How Skinny Puppy's 'Too Dark Park' Made Me Confront Sickness and Discomfort in Electronic Music
Even today, Canadian band Skinny Puppy's 1990 album continues to unsettle.
My grandpa was a vigorous man. A French-Canadian gentleman with a full head of perfectly combed hair. He always insisted on table manners. We called him "Daddy Cool Cat"—a title that was even emblazoned on his coffee mug alongside a cartoon feline with a top hat and cane.
He started getting sick in the early 2000s—first his body, and then his mind. When I saw him in a hospital bed, shrunken and disoriented, I returned home and frantically started scrawling on loose-leaf paper, working through the shock. I wish I could remember what I was thinking, but I've since lost those pages.The startling reality of that hospital room and running my hand through my grandpa's thinning hair was terrible. The paradox of accepting my own helplessness remains hard to forget.
The profound discomfort I knew on that day was something I'd have wished to avoid for the rest of my life. Yet, strangely enough, I found it in a place I always considered a haven: music. There is only one album in my collection, Skinny Puppy's Too Dark Park, that I've treated with the same avoidance behaviour, the same tip-toeing anxiety that my grandfather's sickness awoke in me.
The first time I ever played Too Dark Park out loud, I was asked to turn it off almost immediately. On a Friday afternoon of my senior year in high school, I was reveling in that strange foreplay of owning a new CD but not yet being able to listen to it: the waiting period between purchase and play—holding the album in my hands, examining it, stripping off the squeaking, crunching plastic.
Four of us were together in my dad's Honda Civic and I excitedly slid the disc into the CD player. A snarling mess came vomiting out of the speakers like wet barbed wire. I focused on driving and tried to avoid the sidelong glances of my passengers. But, this noise dominated the tight cubic space of the vehicle so arrogantly, it couldn't be ignored.
What we were hearing was not bad music in the typical flippant sense: the type to be avoided by aimlessly mashing radio pre-set buttons while driving down the freeway. A qualifier like "good" or "bad" seemed completely out of place. More than anything, it was uncomfortable, and that we were all sharing in that feeling only made it more so.
My brother tapped me on the shoulder and asked me to turn it off.
Surprisingly, I wanted to. I wasn't offended, as I typically might have been by such a request. It was a relief, and in the silence that followed, the tension immediately seemed to dissipate in the spring air seeping in as we opened the windows.
Released in October 1990, the album—which turned 25 this year—marked a turning point in the career of the seminal Canadian industrial band. While some prominent electronic acts were fine-tuning their sounds for massive crossover success—Nine Inch Nails and Ministry both went platinum a few years later—Skinny Puppy did the opposite. Not that their sound was any less polished, just more disturbing.
Too Dark Park seems to be, consciously or not, the rejection of a genre headed increasingly towards mainstream acceptance. Speaking with THUMP recently, one of the group's founding members, cEvin Key, seemed ambivalent about their intentions, stating they only did "what came through naturally."
Anyone who has listened to the album might realize what a frightening sentiment that is. Too Dark Park sounds and feels like a neurological disorder. The album's opening cut, "Convulsion," is a nightmarish synesthesia, quite impossible to describe in any other way than its namesake: a sonic rendering of a fit, jarring and violent.
The cacophony produced in the album's haze of distortion, macabre samples, and echoing drums is also profoundly anti-social. It is incredibly hard to connect to—a quality that sets Skinny Puppy apart from its contemporaries. NIN frontman Trent Reznor always evoked compassion through themes of sexuality and addiction. Ministry capitalized on fraternal aggression with driving teutonic riffs coming down like a sledgehammer. However, those typical emotional reactions find no purchase with Too Dark Park.
Neurological illness has none of the sensuality of libido and rage. Instead, Skinny Puppy's album instills a kind of clinical neutrality. It puts the onus on the listener to react; it doesn't lead the way.
We instinctively expect a certain rapport with what we listen to. Particularly in electronic music, the ebbs and flows of rhythm and tempo are important. We get excited. We jump at the drops. We relax, swoon, and chill during periods that allow it. We expect music to speak with us in a certain way: sharing in our sadness, anger, and joy.
Too Dark Park doesn't speak back at all—like a stroke victim without a voice. We demand a response from it that goes unacknowledged.
Anyone who has dealt with a loved one suffering from addiction or chronic illness may attest that there comes a point where attachment can no longer be helpful. The symptoms of the sickness have to be treated. Health has to be maintained. The personal relationship is pushed to arm's-length out of necessity, so the emotional toll is lessened.
This album insists on that distance.
That's why it bothered me when I heard it years ago, and that's why it bothers me now. I'd never before owned an album that didn't bring me pleasure. There was no catharsis listening to it, only frustration.
What was so evident on that day with my brother is Too Dark Park's ability to warp a typically facile social space: like mediating the hurtful and demanding territory of palliative care. Our capacity for emotional exchange becomes muted, and our normal channels of communication fall out of sync. So, like a rational person, I stopped listening to it. Yet, every once in a while, I dust it off and try to get through it, not for enjoyment, but curiosity. And on almost every occasion, I turn it off after a few songs.
I still don't like it, but I realize that's hardly the point.
There are certain works that exist, not because they bring us pleasure, but because they've plumbed the darkest aspects of human experience. They remain, defiant of our enjoyment: for the key to overcoming our discomfort is not to avoid the horror, but insisting, over and over, to look again.