Music: Last Rights (Skinny Puppy)

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2013-01-30 15:00:00 No comments

There is a moment in Oliver Stone's movie The Doors, when Jim Morrison (Val Kilmer) tells the rest of the band, "That's not bad for a bunch of guys who weren't even talking to each other the day the album was recorded." That might well have been the making of Last Rights, which because of everything from its very title through to the downright eschatological sound of the album seemed for a time like the last album the group would ever make.

Or the last album anyone would ever hear, given how determined the record seems to be a final will and testament to everything from its band to its listeners to the world that produced it. It makes Pink Floyd The Wall seem downright upbeat, since that was only about one man's implosion; here, the whole of human creation and experience is in the process of being wiped off the map. This wasn't just "music for the end of the world"; the band had apparently gone and recorded the act while it was in progress. Nobody Gets Out Of Here Alive, indeed.

Skinny Puppy wouldn't be what it is without vocalist Kevin Ogilvie (Ogre)'s psychodrama fueling its performances, but here his exhalations were more than just confessional or transformative; they constituted an act of spiritual bloodletting. Small wonder no lyric sheet was included this time around, since that might have been giving too much away at once. Best to let the audience pick up the pieces for themselves--or better yet, forego meaning entirely and simply listen for flavor, in much the same way you don't need to understand the language used when two people are arguing. The tones of their voices tell you everything, and the full-throated alarm and despair on display here has the same effect.

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What starts off personal on this record eventually becomes universal, by dint of the sheer atmosphere conjured up. The most obvious of Ogre's traumas opens the album: his drug problems ("Love in Vein"), but like most every other theme here it's used as a starting point and not as a way to encapsulate everything that goes on. The follow-up ("Killing Game") is the same way: some great individual hurt is being put on display, but less out of a sense of self-pity than as a way to kick a door open to something far bigger (the obliterative "Knowhere?"). "Mirror Saw" and "Inquisition", the latter being the closest thing the album produced to a single, work the same way. Even if we don't know the details of what's being revealed, except through the most occasional glimpses, the mood of the whole thing -- universal, shilling for cosmic -- is plain enough.

The other half of the album eschews any gestures towards meaning, goes headfirst into mood, and never comes back up for air. Everything from this point forward is either a pure instrumental ("Riverzend"), a noisy collage ("Scrapyard"), or a track where the presence of a voice is just there as another element in the tapestry and not something you get a specific meaning from ("Circustance"). The only meaning that's meant to be derived out of all that we hear is that our time as individuals and as a species is very short indeed. All of this is capped off not with an explosion, though, but with "Download", an 11-minute track that begins with jittery samples that sound like a broken CD player and eventually devolve into a single, placid, undulating drone. If at the end of this very dark tunnel there is something resembling light or peace, it will scarcely come in the way we expect it.

The real-world aura around a work of art has a way of adding layers of meaning and emotional significance never intended by its creators. With Last Rights, the almost total lack of communication within the band while the album was being recorded was bad enough; the absence of lyrics -- one of the few signposts pointing towards intentions with any record -- didn't help either. But within what few sparse liner notes were available there was a cryptic clue as to what else has gone wrong: SONG 10 IS MISSING? Cue up the CD and, indeed, the 10th track on the album has a playtime of 0:00.

It took the introduction of the first online FAQ for the band, some time after the album's release, to clear things up. Track 10 had been titled "Left Handshake" and had been meant to bridge the gap between "Circustance" and "Download" -- to provide the explosion that seemed to have been missing from the record's programmatic flow. Bootlegs of the track slowly surfaced, in various iterations -- a rough demo, a version sans Ogre's pained howl, a number of different album mixes. All versions made it clear how the album was as incomplete without it as The Magnificent Ambersons was without its final reel.

All versions also made it clear why the track had been nixed in the first place. Mixed in with the song was a lengthy sample of Dr. Timothy Leary from the film and album Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out. In a stroke of irony, the band had contacted Leary himself and been given the OK to use the recording -- but the actual copyright owner, film and record producer Henry G. Saperstein, said no, and so the band chose to yank the track in toto rather then remove the samples. Given that Leary's words are an integral part of the feel and function of the track, I'm not surprised they chose to leave the song out entirely rather than sabotage its intentions.

Leary died in 1996, two years after the album's release; Saperstein in 1998. Two years later, during a brief reunion tour (the band would in fact break up in the wake of recording the ill-fated The Process), "Left Handshake" surfaced as a limited-edition 1000-copy single (entitled "Track 10") that the band gave away at concerts, presumably in such small quantity as to not arouse the ire of whoever owned the copyright. Unfortunately, none of this seems to have spurred any attempt to license the sample and release a "director's cut" of the album: when Nettwerk did a vinyl re-pressing of the album with an included CD, "Left Handshake" was still conspicuous in its absence.

Yet another serendipitous problem with the album added to its mystique. The original pressing of the CD -- the one I picked up upon its initial release -- had a timing defect, most likely due to the last-minute elimination of "Left Handshake". Every track marker on the album had been shifted ahead by about 37 seconds, so that each song -- and the album itself -- seemed to be starting in the middle of something. Not knowing this was a problem with the album, I chalked it up to the band's determination to do things differently: the net effect was to make the album feel like that much more of a suite, an unbroken continuum where the track markers were at best arbitrary pointers to somewhere within. Later pressings (sporting a sticker that read "QUALITY CONTROLLED SKINNY PUPPY") and the MP3 download version of the album all fixed this issue, but the album seemed all the more ferocious and disturbing in its defective edition. I kept my faulty copy, knowing full well the associations I had to it weren't something that could be easily recreated.

The albums that hold the most meaning for me are the ones that seem to come with a narrative attached to them, or which suggest one. If the only narrative that most people gleaned from Last Rights was that the end is nigh, I couldn't blame them for drawing that conclusion and no other.

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This page contains a single post by Serdar Yegulalp, in the category Music, published on 2013-01-30 15:00:00.

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