The Fillmore, San Francisco
November 28, 2023
Photos by Raymond Ahner
I have very few “bucket list” bands left to see. That isn’t meant to be a flex or showing off how cool I am or anything like that. It’s merely to say that I’ve seen most of the bands and artists that have been of the utmost important to my music-listening journey. But one that eluded me for years was always Skinny Puppy. It isn’t that the band hasn’t toured since I’ve been a fan; on the contrary, they’ve toured at least three times since I became a fan, but I missed them every single time for different reasons. So when they announced the second leg of their farewell tour, which included three nights at The Fillmore in San Francisco, I knew that I couldn’t miss them again. And apparently I wasn’t the only one with that idea, as two of the three nights were completely sold out.
When it comes to Skinny Puppy and their live shows, the presentation is just as important as the songs themselves. The anchors of the band have been instrumentalist cEvin Key and singer Nivek Ogre, and on their farewell tour they’re joined by guitarist Matthew Setzer and drummer Justin Bennett, as well as live performer Dustin Schultz (we’ll get more into that last member later). The stage was donned with cEvin on one side standing in the middle of a seeming armada of keyboards, with Matthew and Justin on the other side. In the middle was a large white screen, from behind which a light began flashing as the band opened the show with the song “VX Gas Attack” from their 1988 landmark album VIVIsectVI.
Standing behind the screen was, of course, Ogre. A harsh black silhouette shone through the white screen as he danced and sang “VX Gas Attack,” as well as the following song, “I’mmortal.” Also behind the screen was Dustin, who, donned with apparent devil horns on his head, began posing behind Ogre and showing off silhouettes of various objects as the song continued, including slices of pizza, the Star Of David, and various guns as Ogre sang the repeated line, “Just looking for something.” Finally, after an illustrated alien’s head was displayed on the screen, Ogre emerged onto center stage as the band launched into “Rodent,” the opening song from 1989’s Rabies. The projection of the alien was a small taste of things to come, as, under the black shawl draped over his head, Ogre was disguised as just that: an alien.
What followed was a further ninety minutes of a loose story being told onstage as Dustin, garbed in an all black military uniform not unlike a SWAT team member with protruding devil horns, antagonized, tortured, and tried to kill Ogre’s alien character. Meanwhile the band tore through a setlist comprised of material from nearly every single album in their catalogue, with only their 2011 album HanDover being ignored. When a band plays a setlist as varied as the one that Skinny Puppy put together, there is a risk that the time passed between certain songs will be apparent, but that was not the case here: “wornin'” and “Tormentor” fit perfectly together, as did the run of “Hardset Head,” “Pedafly,” and “Morpheus Laughing.”
A particularly powerful image was when Ogre as the alien, with brain matter dripping down the side of his head, sang “Worlock,” one of the few staples in Skinny Puppy’s live sets. I’m not sure about how the song resonates with other fans, but the song was one of their first that I ever heard, and to see Ogre give such an impassioned performance of the song was a sublime moment I’m never going to forget. Matthew Setzer played the main riff from The Beatles song “Helter Skelter” to perfection during the bridge, as a voice-over of Charles Manson sang a couple of lines of the song.
There were other staples by the band that were played: both “Deep Down Trauma Hounds” and “Dig It” were played with the right amount of menace, with “Dig It” in particular finding the crowd screaming the chant of “Dig it! Dig it!” back at the band as the song went on. There were also a fair share of lesser-played songs thrown into the setlist as well: both “Inquisition” and “Human Disease (S.K.U.M.M.)” hadn’t been played in nearly two decades before this tour, as well as the previously mentioned “I’mmortal.”
Ogre has stated that there is a narrative thread throughout the stage set and that he portrays “The Other,” but the definitive interpretation of what the set is about will probably never come out. What I took away from the story was that Ogre as the alien indeed represents an “other,” whether that be a subculture, a sexual orientation, a race of people, or any other number of things. Dustin’s character represents the rest of society, who at first tries to mirror it (as he did during “wornin'”), but then, seemingly unable to copy it, decided to destroy it. There was a section during “Pedafly” where Dustin slits Ogre’s throat and uses the alien blood to bring to life a newborn monstrosity, potentially symbolizing how a culture will bastardize something to make their own version of it, a version that is never as true or impactful as the original. At one point the alien has his brain removed and is seemingly killed, only to come back stronger than ever and finally conquering its antagonist during “Dig It.” This could be about how heads of a certain counterculture or movement can be killed, but the ideas that they represent will outlive them and come back stronger than ever. But this is just my own interpretation.
cEvin, Matthew, and Dustin returned to the stage for the encore, treating the audience to “Film,” an instrumental song from their 1985 debut album Bites that hadn’t been played since 1986 before making its return to the band’s setlist during the second leg of their farewell tour. Once the song ended, Ogre took to the stage, this time with no makeup on whatsoever. He thanked the audience for the last forty years of support. “We were a small band on a major label that only managed to stay on because our albums came in before schedule and under budget. And it was you who bought those albums and kept us relevant all of this time.” The crowd erupted in support of both the statement and the band. “Rash Reflection” from 1990’s Too Dark Park was next, another song that hadn’t been played in over three decades before the band brought it back for this tour’s second leg. Following that was “Testure,” one of the singles from the VIVIsectVI album. The band finished and then took their leave offstage.
Soon they were all back for a second encore, one that focused exclusively on the very early days of the band. Again, Ogre thanked the audience, saying that they kept him alive for the last four decades, before opening beat of “Smothered Hope” rang out. The song is the first song on their first proper release, the 1984 EP Remission, and saw Ogre spinning the microphone wildly throughout the air. And then, the band closed out their final show in San Francisco with their trademark song: “Assimilate.” Throughout the song Ogre knelt at the edge of the stage, reaching out and touching hands with the audience members in the front row as everyone in the venue shouted the chorus: “Rot and assimilate! So hot to annihilate!” Ogre’s repeated cries of “Death! Death! Death! Death!” saw the song out. The audience went wild. The band took a selfie onstage as cEvin yelled “Thank you so fucking much!” to the crowd, who all returned in kind. And just like that, Skinny Puppy finished their last Bay Area show.
There are few bands that you could say are responsible for the creation, or popularization, of an entire genre. Kraftwerk created electronic music as we now know it on their album Autobahn. The Velvet Underground essentially created various genres on their debut album The Velvet Underground & Nico. And if it hadn’t had been for Skinny Puppy, the world of electro-industrial music as we know it would be greatly different. Without them, there is no Ministry as we know them today, no Nine Inch Nails, no Combichrist, no Rammstein, no Marilyn Manson. And it isn’t just the world of industrial and rock music that the band has had a hand in molding: Kanye West wouldn’t have made Yeezus and Death Grips wouldn’t have been a band at all had Skinny Puppy not existed. If you’re familiar with the band and were able to see them on this last tour, then you know what I’m talking about. But if you happen to not be familiar with the band and missed them, don’t worry: although the band will no longer be together before this month is over, the music will always be there for new listeners to find.
Opening the show was Lead Into Gold, the solo project of musician Paul Barker. Barker is best known as having been the bassist and producer of the industrial metal band Ministry from 1986 to 2003, and even if you didn’t know that going into watching his set, the music made it very apparent that there was some connection there. Supporting this year’s album The Eternal Present, Lead Into Gold played an extended opening set highlighting that album, as well as songs from his previous two albums. At one point he mentioned that he had lived in San Francisco before moving to Chicago to work with Wax Trax! Records, the label that would become home to the fledgling industrial scene with bands such as Ministry, Meat Beat Manifesto, Front 242, and Front Line Assembly joining its roster. Although I found the music that Barker played to be good, it was a bit disappointing that he had next to no stage presence. Especially when opening for a band as renowned for their live performances as Skinny Puppy, I would have hoped that he would have risen to the challenge.