Music: The Process (Skinny Puppy)

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2020-12-01 07:00:00-05:00 No comments

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My theory of the cultural history of the past twenty-five years is that not only has there been almost no progress, but that we have regressed in so many ways — and so silently that when we're confronted with evidence of the regression, it manifests not simply as psychic shock but actual violence. If an album that is more than two and a half decades old sounded ahead of its time both then and now, that's two signs in one: 1) the work was one of genius, and 2) the rest of us have not applied any of its lessons at scale. Or, where we have, those lessons remain off in the margins, not informing popular culture in a way that moves it forward. For a long time, though, I didn't think about The Process in this light at all. It was mainly "the album that killed Skinny Puppy".

The album that killed Skinny Puppy

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Freshly released from their long-lamented contract with Nettwerk, the band signed to Rick Rubin's American Records (now under Universal), and set to work on a new album that was intended to be a concept project about the not-widely-understood cult religion The Process, a/k/a Process Church Of The Final Judgment. Not one thing about the recording of the album went right. A wildfire destroyed the original studio; a succession of producers came and went, futilely attempting to coax the band to produce something like the Nine Inch Nails-esque pop-noise the label was pressuring them to deliver, and then finally to just deliver something, anything at all. Singer Nivek Ogre and composer Cevin Key, once fast friends, fought bitterly, then stopped speaking to each other entirely. Then the long-suffering third member of the band, Dwayne Goettel, died of a heroin overdose at his parents' house. Key and Ogre scraped together what they could of the record, stuffed it into an envelope, threw it at the record company, and went home. (The book Assimilate: A Critical History Of Industrial Music goes into great detail about the hell in triplicate endured by each band member and by everyone around them; go read that if you want the full tea.)

By the time the album appeared in the racks at Tower Records, it had a pall over it that just about blotted out the sun. That didn't stop me from buying it, and that also didn't stop me from gushing rather idiotically about it on message boards at the time. That any Skinny Puppy album existed after the earth-leveling intensity of Last Rights was a bonus, and so I realized in short order I'd overpraised what now looked like a glorified demo tape. No question there were good songs on the record, but also no wonder people, especially longtime Puppy fans, slagged it freely: it was a patchy mess. For years, my approach to it was to just carve out the two or three tracks in it I liked the most and forget about the rest, especially with regard to the ordeal of their making.

Then, several years after their ugly breakup, Ogre and Key reconciled, and returned to the studio under the Puppy name to continue recording. The new albums didn't make everyone happy, but they were clearly steps in new directions: they had never been interested in doing exactly the same things twice, and they'd had enough time out to have new steps manifest very differently for them than before. Enough so that for the sake of establishing contrast, I pulled The Process back out and did the one thing I hadn't done with it in a long time: I listened to it end to end. I couldn't ignore how patchy and unfinished some parts of it were, but the rest of it held together so well, and had such adventurousness to it, that it made so much of what had come out in the years since sound like it was just barely getting caught up.

Most Puppy fans were familiar with the way the band used freeform instrumentals to establish a mood, usually an unsettling or outright terrifying one ("Draining Faces", "Fritter (Stella's Home)", "Reclamation", etc.). The album's opener, "Jahya", is in that vein, but it's not a horror-movie track; it's downright symphonic, building from a primal electronic buzz to crashing waves of slammed guitar. Only at the end does it become nervy and unsettling in the signature Puppy way, with a rattling fast-paced beatbox and vocal samples that suggest rather than dictate ("may be spontaneous, may be preplanned in a way, although it looks like an accident").

A similarly out-of-context sample opens up "Death" — "spiky, black, hard-edged" — which gives way immediately to one of the three or four most violent songs the band ever created. The band had used guitar-driven attacks before ("Rodent", "Tin Omen"), but "Death" outstripped all of them by having the guitar on top of a far denser and more complex weave of sound, the biggest portion of which was Ogre's own massively processed voice. It's hard to believe the song barely clocks in at four minutes; it's like being strapped to the mast of a ship that threatens to capsize in a monsoon, but somehow never quite does. What never fails to impress me is how there's actual songwriting in this maw of noise, and how even the noisiest parts are chosen for how they complement the song's musical core.

"Candle" was intended to be the single, but with the band kaput and any plans for a tour out the window, that never happened. It is the first incarnation of Ogre actually attempting to sing instead of just use his voice as another noisemaking tool, and the acoustic guitar and slightly sparer instrumentation throughout tries to complement that. But it doesn't quite work; too often it just sounds like bad angsty poetry recited in too flat a voice, and with too many syllables crammed into a single verse. (You know you're in trouble when the first thing that comes to mind is how Tom Lehrer used to make fun of whatever it is you're trying to do.) And yet the last third or so, all instrumental, is phenomenal.

"Hard Set Head" is a mixed bag in the way the whole rest of the album is. Its slow-motion opener, and the way it kicks into higher gear after that, are impressive, as is the way it builds tension incrementally across each verse and then releases it in a chanting chorus. But, again, sometimes it just turns into a six-car pileup of ideas that feel forcibly docked into each other. The ending in particular is terribly weak, like they couldn't think of anything else and just huffed something out to keep the whole thing from stopping dead. "Cult" is another attempt to do something emotive in the vein of "Candle", and it's barely more than a fragment, although it does give a few moments for Goettel to show why his keyboard work with the band remains so rightfully praised.

"Process" takes everything that "Hardset Head" did wrong and does it right, so much so that for a long time this was my other favorite cut apart from "Death". After a deceptively meditative opener, it sets up a relentless drill-press beat that becomes the spine for some of the most complex and multilayered sound of any track in the band's catalog. It feels developed, not simply bolted together, making the change-up of the song's ending even more impressive. But "Curcible" is like all the weaknesss of "Hard Set Head" all over again; it sounds like the kind of cheesy, guitar-grinding nonsense created by all the bands that tried to ape Skinny Puppy in its day and failed miserably.

Everything from that point out, though, is brilliant. "Blue Serge" has the throbbing core of a techno/trance track, but expodes out in all directions with the kind of instrumental and compositional complexity I've associated with the band at its best. "Morter", with its hustling pace and creepy verbal samples (taken from the documentary The Elder Brother's Warning), feels like the high-speed credit crawl for a documentary about the end of the world. "Amnesia", slow and elegiac, hits where "Candle" and "Cult" fell short, and makes use of the vocoder in the same mournful way as the classic "Worlock" from Rabies. And "Cellar Heat" slices and dices everything that came before, only to make like Pink Floyd The Wall and lead us back out the same way we came in.

A joyful (and painful) Process

What all this has to do with the historical Process Church Of The Final Judgment is, or so I thought for a long time, anyone's guess. Beyond the odd name-drop here and there, whatever concept the album had seemed lost, or at least fragmented beyond recognition, by the album's horrible birth pangs. It wasn't until I read about the Church in detail that I could see more of the album's incarnations of its ideas.

The Process Church was founded in 1966 by a British husband-and-wife pair, Mary Ann MacLean and Robert de Grimston, both Scientologists expelled by that group in 1962. They repurposed many concepts from Scientology into their project. "Processing", for instance, from which the new Church got its name, was the term for the therapeutic work prescribed by Scientologists. Members were encouraged to choose one of four Jungian-esque facets of the personality to make into their personal god: Jehovah, Lucifer, Satan, and Christ, each representing a different principle (strength, light, separation, and unity, respectively). The real evil was not in Satan or Lucifer, but in the "Grey Forces" of the uncommitted billions of humanity, those who looked on instead of taking mastery of their own lives. All this, along with many of the usual strict regimentations found in cults, was in preparation for some millennial Final Judgment where all four divinities would merge.

The Process Church operated in obscurity until around 1970 or so, when it came to light that Charles Manson had come into superficial contact with the group. After that, most any mention of The Process went hand-in-hand with mention of the Manson massacres, even if the only thing the Process actually had in common with Manson was the letter "o" — and anything that used the word "Satan" fast became non grata. Maclean and de Grimston parted ways in 1974, with the Process name staying with de Grimston until 1979 when he formally abandoned it. In time he shed his religious activities and became involved in animal rescue work. (Anti-vivisection was a key part of the Process's philosophy, as was Skinny Puppy's.)

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Not many people knew about the Process, but some of the right ones did. When Funkadelic put out Maggot Brain in 1970, most of the inner sleeve was taken up by an extract from one of the Process's broadsides, "On Fear". Chief P-Funkster George Clinton wasn't himself a devotee, but he claimed to have found the ideas useful in a self-actualizing way. (It strikes me as being a little like the spiritual equivalent of the Situationalist antics staged by the Sex Pistols when they hung a Communist banner behind them on stage. The provocation mattered more than any actual content.) A decade or more later, Genesis P-Orridge of Throbbing Gristle cited the Process as a major source of influence on his projects Psychic TV (musical) and Three Temple Ov Psychick Youth ("cultural engineering").

It was P-Orridge who apparently gave Ogre direct exposure to the Process ideas, as P-Orridge and the Puppies were both living in California by then. (See the Puppy Gristle album and some of Key's Download albums for some of the fruits of this cross-pollinization). I believe P-Orridge was at the time also helping to reincarnate at least one offshoot of the group in the form of the Transmedia Foundation, a short-lived project intended to be a postmodern information-society / information-war culture-jamming nexus.

How the music embodies all this, apart from the occasional lyrical or song-title reference, is hard to say. But over the years and across the course of many listenings, my own reading of the album accrued. The primal beep at the opening ("Jahya") unfolds into a great surging roar, the transcendental impulse that undergirds our existence in this world, the need to seek something greater than ourselves. What follows from that is its corollary: the terrifying perpetual presence of death ("Death", of course) and the inability of conventional religion to help us with it in alienated, atomized times ("Evocation of the dead / Moses forbidding it / Doesn't mean a thing, mean a thing"). The search for an alternative continues anyway, though ("Candle"; with an early mix of the song including samples that namecheck The Process), despite the "silent noise" of attacks from the larger culture ("Hardset Head") or attempts to paint those alternatives in a bad light and demonize those who choose them ("Cult", with its cried-out line "She's not insane").

But the group itself ("Process") provides a way forward for those in it, even if it seems menacing to outsiders ("Curcible" / "Good and evil does not exist..."). Still, it can only provide so much protection against the vicissitudes of the real world ("Blue Serge"), which continues its evil ways all the same ("Morter"), perpetuating yet another generation that, in turn, perpetuates the same evils ("Amnesia" / "a loop rotates forever unresolved"), reincarnated countless times in countless other lives ("Cellar Heat").

I mentioned at the beginning of this review how the way this record still sounds fresh and powerful today seems due to both its creators being ahead of their time and the rest of us having stalled in place. I said much the same thing about Talk Talk's Spirit Of Eden, but it applies here more, I think. Anything synth-related in particular these days seems more the product of warmed-over nostalgia for a particular set of sounds, gestures, or attitudes, then attempts to create something truly new with the open-ended power music technology provides. Nothing here came out of a box, and twenty-five years on I'm still waiting for someone to come along and continue from where these three, now two, left off.

Tags: Skinny Puppy industrial music review