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When Nothing Is True... Anything Is Possible
Skinny Puppy, The Met, Philadelphia, 4/18/2023
Skinny Puppy is a controversial industrial band led by cEvin Key (Kevin Crompton) and with performance and vocals by Nivek Ogre (Kevin Ogilvie). They are known for their lavish and surreal costume performances based around the collage art of gore, violence, and transgressive shock imagery. The concept of “martial industrial” resolves around political and totalitarian imagery, found in acts like Nitzer Ebb, Laibach, Death in June, and KMFDM. Meanwhile, Skinny Puppy replaced the martial with biological organs, body horror, and esoteric symbolism, becoming the pioneers in late goth music that would later inspire the flamboyant and gruesome imagery of Marilyn Manson, Slipknot, Mushroomhead, and Bile. However, Skinny Puppy always ran away from the spotlight of the nu-metal fad and continued to act as an avant-garde performance, breaking the conventions of popular demand.
Ten years later after their 2013 album, Weapon, and an absence from performing live, they announced their final tour, titled, “When Nothing Is True… Anything Is Possible.” I attended the Philadelphia showing at The Met on April 18th, 2023.
With a title like that, we can assume that liberalism, and ideology based around freedom and postmodern nihilism, let us do “anything” we want. What are the limits of a sex change operation? Of sexual desire and violence? What do we consider “normal” then, if anything is possible? The Marquis de Sade was a revolutionary libertine who took these concepts to the limit. The performance at The Met was a sadist theatrical play and fantasy about torture, social control, and the ignorance of modernity.
The show begins with shadow puppetry. A figure is behind a translucent sheet, and slowly morphs into a caterpillar, and then a person. That person is Nivek. Nick ways four hands out, like the Hindu god Vishnu. His body morphs into different shapes as the strobes flicker on and off. Soon he is waving his puppets and symbols behind the screen.
The first statement is presented about nihilism. Does a singer exist on the stage? Nivek sings the first two songs as a shadow and not as a human being. We are watching a ghost sing, or, a figment of our imagination that can’t explain the explainable. Shadow puppetry is rooted in Southeast Asia and India, further foreshadowing ancient and esoteric tradition as the true form of cosmic horror. Academic Eugene Thacker has often argued that the work of pessimism and skepticism is a form of cosmic horror, that we all go in denial about existence, and try to make a positive meaning out of something naturally against us. Thacker could be understood as a spokesperson for Whitehouse-style power electronics, and his “right” to feel transgressive and evil, could very well be a common theme found when “nothing is true.” The shadow puppetry here fits into a grand narrative about nature knowing the true secrets of existence, and humans often mistranslating the cosmic horror as their ownership.
By the third song, Nivek comes out as a mud monster draped with black cloth, twitching and walking with broken legs. Here continues the tradition that the singer is undistinguished. While we celebrate celebrities and look up to role models, Nivek is stating that we are not looking up to him, but a black blob of nothing. Here Skinny Puppy is challenging the concept of a band and making an open criticism that popular music requires a matching face and submissive worship. Nivek is resurrecting John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s concept of Bagism, where the person cannot be judged anymore through prejudice or stereotyping, where only the message is meaningful, and not the image.
Another unnamed performer appears in black BDSM armor and dreadlocks. I call this figure, “the cop.” The cop starts marching around the mud monster, back and forth, crossing his arms, as he inspects the mud monster’s nature. On the front of the stage is a crude art object that looks exactly like a skinny puppy. The cop takes the syringe and injects it into the skinny puppy. He then walks back to the mud monster and injects Nivek with the syringe. This is a fake injection, of course, and isn’t a real injection like what Michael Nine, or then “Death Squad,” did at his crazy so-called performance, “Intent.” (Which is perhaps the most offensive and pretentious power electronics I know of, and honestly, not worth anyone’s time to look into).
Then the cop waves around a long stick, or a bat, with the intent of beating up the mud monster, making multiple threats and twirling around the bat like a samurai.
A fight soon breaks out between the cop and the mud monster. The cop pulls the drapes off the mud monster, and it is revealed to be an alien with glowing eyes. What started as a shadow god, turned into a mud monster, and is now an alien. The sudden transformation reveals layers of what is hidden behind the text. This itself makes me think about the “ancient astronaut” theory, or that what is hidden from the public is a god that is hideous.
Skinny Puppy then performed “Morpheus Laughing,” which I was able to film.
At the same time while singing, the cop puts down a chair. The alien sits down in the chair and then is tied up with rope. A surgeon's screen is pulled over, so the audience cannot see the alien tied up. Another shadow play is performed, but this time, the cop is beating up the alien, as we see his bat hit the alien’s head multiple times, along with the tune of the breakdown. The alien previously sang “Tormentor,” and reminded the audience of the “mental shock” from this “surgery.”
After the brutal surgery, the alien gets back up from the chair and is wobbling around. To the audience’s surprise, the alien rips open a part of his head, as fake blood, guys, and organs come out. The alien is still singing while grossing out the audience. His brain is left on a pedestal while still being experimented upon by the cop.
The cop represents a kind of F-scale personality test, where he is the persona of the “authoritative personality.” Like in Stanley Milgram’s politically biased “obedience” test, we see the common person acting upon a desire to control, harm, and brutalize without remorse. A sacred alien found in the cosmic horror is taken by sinful humans and experimented on in Area 51, another infamous place kept away from the public. What we have is an alien with an ugly display of mutilation still singing. The experiment is considered “normal” to the scientists who dissect animals for “research” or “humanity,” but fail to realize that they are partaking in a gruesome murder against the innocent. We end up becoming subjects in the Stanford prison experiment, regulating ourselves to “mental health” and thus becoming a police state without police.
And like in the Stanford prison experiment, the alien gets revenge against the cop by using telekinesis powers. The alien also foams from the mouth and spits on the floor. He is then able to strangle the cop and recover his brain. Then the alien takes over his brain, as red confetti is sprayed against the audience. The cop gets back up and ties up a noose. The alien is singing “Dig It,” and cries about the “execute economic slave” and “freedom as an offering.” The cop puts a noose around the alien’s neck and drags him off the stage. The show is over.
A two-track encore follows, but this is out of character and meant to bid farewell to the Philadelphia audience one last time.
With a tour name like “When Nothing Is True... Anything Is Possible,” it is a reminder that the progressive urge to go forward is reaching a climactic end. Capitalism may reap profits for private enterprises, until it destroys the earth through a nuclear holocaust, in the name of “freedom.” Skinny Puppy gives us an invitation into sadism, and through the magic and reinterpretation of sampling and screaming, we can understand the true nature of subjects like chemical warfare and animal abuse. We don’t understand what is beyond ourselves, and yet, we experiment on animals against any ethical concern. Like the misunderstood kid who gets bullied in high school, there is more to the inside than donning a green mohawk and black leather. The goth subculture relies on dark imagery to shock and offend the normies that would otherwise be against their interest in just being a good soul. We live in a materialistic world that needs the culture-jamming act of collage art to awaken people to political realities, sexual desires, and hypocrisies. To imagine an actual skinny puppy in our head makes us feel uncomfortable but in a good way.
Skinny Puppy was known for many other theatrical performances over the years that deserve more attention. The final “alien” show is a statement about cosmic horror, the unknown, the arrogance of humanity, violence, and our perception of idol worship. These are all great values to have as someone in the goth subculture. Nivek Ogre is an innovative player in the avant-garde arts, and whenever he performs, he’s sure to make the most pretentious people uncomfortable for the right reasons. Questions arise during the reading, and the collage of body horror harkens back to the work of Edmund Elias Merhige or Pier Paolo Pasolini.
The corpse is alive. It’s been mutilated and experimented on, but its innocence is still intact. What has liberalism done to the human brain?