke” being the most apt comparison), but then ending far, far too soon.
In a sense I feel like I’m fretting over my lukewarm feelings on Weapon far more than I should. Whether that’s because I wasn’t writing about industrial on the regular when Mythmaker came out, or because the excited reactions we’re seeing crop up all around us don’t exactly jibe with my feelings on the subject, I’m not sure. I’ll say that I’m looking forward to tossing it on again in a few months, with some distance from personal or socially-mandated expectations, possibly in anticipation of catching a concert (the Green Guy willing), and seeing how these tunes have held up. Until then, Weapon seems guaranteed to raise Puppy’s profile amongst listeners new and old, and that’s definitely cause for celebration, regardless of the reason.