Performance Art Meets Industrial: Skinny Puppy in the Twin Cities

Paul Whyte

As a teen I became aware of bands such as Ministry, KMFDM and Nine Inch Nails and being kind of the brooding sort, I ate it up. I liked the alternative scene of those days a little more but I certainly found an appreciation for industrial music. During my college years a show came to the Twin Ports that I absolutely couldn’t miss. Both Ministry and Thrill Kill Kult were to play at the NorShor Theatre and I was thrilled to go. I remember being pretty disappointed when Thrill Kill Kult backed out of the show but Ministry had an amazing performance and I can still remember Al Jourgensen’s shadow floating along the walls of the NorShor’s main room. Thrill Kill Kult not playing that night strengthened my resolve to one day not only see them but also as many old school industrial acts that I could; specifically industrial acts that got their start in the 80s.
Industrial music is an off shoot of rock that almost always incorporates electronic aspects. Themes are typically either disturbing, decadent or somehow make a  social, political or religious statement. Although there are many variations, the term industrial often implies a heavy beat and samples (or sometimes sounds created in real time) that one could expect out of a machine shop as well as a wide variety of sounds, quotes and other chaotic noise. Like any genre of music there are many sub-genres that would take awhile to try to list or let alone try to explain.  
My draw to wanting to see these bands live is that the shows are extremely entertaining. Although I love a lot of styles of music, the stage show of industrial acts certainly aren’t dull and although I’ve traveled hours to watch a person play an acoustic guitar, the energy of an industrial show is exciting yet usually not so heavy that a full on mosh pit occurs. Over the last few years I finally got to see Thrill Kill Kult with Lords of Acid and had the chance to see KMFDM last winter. These bands differ from Skinny Puppy as they fall more under industrial metal or rock as they have guitar and bass in them while Skinny Puppy leans towards being almost exclusively electronic besides utilizing a drum set in their live show. Keys and samples are the driving force of Skinny Puppy’s music and then there is the defining addition of Nivek Ogre’s vocals. Ogre’s vocals are particularly dissonant, harsh and carry a resounding feeling of bitterness in them. While some may feel that this is a bad thing, his vocals are among one of the most unique in modern music and portrays the band perfectly. While there are a number of bands in rock history that have switched lead singers, this seem like an impossibility for Skinny Puppy; it would never happen. Skinny Puppy is a Canadian group that started in 1982 and has officially released 15 studio albums.
The night was cold in downtown Minneapolis and it was like a freezing wind tunnel around the Target Center and First Avenue area where the show at Mill City Nights was to take place. For those who arrived right around when the doors opened, the line was fairly short and painless. Industrial shows have a fairly niche audience and although the ones I’ve seen are well attended, the crowds are manageable. One might think that the style of music would draw a rough or unruly crowd but the majority of the audience consists of people over 30 years old and things are pretty chill. There was no moshing or fights at the show that I noticed. I will admit that Thrill Kill Kult at Ground Zero in Minneapolis had some kind of weird things going on but they all involved consenting adults as far as I caught a glimpse of.
I opted to watch the show at Mill City Nights from the first row of their balcony and just skip navigating around the audience on the main floor. I couldn’t have asked for a better vantage point. Besides part of a suspended speaker and a guard rail, I had nothing between myself and the stage.
The opening band was the “industrial rock” group, Army of the Universe. Before the show a friend said that the band sucked but I was willing to keep an open mind and judge for myself. The friend was right, Army of the Universe was a rough start to the show. The unamused audience looked on as lead singer, Trebla, went through his performance of exaggerated posturing and gestures that ended up failing to impress anyone except a couple of people who were probably drunk. He finally ended up taking off his shirt which wasn’t really helping things and he had to tug up his pants on several occasions. Industrial music doesn’t often have the most technical guitar parts but AOU was particularly simplistic. The thing is that from the performance it’s hard to call AOU industrial because the keys and electronic aspects were barely audible. Everything else in the mix seemed to be pretty good but the keyboard player may as well have not even played. One thing that the key player did bring to the show was a keytar and a glove that emitted super bright green laser beams. This seemed kind of cool but several people complained that they got flashed in the eyes from it.  
Everyone seemed pretty relieved that the AOU set was short. Once the band ended a few stage hands started with the usual tear down and set up for the next act. Usually during a stage change for a bigger production show they keep the lights dimmed somewhat but someone decided to keep the full house lights on the stage lit for the change over and it killed a little bit of the mystery of what was to come.
Despite being able to watch the stage change it didn’t really matter once the show started.
The stage was finally darkened and the show started out with the new track “Shapes for Arms.” A performer who apparently was just there for the theatrics walked out on stage dressed in a white haz-mat suit and a gas mask. He was holding something like a geiger counter as if he was taking readings around the stage. Ogre then made his way onto the stage dressed in a large rain coat, an inhuman looking white mask and he was holding a machete as well as an umbrella with a radiation symbol on it. This is just one of the costumes Ogre wore throughout the performance.
The only show that I can really liken the Skinny Puppy’s performance to was when I saw Alice Cooper at the DECC except Skinny Puppy had a more macabre tone to it, which is saying something. Ogre went on to change into a furry beast costume and his mannerisms changed with the costume changes; there were around five or six during the performance. A man who looked like a security guard on the stage by the stairs, and he probably was to some level, was part of the act. At times the costumed Ogre would rush to exit the stage and then the guard would pull out a prop tazer of sorts with laser sights and “force” Ogre to continue performing. At the final part of the show Ogre is himself and he performed a few of the older more popular songs the group is most known for.
There was a lot of prop usage including glowing beakers of some unknown fluids, a skinny puppy statue that was often moved around and also knifes among other things. Ogre “cuts” himself on stage while performing. One of my friends felt like it was real but seeing that this was just one date of a 29 stop tour and that there was a decent amount of blood, it seemed pretty unlikely that he was cutting himself up that bad every night. Of course artists such as Marilyn Manson have been known to self-injure on stage. While the show was entertaining, the imagery was fairly disturbing and made artistic statements about environmental issues, a police state, biological/nuclear warfare and disease from what was obvious.
The lighting of the show was very effective for a medium sized stage. It was not the most elaborate lighting ever but the back stage lighting mixed with the overhead lights and a projector that washed the whole stage with disorienting or psychedelic patterns as well as disturbing images kept things visually interesting. If a person is epileptic they will probably not want to attend a Skinny Puppy show. A box that folded out into a screen was set up early on in the show in the middle of the stage and this is where all the costume changes took place. The audience was allowed to see the silhouette of Ogre making the costume changes.  
As far as an industrial show goes Skinny Puppy was more theatrical than any of the previous mentioned groups. The other shows were just that, a show. They came off like a band playing music and there’s nothing wrong with that. With Skinny Puppy the focus is on Ogre and its hard to look away because its bizarre and fascinating performance art rather than just some people rocking out. If they ever come back to the area, not only would I recommend going to see this performance, I’m going to see them again. My next industrial concert I hope to make will be the German group, Atari Teenage Riot, who got their start in 1992 and they will be releasing a new album titled, “Reset,” at the end of March 2014. I’ll be disappointed if they don’t do a Minneapolis gig.