Each week, one of Biff Bam Pop’s illustrious writers will delve into one of their favorite things. Perhaps it’s a movie or album they’ve carried with them for years. Maybe it’s something new that moved them and they think might move you too. Each week, a new subject, a new voice writing on… something they love.
“Rivers” is a song from Skinny Puppy’s fifth studio release, Rabies. It’s not a goth-industrial hit; you won’t hear it on the dancefloor at goth nights (and you never did); most non-Skinny Puppy fans have never heard of it; but it is absolutely brilliant. Early Skinny Puppy was characterized, generally, by two sorts of sounds: one included thumping percussion, eerie repeated synthesizer tracks, disjointed broken sampling, and Nivek Ogre’s voice; the other included atmospheric synth pads that sometimes included samples from horror films (these were found both sounds – take “Icebreaker” from Bites). Both “Rivers” and “Worlock” from Rabies are both firmly Skinny Puppy songs on an album that is essentially a Ministry album with a Skinny Puppy mask (no great surprise: Ministry’s frontman, Al Jourgensen, was a producer). A lot of people gush about “Worlock” – with good reason. It’s a fantastic song, and one is pretty much guaranteed to hear it at a Skinny Puppy concert. This is far less likely, if not impossible, with “Rivers”.
“Rivers” is four minutes and forty-eight seconds of pure synth-driven nerdity. It’s wonderful. While Ogre’s vocals in most Skinny Puppy songs are a defining characteristic of the band’s sound, they’re not always required. Ogre’s not on this song; the “lyrics”, such as they are, are entirely sampled from films. But the films they choose . . .
The song opens with a line from A Clockwork Orange (“Let’s get things nice and sparkling clear.”) and it sets the tone for the rest of this truly scary and fantastic tune. Blending rising and falling tones, percussion beats, and synth pads with a virtual cornucopia of film samples, I’m always left reeling (and almost always listen to it again immediately). Two of the films used for a number of the samples are A Clockwork Orange and 2001: A Space Odyssey, but before you start thinking that it’s an ode to Stanley Kubrick, you’re hit with an overly dramatic Ferdy Mayne going on about taking over the world. The film sampled is one of my all-time favourites and one of Hollywood’s best-kept secrets: The Fearless Vampire Killers. Mayne, as Count von Krolok, is the main voice throughout “Rivers”, backed up by HAL and Alex. A megalomaniac vampire, a deranged computer, and a sociopath – this is the stuff of nightmares.
The song also samples Maniac 2, The House by the Cemetery, and Dead & Buried, but it’s the two Kubrick films and a film by Roman Polanski that make it. Say what you will about the Polish director (and, trust me, I have some very strong opinions on the matter), but The Fearless Vampire Killers is a delightful film: it’s his take on Hammer films, and it knocks the socks off them. When I first heard Mayne’s voice on “Rivers”, my face exploded in a big toothy grin: someone else was acknowledging the film and putting it to good – no, excellent – use.
When I first heard the song in the early 1990s, it was rare for me to like something like this. I usually just did other things when the sample-laden instrumentals spinned on during a Skinny Puppy listen. Not so with “Rivers”; I loved it from the first moment I heard it – in fact, I credit it with my love for dark, sample-laden songs drowning in layered synthesizer sounds. It’s a very Skinny Puppy-specific sound from the ’80s into the 90s, but I feel it reaches its apex with “Rivers”. Don’t believe me? (also, Skinny Puppy never made an official video for the song – this was made by a fan using a number of the sampled films)
Also, as a bonus, here’s a b-side from Back and Forth Vol. 3 that runs in an all-but identical vein – I also adore this song.