Perfect Sound Forever


Fall of because/ Write us a few
A retrospective by Billy Hell
(December 2005)

Laugh at your peril. Have you found a killing joke? When police shoot dead a Brazilian man of suspicious skin colour for running away terrified, is that a killing joke? Are the mythical Iraqi weapons of mass destruction a killing joke? Is armageddon a beautiful dream with possibilities for new beginnings or the ultimate nightmare? You either get it or you don't, but the joke ain't polite. Like Gang of Four, who began in the same fertile post-punk period which has recently spawned a slew of watered down imitators bereft of insight or vision, Killing Joke raised difficult questions and contradictions with their apocalyptic onslaughts of rock reinvention. The Killing Joke became as much a philosophy as a noise. That noise was concisely described by their original drummer Big Paul as the sound of the Earth vomiting.

Jaz (Jeremy Coleman) is the hectoring keyboard abuser who was immediately repulsed by tribal drummer Big Paul (Paul Ferguson) on their first meeting. They'd soon hook up with Geordie (Kevin Walker), a guitarist who shared their appreciation of the theatricality of the Sensational Alex Harvey Band. Geordie has a most hypnotic and fiery guitar technique, kindling orchestral harmonics from six resonating strings. Dub fanatic Youth (Martin Glover) mined deep bass grooves. All were born under fire signs of the Zodiac, and commited to a shared goal of total domination, total exploitation which they would unleash via Malicious Damage.

The first three studio albums and live disc HA! have been digitally remastered and rereleased by EMI. The two later albums reviewed here have also been remastered and expanded by Cooking Vinyl. There are future plans to release a new version of the fourth studio album Fire Dances remixed by Geordie, a remastered Night Time and an alternate mix of Brighter Than A Thousand Suns. A brand new Killing Joke album will be released in 2006, if the music business lasts that long!


Favorite track: "The Wait"

Mike Coles' sleeve is iconic and sets the scene defiantly. Four mischeivous figures are silhouetted atop a graffitied wall against a blitzed cityscape. "Look at graffiti scrawled on the wall," sings a demonically distorted Jaz on their signature call to arms "Wardance." The graffiti on the wall reads Killing Joke. A gathering who helped scrawl it are running for cover before disaster strikes. If you hear only one more album before you die, make it this one! Death is never far away from The Joke, and the "Requiem" that leads off builds a bonfire to roast all those who were just unwitting cattle for slaughter in the endless war machine of so called civilisation. The synth calls out across the wasteland like an air raid siren of doom.

"Wardance" had appeared in an earlier incarnation as Killing Joke's second single, but here is given a precision machined reworking. The cackling cough that heralds "Wardance" signifies the expulsion of destructive impulses. Much of what would later be described as industrial music can be traced back to this song. In 1980 The Clash were begging pop punkers not to hear "The Call Up," and the year before Elvis Costello had his big hit with "Oliver's Army" which displayed similar sentiments. Maybe presciently, Elvis noted that London was full of Arabs, but he probably didn't have suicide bombers in mind. These perky new wave numbers sounded pretty polite next to the sluggish nightmare of "Tomorrow's World." At the time there was a weekly BBC TV show about new inventions of the same name, but the third song on Killing Joke's first album was a gut churning stab of fear for the nightmare of a teenager being called up to fight for his country. Inevitably it'd be mostly working class cannon fodder for the ruling elite's "Bloodsport." Killing Joke had an earlier instrumental called "Malicious Boogie," but "Bloodsport" was more like vicious disco. The disordant almost out of control synth drones that slowly drain away set the scene of razed devestation for "The Wait," still one of the most energizing songs ever recorded, a perfect distillation of Jaz Coleman's desire to marry harsh noise with melodic beauty. "Motives changing, day to day," sings Jaz, buried in Geordie's rivers of foaming guitar mayhem, suggesting that moral values are no longer relevant in the new environment they've been waiting for. Perhaps the closest the album gets to a singalong pop anthem is "Complications," a song in which the sky turns green and the protagonist is made homeless in an apocalyptic disaster. "SO36" is another ominous crawl of desolation, with Jaz presumably lamenting the wastelands around him with the refrain "So dead." Below this a German voice taped from the radio babbles on about cold war relations. The last track "Primitive" is perhaps the most hopeful. This caveman martial stomp celebrates a march back to old ways after the inevitable destruction of bourgeouis civilisation. "Intuition wherever it goes," is as inspiring a lyric as any ever written. The five extra tracks added to this reissue include two previously unreleased rough mixes, and a dub remix of "Change." The rough mix of "Primitive" is notable for a jokier sudden ending, and the rough "Bloodsport" ends with Jaz yelling "Hippies!" threateningly at someone. Could he have been winding up the gathering, or getting on at Geordie and Youth for not playing rough enough?


Favorite track: "Unspeakable"

If the first album reflected on dystopian visions, this unleashes a nightmare descent into the psyche of those living an unsustainable lie. Many consider this album to be Killing Joke's best. It is without a doubt at once their most experimental and seminal, nightmarish and menacing. The list of so-called industrial and metal bands who have recorded homages to this album over the years is nigh on endless. It is also perhaps the most democratic Killing Joke album. Every element seems mixed with equal venom and Youth shares more of the vocals than previously, notably on the gruelling "Madness." When I first heard this at the age of fifteen it was something that I couldn't just listen to for fun like most punk rock albums, or even other Killing Joke albums. Aside from the proto-techno rock of the single "Follow the Leaders" and its anthemic flipside "Tension," the overwhelming oppression of most of these tracks made for immensely difficult listening. These days they just breeze by. Maybe I gained resistance to unspeakable nightmares as I got older!

"The Fall of Because" hammers out a dark scene of alienation amongst myriad crowds. "Tension" is comparably upbeat, with football terrace chorus building a wall to graffiti with the words to beat frustration: "Let nothing be fantasy!" "Unspeakable" is a labyrinthine nightmare chase through intellectual tunnels that lead nowhere worth commenting on. Eerie drones haunt tribal machine precise drums that topple over themselves to turn clocks backwards. The chorus is a blackly hilarious sarcastic put down, "I wonder who chose the colour scheme, its very nice - Unspeakable!" "Butcher" is the album's philosophical lodestone, articulating explicitly what was implicit in "Wardance." "Out of the virus immunity comes." The rape of mother Earth is lamented by a suitably dehumanised robot voiced Coleman over sheets of metallic looping synth discord offset by a mournful guitar refrain. "Follow the Leaders" ridicules the pursuit of pop music dreams, puking up impressions of bad trip rock festivals as Nuremberg rallies. "Madness" and "Who Told You How?" hurl elements of Eastern music into the creative furnace, and "Exit" is a rabid mania unleashed in the dingey alleys of abandoned streets. The eight track symmetry of this album is so perfect that the three extra tracks, whilst welcome, are unbalancing. A previously unreleased dub mix of "Madness" ups the insanity a little. The "Empire Song" flipside "Brilliant" appears on CD for the first time, and fits in stylisticallly better here than it would have on Revelations, with beasts growling in dystopian dub. The booklet adds some photos of the band from 1981, which reflect some of the mania in their gigs, but unlike the unremastered CD previously there are no lyrics reprinted.


Favourite Track: "The Pandys Are Coming"

Recorded in Berlin with veteran 'Krautrock' producer Connie Plank, Revelations is an album that spans centuries and moves outside of time. Jaz Coleman wrote his most complex and poetic lyrics to date, juxtaposing brutality with beauty. The over-riding feeling I get from listening to this album is one of time travel, as if its creators have called upon historical research or even past life experiences to paint vivid pictures of empires repeatedly collapsing, new cultures dawning, civilisations falling in their graves and cycles of eternal renewal. Geordie's guitar sound has more of its classic chime, but for all its glory Revelations is a more polished recording than the first two albums. The opening track "The Hum" would often start gigs too, and is an ominous requiem on an epochal scale. "Empire Song" was the single that preceded the album and sounds like a relentless survivalist tank smashing through the rubble of ruined civilizations. "We Have Joy!" is another wardance, given a primitive twist. "Chop-Chop" takes modern mediocrity spinning round a reversed wrist-watch tick-tock trip, until it pukes up a picture book to compensate outside. "All but the few ever notice anything at all." "The Pandys Are Coming" is, for me, the nexus around which the whole Killing Joke revolves, an evocation of the mind state of the Hindu Pandit tribe as they invoked Kali before hurtling towards the British to embrace destruction during the Imperial occupation of India. It describes a frenzied party breaking out beyond the mundane queues of millions waiting for leaders to lead them to pens. Jaz Coleman: "I began working on my OBX synthesiser with various effects at Mountain Studios in Wales. In time, I perfected a reproduction of the wailing sound of the Bedouin pipes that created a disturbing vibration via the use of two reeds pitched at quarter tones from one another. It was my intention to track about six of them together in a 24 channel studio in order to create a psychologically upsetting ambience in which I would define the irrational interpretation of my current incarnation with Ferguson. Even the personal conflicts of the past had to converge with the present. Conflict was timeless too." The final track "Dregs" also describes a party, but one couched in pointless false arty farty avoidance of anything worth celebrating. Jaz rants and raves almost incoherantly, and the lyrics aren't reproduced in the booklet unlike the rest of the album, but the venomous sarcasm is clear. It is in many ways the antithesis of the victorious "Pandys." There is but one bonus track, a fiery early version of "We have Joy!" which has tripped forward in time to belatedly herald the soon to be released remix of 'Fire Dances' with a new burning pyre conclusion and the inclusion of an alternate lyric ordering lone jokers to join other birds of a feather at the gathering. "Laughter and argue, ever the same."


Favorite track: "Pssyche"

For two nights in Toronto in 1982, Killing Joke were on fire. The only problem with HA! is that there are only six tracks, and its a shame that more live recordings couldn't be added to the reissue. It does however include the three tracks from the "Birds of a Feather" 12" single. The first three songs are perhaps the most intense live performances ever captured on disc by any band. "Pssyche" especially captures the screaming mania of Killing Joke in full flight, leaving the original studio version sounding leaden in comparison. This is still always a highlight of their gigs, a song that could get the spastics mentioned in the final verse sung by Big Paul up out of their wheelchairs for a joker jig. The screaming at the end of "Pssyche" is The Joke at its most deranged. "Sun Goes Down" keeps the torch burning brightly for apocalytic madness, and "The Pandys Are Coming" is less precise but more manic than the studio version. Youth had left to form the band Brilliant after Jaz's infamous Iceland invasion (where he ran off to avoid the supposed end of the world), and new bassist Raven (Paul Raven) seems to have given the band a new lease of fiery conviction.


Favorite track: "Exorcism"

Fast forward a decade or so, past five more studio albums, and Killing Joke are on hiatus. Youth suggested recording together again whilst he and Geordie were compiling the retrospective Laugh? I Nearly Bought One!, and the Joke was resurrected. Jaz felt there was something left unresolved between him and Youth, and the result of their renewed collaboration was probably Killing Joke's most celebratory album. There are still nightmare visons evoked, but whereas the previous dark industrial onslaught of Extremities, Dirt and Various Repressed Emotions had offered little if any resolution beyond retreat into solitude, Pandemonium offers a hallucinogenic transcendence and tribal hope. "I can see tomorrow, hear the pandemonium," predicts Jaz on the title track, which often closed the set on their 2003 'End of the World' tour. Monolithic songs like "Communion," "Whiteout" and especially the relentlessly riffing "Exorcism" can be experienced as spells of empowerment and exorcism. "Exorcism" is the album's masterpiece, returning to the "Wardance" theme with much hacking and coughing to get out the bad seeds inside the unconscious. Jaz would expound upon the need to experience a small bit of the sickness in the world in order to gain some immunity to it. Around this time he also theorised about the Maori ritual in which instead of fighting tribes would perform a wardance to resolve conflict.

Everything about Pandemonium is grandiose. Jaz and Youth even recorded the "Exorcism" vocals inside the King's Chamber of the Great Pyramid in Egypt. The wailing pipe loops that energised "The Pandys Are Coming" seem to have been a jumping on point for a lot of the songs here. Its as if a vortex opened up in that song and let a new universe scream in.

Some say that the reliance on contemporary production techniques has dated this album, but really it sounds like nothing else. It seems more like a step outside of the banal continuum of fashion and fad to somewhere eternal that always returns eventually. "Leave my body, leave this hell," screams Jaz on the frenetic "Whiteout", and he returns repeatedly to the theme of stepping outside the body in altered states of reality in "Pleasures of the Flesh" and the eternal Eastern death mantra "Communion." This song would open many gigs on the 2003 tour. "Labyrinth" (unfortunately mis-spelled on the revamped cover) returns to the maze of "Unspeakable," but embellishing the nightmare with Eastern loops and more specific complaints about the failings of Western education. "Jana" is maybe the most sentimental Killing Joke song, a lament for a young woman dying of AIDS. On the downside, Geordie's guitar has less chime and Geoff Dugmore's drumming is more pedestrian than that of Big Paul or Martin Atkins (who drummed on Extremities). The drumming here works well, but Atkins sounded like he was hammering to an inch of his life and Big Paul's tribal technique approached genius. However Pandemonium is a hopeful evocation of a unique environment. The second bonus track "Another Cult Goes Down" is an awesome dark dub chug that is worthy of following up the original album finale, the most unhinged Abba tribute ever recorded, "Mathematics of Chaos." Lyrically this is one of Jaz Coleman's most illuminated tirades: "Every time we try to impose order we create chaos!"


Favorite track: "Aeon"

Democracy was an album at odds with everything going on around it. The mainstream rock scene was at its most tediously retrogressive for years with Britpap being touted as something 'alternative' and anyone with enough imagination to see beyond this joke was finding solace in mostly instrumental experimental 'post-rock' and technoid electronica hybrids. Enter Killing Joke with an album full of emotive protest songs about democracy or the lack of it! Jaz's extreme green political sentiments are on display in the title track, "Red, blue or yellow we will ridicule the green!" However its the storming rallying cry of "Savage Freedom" that really nails the Killing Joke ethos on this album. Returning to the sentiments of "Primitive" but couching them in much more colourful imagery, hopping from country to country partying with many different coloured peoples, "Savage Freedom" rolls exuberantly in triumphant celebration. Its only topped by the epic endless carnival "Aeon," which is maybe the most uplifting, positive and transcendent Killing Joke song. Whilst Democracy rests mostly in the shadow of Pandemonium, sounding like its little brother, "Aeon" is perhaps the ultimate destination and resolution of this Joke incarnation's journey. "When skyscrapers no longer block the sun's meridian," could be read as a prediction of the twin towers collapsing, but as far as Killing Joke's apocalytic imagery goes, it's certainly on the sunnier side. "Aeon" captures in one song so much that is Killing Joke, and is a seamless techno/rock hybrid. Other songs aren't as successful. "Another Bloody Election" is the album's most punk rock number, and whilst it's fun, it's hardly a classic. The targets seemed so obvious that it almost seemed patronising to be reminded that politicians are largely self-serving hypocrites. The title track couches similar sentiments in a more epic stadium friendly way. There's a seventeen minute trance remix included as a bonus track with voices babbling comically about politicians Heseltine and Lilley dating it. Its a shame that either the heavy Carcass remix or "Mass" aren't included as there would've been room for one of them on the disc. "Lanterns of Hope" is almost Killing Joke playing folk rock, and verges on blandness. "Absent Friends" is much more moving, but seems almost a dim reflection of the "Communion" pyre. Geordie hasn't recovered his hypnotic chime, but tries to compensate by layering a bright acoustic guitar track over most of the chugging distorted chording throughout the album. "Pilgrimage" and "Medecine Wheel" both revolve around similar themes of meeting a messenger of hope for the future as "Pandemonium" but are not as memorable. "Prozac People" is appropriately claustrophobic and desperate, but maybe a little too solipsistic. "Intellect" returns to the intuitive attack of "Whiteout." "A dog doesn't question why he barks - kiss my intellect goodbye!"

Maybe these reviews are just unnecessary intellectualisation. Maybe you should just listen to these CD's yourself. Better still, experience the intensity of Killing Joke when they tour the un-United Kingdom in October 2005. You either get The Joke or you don't!

Thanks: Killing Joke, Joolz at Cooking Vinyl, Tim at Some Friendly, Jester, Dave Gingoblin, Paul Rangecroft, Alex Smith, Fat Potanga, Neil Perry, Tim Bucknall, Jane Shadforth, Mike Coles and all at The Gathering.


Killing Joke (Official)

Check out the rest of PERFECT SOUND FOREVER