On Killing Joke’s screams from the machine

The further listening series

It’s 2001, and my dad asks me if I have heard of a rock band called Killing Joke. “No, why?” I say. “Their singer was just being interviewed on Radio Four”, he responds, “apparently he is a classically trained conductor, and a couple of years ago he produced a series of orchestral arrangements of tracks by The Doors for the Prague Symphony Orchestra”. I think little of it and move on. It’s the year 2005, and the Kerrang! awards are in full swing. Trivium are the darlings of the moment because of course they are. But apparently Matt Heafy caused a stir of embarrassment after letting slip that he has never heard of Killing Joke, who have just won the lifetime achievement award.

The name sounds familiar and I quickly recall the conversation with my dad a few years before. “Killing Joke”, it had an ominous, joyful nihilism to it that rolled nicely off the tongue. After wondering what on earth they sounded like, Kerrang! TV proceeded to play me this, in the midst of Blair era war crimes and mass hysteria:

It’s 2006, a friend and I are playing music in my car. Nirvana’s ‘Come as You Are’ comes on, and he proudly declares “ah, the Killing Joke rip off”. I have no idea what he’s talking about. We later get in front of a computer and he proceeds to play me this:

I later discover a review of Killing Joke on the infamous Dark Legions Archive. Further digging reveals a Metallica cover of the ‘The Wait’, a Killing Joke poster in the background of ‘Ferris Bueller’s Day Off’. It’s 2007 and we’re regular attendees at goth nights in London. I watch as punters ponderously two-step to ‘Love Like Blood’, a track that would cause my dad to later swear them off as “Duran Duran merchants”.

Rarely has an artist resonated with so many pockets of culture, so heavily influenced the course of alternative music, or boasted so many prominent champions within significant streams of contemporary musical discourse, yet simultaneously lingered just beyond the bounds of mainstream success, an artist both blessed and cursed with an obscure credibility.

The answer to this enigma that bisects the territory between underground and mainstream, this chameleon that can lay foundational claims to metal, goth, post punk, and industrial, can in part be answered by the confrontational persona of frontman Jaz Coleman, a dash of terrible luck, and the curse of the first; having mapped out new sonic territory only for others to popularise it in their wake, this left Killing Joke looking for all the world like followers, and not the leaders that they have always been.

Having been at the forefront of whatever style they turned their hands to for well over forty years now, their discography is perhaps best broken down into four distinct segments. These can be roughly traced as the initial post punk/industrial years that make up the early 1980s, the more commercially orientated pop of the late 80s, the industrial indie punk of the 1990s, and the industrial metal of their post 2000 reformation, which would see them grow ever more gracefully into a maturity defined by a string of infectiously heavy industrial metal albums.

The first and arguably most influential period spans from their formation in Notting Hill in 1978 through to the release of ‘Fire Dances’ in 1983. It was their epynomous debut released in 1980 that was to overshadow this era in the eyes of many fans however, and still boasts the most crowd pleasing hits in ‘Requiem’, ‘Wardance’, and ‘The Wait’. What made their formula so unique?

Killing Joke’s early style sat comfortably in that malleable territory known as post punk. Having been stripped of her prog regalia by the late 1970s, rock retired to lick its wounds and consider the future. Post punk was the most prominent output of this time, seeing a set of artists begin to build on the ruins of the old, reinjecting first principles back into their compositional outlooks whilst retaining aesthetic and philosophical ambition. The emphasis being toward the intent behind the music rather than overloaded with the substantive musical loopholes that made prog so reviled by 1979. Instruments must be struck with purpose, emotion must be conveyed, commands directly from performer to listener were issued, commands to move, to feel, to engage in the music on a soulful level, beyond esoteric musical winks and artisanal in jokes.

Killing Joke’s contribution to this milieu was an emphasis on rhythm, on urgency, on the inevitable march of humanity toward its own destruction, a foregone conclusion to many in the nuclear age. This would also present a pleasing yang to the high energy yin of intensely compositional music found in the fledging NWOBHM movement of the time.

Geordie Walker would flesh out staccato riffs bent toward a rhythmic philosophy over anything remotely melodic, aided by a razor-sharp distortion and loaded with visceral dissonance. Paul Ferguson’s anchoring four-on-the-floor beats were surrounded by a swirl of tom rolls and infectious grooves that burrowed into the soul, complemented by Youth’s thundering bass. And of course Jaz Coleman’s booming vocals soared above it all, articulating elongated notes as if from a megaphone above the skyline. Boasting a vocal range few of his imitators could match in both the clean and distorted range, his idiosyncratic style was to become a hallmark of Killing Joke, issuing from an eccentric persona that was to prove a liability as much as an asset over the years.

For the next three albums this central remit would remain largely unchanged. Rock stripped back to its barest rudiments. Music crafted from pulsing rhythms, with melody serving as mere incidental window dressing. Light synth pulses and other early industrial miscellany would frame all with a semblance of postmodernist dread. Although the debut takes all the accolades from this era, Killing Joke were still able to find ample room for manoeuvre within this style. 1981’s ‘What’s THIS For…!’ offers a repressively dark atmosphere that looks almost tragicomic when set to the jubilant body beats of the rhythm section. ‘Revelations’ would see Walker bring the riffs, with Coleman taking a step back, relegating himself to a more run of the mill anthemic style common to a lot of post punk at the time.

Following the departure of bassist Youth, Paul Raven would join the group for the release of ‘Fire Dances’ in 1983, which – aside from a strong lead single and their first music video – is arguably the weakest offering from this era. Here, they feel like a band flirting with pop but reluctant to fully grasp the mantle. But when Killing Joke did turn their attention to a commercially viable sound, the weaknesses in the ‘Fire Dances’ material would make themselves achingly apparent when the next era of Killing Joke was ushered in.

Before we move onto this however, it wouldn’t be untoward to talk about aesthetics. Tours, TV appearances on shows such as The Tube, and slots on John Peel’s radio show were already forthcoming by 1984. Coleman was an early adopter of war paint, bridging the gap between Authur Brown and King Diamond prior to it becoming required apparel for black metallists. His intense stage persona was offset by the mesmerizingly laid-back swagger of Walker, who would caress his guitar seemingly oblivious to the intensity of the riffs he was churning out. With ‘Revelations’ reaching number 12 in the UK charts they also garnered a slot on Top of the Pops in 1982, a chance to showcase their energy to a wider audience than ever. But true to form, Coleman was conspicuously absent, having hightailed it to Iceland to avoid the coming apocalypse, leaving Fergusson to fill in miming the vocals, and replacing Coleman with an entity in a space suit. Although the fury of the remaining members of the band is barely concealed throughout this performance, hindsight reveals it to be a bizarre act of commercialist subversion.

But by the mid-1980s audiences were to be given a chance to witness their stage performance unfettered. The release of ‘Night Time’ in 1985 would be their most commercially viable (and successful) album to that point. This led to quality TV moments such as this transition from an interview with Cliff Richard to a Killing Joke performance, an amusing juxtaposition of cultures that just doesn’t seem possible in the TV of a post Simon Cowell world.

Magical TV moments like this aside, ‘Night Time’ saw Killing Joke marry their penchant for infectious grooves with a dark goth melodicism, hints of new wave fragility, and their punk roots in the single ‘Eighties’. The follow up in the form of 1986’s ‘Brighter Than a Thousand Suns’ (a reference to the impending nuclear holocaust) would see them expand even further into pop territory. Paul Raven, when quizzed about the state of chart music at the time, would respond with: “I think that is just an illustration of how easy it is to be successful like U2 or Simple Minds. If a bunch of fucking idiots can nick a few riffs, stick them together and be successful, then I don’t want to be any part of it”. Despite such statements, the quality of Killing Joke’s treatment of pop sensibilities really spoke for itself.

Unlike so many maturing artists who dip their toe into the toxic brew of mass appeal madness, Killing Joke maintained a degree of dignity and poise on ‘Brighter…’ that retained the thumping energy, but stripped away the maniacal doomsaying and replaced it with a considered melancholia that added depth and nuance to what was still undeniably radio friendly pop rock.

Such a fragile balance was not built to last however. Killing Joke remained a peripheral feature of the pop landscape throughout the 1980s, a reference point for more serious alternative music fans to identify each other, and occasional saboteur of Top of the Pops’s good graces, but never the hero of the hour. ‘Brighter…’, despite being pitched to a wider audience, failed to reach the top 50 in the UK, and critically speaking is the inferior album when measured against its predecessor.

Coleman was becoming increasingly interested in esoterica, delving into Alastair Crowley and the occult. His musical leanings were morphing into something equally obscurantist, which would cleave the band in two as work began on the follow up. Coleman and Walker intended to work on ‘Outside the Gate’ as a side project detached from the Killing Joke name, but label pressure begged to differ. Part progressive power synth, part Morrisey knock off, part Coleman ego trip, this was the album that saw Killing Joke finally sink from their place of esteem in the eyes of critics.

Looking back, this is far from a ‘Cold Lake’ incident however. If treated as a Coleman solo album with guest appearances from Walker totally divorced from the Killing Joke timeline, it belongs squarely in the lexicon of curious experimental pop albums that appeared in the late 1980s as the synth era drew to a close. Coleman’s attempts to dissect English sensibilities via bittersweet poetry in the style of Morrisey or Paul Weller never quite came off, but his undeniable eccentricities continued to set his style apart from any of his peers. But for the rhythm section of Killing Joke it would prove too much, with Fergusson departing before completing the drums, citing Coleman’s increasingly erratic behaviour, and Raven following suit soon after requesting that his bass contributions be removed from the record.

But this animosity would prove to be short lived. Following just two years of wound licking and soul searching, Coleman and Walker reunited with Raven and released ‘Extremities, Dirt, and Various Repressed Emotions’, thus ushering the 1990s and the third era of Killing Joke. For an artist with an already well established style, sometimes the only way to reacquaint oneself with true fury is to catastrophically fuck up, as Killing Joke did in many people’s eyes on ‘Outside the Gate’. In re-appraising ‘Extremities…’ as a response to this failure, there’s no two ways about it, it’s a monster album. One gets the sense that this is the album Metallica wish they had written instead of the absolute clanger of failure that was ‘St. Anger’.

Hailed by many as a return to their roots, the real story of this album is Killing Joke becoming a punk band again. Exhausted with the turns life, culture, politics, and economics had taken throughout the 1980s, and exhausted with measuring their aggression with ethereal atonality and rhythmic inuendo, this was Killing Joke stripped back to their barest rudiments. Over an hour’s worth of material rails against the world around them. Although such length and fury would become the standard format for all albums to follow, ‘Extremities…’ would present this at its rawest and most energetic. The beats are direct, the vocal hooks stripped back, the songs have no time for the laboured gloom of their earlier atmospherics, instead we get blast-beats, pounding punk anthems, and explosive basslines.

The earth now suitably scorched, Killing Joke were free to plant fresh seeds into the soil. 1994’s ‘Pandemonium’ was the result, arguably their most expansive and ambitious album up to that point. It would also feature their largest list of guest and session musicians. Industrial metal was a legitimate subgenre by the early 1990s thanks to the pioneering work of Killing Joke, with Godflesh, Fear Factory, and Ministry all citing them as an influence. It’s little wonder then that the veterans would begin to look to these wide eyed young faces for new inspiration.

‘Pandemonium’ is still undeniably a Killing Joke album, but their style had been given a fresh lick of paint, readying it for the heavy yet groove laden 1990s. The title track and single ‘Millennium’ both prefigured industrial pop metal in the likes of Rammstein, but they would also indulge in melodic ballads and heavy indie numbers that – were it not for the relentlessly heavy riffing – looked for all the world like Britpop classics. 1996’s ‘Democracy’ would further solidify comparisons with the indie boom of the mid-1990s. All the familiar Killing Joke calling cards were on display, but with an increasingly telling indie influence in the form of melodic acoustic arpeggios, catchier hooks, and anthemic choruses.

Where ‘Pandemonium’ was in part a vehicle for Coleman to unravel his intense interest in the occult, ‘Democracy’ would see him rail against what he saw as the increasing aestheticism of mainstream politics at the expense of substantive social change. The alienation this engendered is apparent in the lyrics across the entire album, most tellingly on the title track:

I’m not a slogan or a badge
Or a cross in the ballot box
Neither values or objectives
You do not represent my deepest
Thoughts and wishes
Education in obsolete skills
Stereotyping and media projection
Industrial psychologists
Plan a campaign that is financed by big business

But despite these sentiments being fairly common for the time (and a lurking spectre even today despite politics being “real” again), they were certainly swimming against the tide. Britain looked like a country finally at ease with itself by the late 1990s. The symbology of the establishment was being co-opted into popular culture, the Union Jack proudly adorned by pop stars, Oasis happily accepting an invitation from Tony Blair to an election victory party at No. 10, the old boundaries of left and right, working and middle class, all looked primed to come tumbling down.

Despite the sincerity of Coleman’s bitterness at the real world tectonic shifts occurring beneath this superficial free market patriotism, it was not enough to keep the Killing Joke train steaming, and they were to enter their longest hiatus yet.

The 1990s are often framed as a decade of illusions, an intoxicated fantasy that was quickly shattered by 2001. Such complacency saw The West invite war to its doorstep once again, only to respond with fire, fury, and rampant paranoia, all deep sources of motivation for artists such as Killing Joke. Much has been made of protest music (or lack thereof) following the invasion of Iraq, this is usually in light of comparisons to the Vietnam War. The truth is that culturally relevant music was forthcoming, but none of it resonated quite so universally as it did in the 1960s, largely because it was still possible to frame the invasion of Iraq as an act of vengeance, with genuinely pro war music gaining traction at the same time, specifically in the bro-country field.

But Killing Joke’s second self-titled album released in 2003 certainly ranks as one of the more dignified yet no less invigorating musical documents of the Bush/Blair era, which also saw them reconcile past animosity with Nirvana by recruiting Dave Grohl for skin bashing duties.

It could be argued that the first three albums Killing Joke put out in the new century would mimic the shape of their 1990s run in structure and tone. A furious, epic, protracted statement of intent in 2003, followed by a more ethereal, occultist offering in ‘Hosannas from the Basements of Hell’ in 2006, thus mirroring ‘Pandemonium’, which was no less aggressive despite this, and then a consolidation of the two competing motives for ‘Absolute Descent’ in 2010, a more general barrage of grievances with the Zeitgeist.

All three albums would touch on many familiar tones and themes for Killing Joke. From cathy post punk, to effortlessly heavy industrial, to straight up punk, to soulful ballads. ‘The Raven King’ on ‘Absolute Descent’ remains a particularly poignant example of the latter category, dedicated to bassist Paul Raven who sadly passed away due to heart failure in 2006. The album would also see the return of Paul Ferguson and Youth, making it one of the more compellingly successful reunions to occur during this period.

But the real take away of latter-day Killing Joke was just how effortlessly they seemed to churn out abrasive, heavy, rich, nuanced, complex work that left the contemporary picture looking stale by comparison. There was no doubt that they had absorbed some lessons from their many imitators in the industrial milieu over the years, but when regarding moments like this, few could dispute their penchant for enduring relevance:

‘MMXII’ was part expansion on this vision, partly yet another platform for Coleman to champion his apocalypticism, this time via Mayan prophecy. Where ‘Absolute Descent’ was vicious, raw, exposed, ‘MMXII’ is incremental, ethereal, distant. It sees the original line up shoot for a panorama of noise for the listener to immerse themselves into rather than a blunt call to arms. That being said, the lyrics are as conspiratorial and anti-futurist as ever. Although 2015’s follow up ‘Pylons’ would see Killing Joke’s original line up reach a shaky compromise between these two competing philosophical drives, for an artist on their fifteenth album and thirty five years deep into their career, few could ask for more of their bouncy energy and infectious melodies continuing to temper wanton aggression with ease.

Although we are now seven years on from ‘Pylons’ with no new material to speak of, a new single ‘Lord of Chaos’ dropped earlier this year, which may have offered few surprises for those familiar with their most recent run of albums, but will nevertheless delight long-time fans awaiting their next move.

Killing Joke have remained a consistent feature on the festival and touring circuits, seeing a dedicated clutch of old school fans who were there from the start still happily following them up and down the land to catch their shows. For newer fans they remain the graduation band. Never the initial gateway into a wider sonic perception, but the first stop on that hallowed trip down the rabbit hole. A marker of maturity, a more nuanced taste, one that injects a semblance of grim realism into the intoxicated protest music of youth.

From day one Killing Joke have been a thorn in the side of the musical status quos, and despite now being arch veterans of industrial, punk, metal, and goth, they continue to put artists that consider themselves at the forefront of these scenes to shame. It is almost dazzling how consistent they have been over the years whilst retaining an edge of innovation, a constant feature at the peripheries of their sound. If you are remotely interested in any of the genres we cover on this blog, then the chances are Killing Joke will be the puppet master behind many of your most beloved artists, a name that keeps cropping up but never surfacing to take centre stage.

Their music consistently spoke of a joyful nihilism, a deep concern at the heart of the nuclear age that appropriated the sloganeering and imagery of said age until it began to look almost like destructive glee, the only logical response to an absurdist civilisation that – with every passing day – more closely resembles the death cult of Coleman’s worst fevered nightmares made flesh.  

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