If the original explosion of punk in 1977 gave NWOBHM a renewed energy and zeal, then the punk-plus versions that followed in the form of thrash and hardcore punk from both sides of the Atlantic would prove to be an essential element in crafting extreme metal of the 1980s. Add the hyper speed and aggression of this music to the regal neoclassical flare of Judas Priest and you get thrash – and later death – metal. But again – as I have mentioned in previous editions of this feature – when looking back on this time, it is easy to view this music as a means to what followed, rather than as music of worth in its own right. In Killing Joke’s case this relates to all industrial metal, thrash metal, and arguably black metal, and in Amebix’s case, pretty much all extreme metal.
So first off it would be good form to explain to the Killing Joke fans my reasons for choosing their sophomore effort ‘What’s this For…!’ over their self-titled and much celebrated debut. Reason one for doing this would be that enough has been written about 1980’s ‘Killing Joke’, its impact and what it meant to underground music. Reason two would not presume that the same commentary has not been visited on the KJ albums to follow, but would simply point out that 1981’s ‘What’s This For…!’ consolidated this music’s unique elements into a more focused and – as a result – a more alienating album. The Killing Joke formula for the first half of the 1980s was so simple it’s a wonder no one did it before: take a danceable energetic rhythm and repeat for the duration of the track, add choppy staccato guitar riffs backed up by prominent bass, and distant vocals that wail and howl, giving the impression that they are coming from the next street over on a restless night. This formula, rarely deviated from, is occasionally complemented by synths, but KJ would never be so lavish as to offer anything like a melody, a lead guitar or keyboard line, or vocals rich with hummable tunes, at least not until album number five.
At its most extreme, punk came across like a parody of contemporary pop music, a vicious mockery of the audial zeitgeist, a mockery of the music people loved each other to, danced to, cried to, and mourned the dead to. Killing Joke approached this philosophy from a slightly more subtle angle, rather than relying on aggression and simplicity alone (the musicianship here is notably precise), in stripping pop music of every passionate element (including aggression) until all that is left is rhythm punctuated by despairing vocals bent on exposing absurdity, we are left with an unsettling distortion of music once familiar, now contorted into something devoid of feeling. The emptiness that remains brings with it a pending sense of dread. All industrial metal bands to follow owe a debt to this album, but many forget the virtue of empty space complimenting the rhythm, which can serve to compound the oppressive atmosphere most industrial music is aiming for (with the notable exception of Godflesh of course). But this legacy extends far beyond industrial music alone.
Amebix were formed in the late 1970s by two plucky young punks, moving from the rural West Country into the dangerous yet exciting world of the Bristol squatter scene. Anarcho punk, hardcore punk, the ideals of the aggressive hippie dominated the musical and ideological landscape. Initially overshadowed by inferior yet charismatic minds from established outfits such as Disorder, early Amebix embodied many of the ideals of punk to such an absurd degree they could barely record their creations. Unaware that guitars needed tuning before each gig, that drummers required something called a ‘drum kit’’ to carry out their task, and constantly mired by the necessities of surviving as a squatter, scavenging for food, hiding from the police, avoiding trouble. By the mid-1980s many of these obstacles had been overcome however, and the true musical voice of Amebix began to shine. And a voice it proved to be, out of the noise came a hybrid of metal, punk, and goth that was to be pivotal for all three subcultures. An early example of this can be found on the single ‘Winter’ released in 1983…rhythmically it worships Killing Joke, with a rolling tom beat that does not relent for the course of the six minute track. Atmospherically, lyrically, vocally, it is arguably one of the first black metal tracks set to record.
1985’s ‘Arise!’ is a true testament to patience, quality over quantity, and impeccable timing. What we have here is the culmination of what punk, extreme metal, and to some extent goth, had achieved to this point, and it was delivered from a decidedly punk band. Later dubbed crust punk, ‘Arise!’ mixes primal aggression, epic song structures, atmospheric interludes, and passionate vocals and lyrics. Indeed, the lyrics go a step beyond mere protest music and hint at a consolidation of the philosophy and mythology of underground music as a whole. This expressed itself through anger at the injustices of the world, joy through the celebration of strength, peace in the acceptance of death, revelations as to the indifferent power of nature. People cite this album as the first fully fledged crust punk album, but this is to do it a great disservice. Even the artwork adorning this release pointed the way for the future of underground metal. The cover art would befit the grimmest of black metal albums, their logo adorned with spikes and decorative axes created the cliché.
So a ‘who wins out?’ paragraph for these two monoliths of audial misery may be slightly unfair given that some four years separates the two, but it must be done all the same. To create something new you must destroy what came before. Punk destroyed. Those that followed were left with the task of rebuilding the sonic landscape anew. Killing Joke, in a subtle back to basics approach to rhythm and more rhythm, reminded us of the power of repetition, the beauty of emptiness, the discord between the restless human intellect and the unforgiving urban environment that confronts it. Indeed it is not just Godflesh, Ministry, and Fear Factory that would cite Killing Joke’s influence, much thrash and death metal outfits name them as an important influence outside of the world of metal:
Amebix took these building blocks and morphed them into a positive response. Tracks like ‘Largactyl’ and ‘Axeman’ may explore familiar territory lyrically, but the album is littered with calls to arms, fearlessness in the face of death, a positive almost heroic response to powers well beyond our control, whether it be the domination of people by people, or the inevitable facts of our own nature, our own death. Musically, lyrically, aesthetically, this album left a lasting legacy for all underground metal to follow. Although it would probably would not exist in the form we know and love today without the groundwork of Killing Joke, few works would stand up in comparison to Amebix’s ‘Arise!’.