Skinny Puppy
Nokia Theater, New York, November 17
by Josie Rubio

When Skinny Puppy took the stage at the Nokia Theater in Times Square, it was hard not to draw comparisons to the surroundings outside. With a theatrical live show and multiple screens in the background, it nearly mirrored the LCD chaos of midtown New York. But nothing could be further from the commercialized neon outside of the venue, where starlets posed nearby for an American Eagle event and tourists milled through a glossy world. With lyrics in opposition to big business, warfare and animal testing, the dark, socially conscious realm of the Canadian industrial pioneers provided a sharp contrast.

Though something of a paradox, it’s telling when Skinny Puppy still manages to make significant commentary on the system while playing a venue where Nokia phones are displayed in their namesake theater. Frontman Nivek Ogre (a.k.a. Kevin Ogilvie) emerged wearing a giant wizard hat and beard, leaning on a walker for the opener, “Love in Vein,” from 1992’s Last Rights. Older songs such as “Hatekill” and “Addiction” pervaded the first part of the set, as Ogre gradually did what a friend described as a “macabre striptease.” As his costume dematerialized, Ogre’s character became younger, mutating from the wizard to a masked man in bandages. The screen behind the band magnified the singer as he contorted behind plexiglass and squirted faux-blood onto it for “Tormentor.” Eventually, his walker was discarded for the latter half of the set, which included “Politikil” and “Pedafly” from 2007’s Mythmaker.

The band—cEVIN Key, a flurry of dreadlocks and maneuvers behind a panel of synths and computers, and drummer Justin Bennett, tore through the hip-hop accented “Pro-Test” from the 2006’s Greater Wrong of the Right before heading into a “Morpheus Laughing” from Too Dark Park (1990). This was followed by “Rodent” from Rabies (1989) and “Assimilate” from Bites (1985). Here again Ogre was leaning on his cane during these older songs, perhaps signaling their past tense and distancing himself from them. As with any performance, it’s open to interpretation, but Skinny Puppy has always produced an intellectual set with their subject matter and complex, layered music. In fact, frontman Ogre was arrested in 1988 for mimicking vivisection on a stuffed animal onstage, when an audience member mistook it for a real dog. (And yes, the irony is that procedure was done to animals in labs legally.) Over the years, during the post–Nine Inch Nails popularization of industrial music, while some were going for shock value (Marilyn Manson) and rock bands did industrial-by-numbers (Gravity Kills), Skinny Puppy was always a world apart. While lyrics included blood, death and anger, the purpose was not to create a freakshow but to draw attention to oft-ignored horrors already present in society—the reality of animal testing, the violence of conflict and the effects of bureaucracy that are, in fact, more cold and disturbing than any onstage antics could convey.

For the encore, Ogilvie emerged sans makeup as he launched into “Worlock”—the closest the band has ever gotten to a hit—before wrapping up with “Brap” and “Far Too Frail.” While most other bands couldn’t have sustained more than 20 years—edging ever closer to 30—without seeming dated, Skinny Puppy proved to be always edgy and still in a class by themselves.

The same cannot be said, however, for the opener, VVerevvolf Grehv, a.k.a. Dapose of The Faint. His one-man-band set is supposedly a cross of classical and speed metal influences, and it would be kind to leave it at that. However, it just seemed like the audience had the misfortune of stumbling upon a guy rocking out in his dorm room. This could be called experimental, as in an experiment that failed, like the Hindenburg or Crystal Pepsi. Maybe kids raised on Guitar Hero would disagree—but then again, what would they be doing at a Skinny Puppy show anyway?

Surfer Blood
Cafe Bourbon Street, Columbus, November 18
by Kevin J. Elliott

First of all, apologies to Surfer Blood. The band came to Columbus on a Wednesday night, not the most ideal day of the week to make a first impression. Their show was moved from the larger Summit to the much smaller (and danker) confines of what’s lovingly known to locals as the Bobo. Their sound, not the fault of the soundman but the equipment, was less than optimal. Add those factors to the deafening wave of hype they rode in on, and I’m obligated to make them the whipping boys, especially after their brief and underwhelming performance did little to back up the buzz. Whipping boys for what you might ask? For the flood of bands not yet incubated enough, but still thrown to the wolves for dissection. In all honesty, I was looking forward to this.

Granted, the songs are there. More than a few from their still not released debut, AstroCoast, stood out this night as catchy and well-crafted indie pop, but the band lacked the bite and drive, the rapture and passion needed to win over a jaded Columbus crowd, who stood proverbially twiddling their thumbs like nervous primadonnas, unable to get past the tiny club’s routinely broken monitors. Leader guitarist and vocalist J.P. Pitts seemed the most perturbed by the inconvenience, seemingly moping in his deck shoes through the set as if already ruined by a lack of prime sonics. However much of an anthem their single “Swim” has become across the blogoverse, it rings hollow if that giddy sentiment can’t be portrayed live on stage and it seemed none of Surfer Blood’s members, save bouncing keyboardist/percussionist Marcos Marchesani, wanted to be there. Still, that’s nothing to say of their skill. Riffing like a frayed, greener version of the Shins, the band was more than capable of weaving in and out of complicated licks, interspersing passages of tropical rhythms a la Vampire Weekend or the recently anointed Fool’s Gold. In songs like “Twin Peaks” and the technically nerdish “Harmonix,” it’s apparent that these kids are well aware of the ghosts of indie’s past, driving home perfect imitations of Pavement and Guided By Voices but lulling them to sleep in vanilla arrangements with zero motion. Surfer Blood have taken the fun of nostalgia and sucked it dry.

Perhaps this was an off-night for the band, and perhaps my words are a bit harsh, as there’s certainly promise in their melodies and the backing of a million blogs ready to pronounce them the next big thang. Unfortunately, the Xerox of that next big group is getting fainter and less pronounced by the day. On this night Surfer Blood proved that theory, playing 2010’s non-descript version of indie rock with half the chutzpah of the one that came before.