Before Skinny Puppy took the stage at Best Buy Theater last week, people in hazmat suits—looking like extras from Breaking Bad—scurried across the stage, setting up props. One carried what looked like a bowl of blood. “I saw a menstrual themed show,” a woman in the crowd enthused to her friend. “They threw out bloody pads. Things can get weird.”
Of course, weirdness has always been at the core of Skinny Puppy’s appeal. Since forming in Vancouver in 1982, the Canadian band’s electronic industrial music has been so innovative, it defined its own genre. Over relentless beats, audio samples, and cEvin Key’s soaring synths, frontman Nivek Ogre’s sinister growl has tackled topics like environmental issues and animal testing. Earlier this year, in protest of their songs being used as an implement of torture at Guantanamo Bay, the band sent a bill to the U.S. government for a symbolic amount of $666,000.
First, after performances from openers Haujobb and Youth Code, fellow industrial legends Front Line Assembly—who were added after VNV Nation pulled out of the tour—played a short, energetic set that included songs from FLA’s ’90s catalog (“Mental Distortion,” “Neologic Spasm” and “Plasticity” among them) as well as a few songs from 2013’s Echogenetic. The groups have a long history together: Front Line frontman Bill Leeb was in Skinny Puppy in the band’s early days and was in Cyberaktif with Key. The goths were out in full force, and seeing the two legendary industrial bands in one night would be enough to make any fan happy. (Well, you know, as happy as goths can be.)
Skinny Puppy’s elaborate and theatrical live shows aren’t just for the sake of spectacle, but rather emphasize the issue-charged lyrics. (In fact, the band was infamously arrested in Cincinnati in 1988 when they destroyed a fake dog in an imitation of vivisection and an audience member thought it was a real animal.) At this show, the New York stop of the Eye Vs. Spy Tour, Ogre took the stage in a mask and a curly hood, opening with “Convulsion” from 1990’s Too Dark Park and then launching into “Illsit” from their latest album, Weapon. Though the latter is about the government snooping in the name of anti-terror, the exploration of digital identity and loss of privacy is also apropos considering that Key was recently part of Facebook’s “real name” crackdown and was extremely vocal about it. (At one point, there seemed to be a Spartacus-like “I am cEvin Key” movement before Facebook finally agreed to let him use his stage name.)
After “VX Gas Attack,” Ogre stepped behind a screen onstage for a quick costume change—putting in fake teeth and donning a grotesque mask. Throughout the night, he adopted various personas, including a menacing wolflike creature that cradled a plastic dog figure for “Deep Down Trauma Hounds” and “Testure.” They played “Hexonxonx” from 1989’s Rabies, but the perennial show favorite was another track from the album,“Worlock,” a song that would be an unlikely dance hit anywhere but underground.
Though there were a few shouted-out requests for “Assimilate,” which the band has played on a few other tour dates, it wasn’t part of the New York City setlist. A small group of people also led a “We want blood!”chant, presumably because, for a Skinny Puppy show, the faux bloodshed was minimal. A backdrop of screens provided additional visual stimulation with flickering images, and, at one point, an onstage camera fed realtime footage of Ogre and the crowd to the screens. Another Weapon track, “Solvent,” closed out the set.
As with the last Skinny Puppy show I saw at this venue (when it was the Nokia Theater), Ogre emerged for the encore without the masks, as himself. After informing the crowd that Florida has the highest level of radioactive iodine outside of Japan after the Fukishima disaster—a reminder, he said, that we’re all just maggots—they belted out “God’s Gift (Maggot)” from Mind: The Perpetual Intercourse, as writhing maggots were displayed on the back screens. Electronic bands can easily—and quickly—sound dated, but Skinny Puppy has never fallen into this category, evident with the final song of the night, the 30-year-old “Smothered Hope.” As always, Skinny Puppy’s live performance proved to be as visually arresting and captivating as the music the band has created throughout its long and prolific career.