Emerging in London at the tail end of ’70s punk, a time when bands like Wire, the Fall, Public Image and Gang of Four were experimenting with the very structure of rock, British nihilists Killing Joke went a step further, adding noisy synthesizers to the overpoweringly brutal attack. Clearly prefiguring industrial rock of the late ’80s, the Joke spat out an ominously energetic melding of the organic and mechanical: Geordie Walker’s hypnotically dissonant guitar patterns melded with synth washes and trance-like rhythms informed by tribalism , funk and dub reggae (bassist Youth [Martin Glover] and drummer Paul Ferguson). Atop it all sat the savagely strident vocals of neo-pagan jester Jaz Coleman, spouting images of technological decay and paranoia.
Following the unrefined Almost Red EP, the band’s eponymous debut — a convincing depiction of audio apocalypse — is chock full of viciously intense anthems like “Wardance,” “Requiem” and the dancefloor missile “Change.”
The follow-up, what’s THIS for…!, is nearly as terrific, bringing funk to ambient music, implying feeling sublimated in a chaotic world. The retreat from empathy and communication doesn’t prevent inventive guitar work that hides steady, rhythmic alterations against repetitious, thumping drums (“Follow the Leaders” and “Tension” especially emphasize Ferguson’s insistent, implacable beats) — the postmodern dance. (The first two albums were later paired on a double-play cassette.)
While quite a few individual numbers on Revelations shine (“Empire Song,” “The Hum”), taken as a whole, the album suffers from an uninvolving lethargy; Conny Plank’s monochromatic co-production doesn’t help. Their Armageddon paranoia reaching its apogee, Jaz and Geordie fled to Iceland before the record’s release (they worked with bands there, notably Theyr), and Youth left to pursue production projects (he ended up becoming one of the decade’s most prolific remixers), effectively ending the band’s first era.
Presaged by the jaunty “Birds of a Feather” non-LP single and the convincing 10-inch live in Toronto EP “Ha”, a brighter, more joyous fervor caught the superb Fire Dances, as Walker’s complex chordings and catchy fills cascade through songs like “Let’s All Go (To the Fire Dances)” and the ferocious “Frenzy.” The upward spiral continued two years later with Night Time, a superior effort — smart and sonically sophisticated — which includes two incredible singles: the lush, spacious, danceable yet torrid “Love Like Blood” and the stomping “Eighties,” later the basis of a tiff with Nirvana, who nicked its ominous bass riff for “Come as You Are.”
Brighter Than a Thousand Suns moves further in the “Love Like Blood” direction, muting the guitar thrum and tribal rhythms in favor of moody electro-beats laden with swelling synth washes and elegiac vocals. Not classic Joke, but quite enjoyable. Outside the Gate, however, is an abominable and obvious attempt at slick commercialism. Gaudy keyboard arrangements swamp the atypically anemic guitar, the band’s energy is nonexistent and Coleman’s lyrical frothings on bombast like “America” seem forced. Killing Joke wisely broke up. BBC in Concert documents parts of two live shows (from ’85 and ’86) by the quartet; the set list includes “Love Like Blood,” “Requiem” and “Tension.”
Perhaps inspired by all the new industrial bands aping their early style, Killing Joke reformed for a tour, demonstrating new resolve to recapture the old formula. The addition of drummer Martin Atkins (Public Image/Brian Brain/Ministry/Pigface) helped; he provided the group with a visceral punch. Bassist Paul Raven, who’d replaced Youth after Revelations, rejoined just in time for the recording of Extremities, Dirt & Various Repressed Emotions. The album has all the intoxicating intensity and righteous fury missing from Outside the Gate mated to a timelier Ministry-like feel. The throbbing juggernaut “Money Is Not Our God” and the scalding pound of “The Beautiful Dead” are primed by Atkins’ powerful drum work and Walker’s scorchingly obtuse riffs, though the relentless metallic roar eventually proves numbing.
The Killing Joke name was retired again, as Walker, Raven, Atkins and Ferguson went on to work as Murder Inc., with John Bechdel on keyboards and a laconic-sounding Chris Connelly taking Jaz’s spot on vocals. Recorded by Joke fan Steve Albini and released on Atkins’ label, the sextet’s viscous drones on Murder Inc. — “Last of the Urgents,” “Hole in the Wall” — are at least comparable to Killing Joke (particularly Walker’s pernicious guitar), if nowhere near as memorable. The album was later reworked and reissued by Mechanic, deleting “Mrs. Whiskey Name” and adding two new tracks. The EP contains Foetus remixes. Several Murder Inc. participants have recorded with Atkins’ main project, Pigface; Raven later joined Prong.
For his part, Coleman conducted classical symphonies from his home base of New Zealand and recorded an ambitious Middle Eastern orchestral record with composer (and former Art of Noise keyboardist) Anne Dudley. Based on the duo’s impressions of Cairo, Songs From the Victorious City has Jaz playing violin, “cobra pipe” and flute, conducting a large assemblage of traditional Egyptian musicians on pieces (“Minarets and Memories,” “Ziggarats of Cinnamon”) that owe equal structural debts to Arabic and Western classical traditions, buttressed by electronic pop beats and snatches of vocals.
Among his countless projects (one of which, Brilliant, inadvertently gave rise to the KLF), Youth made Strawberries Oceans Ships Forest, an anonymous (literally and figuratively) record of lightweight ambient techno sound collages with Paul McCartney, as the Fireman. Youth and Coleman later teamed up (the former as producer, the latter as arranger) to confront another classic rock dinosaur, Pink Floyd. Using the London Philharmonic Orchestra as their paintbrush and Dark Side of the Moon and The Wall as their gouache, the reformed rebels turn psychedelic headphone trips into bombastic elevator music, a quintessential exercise in baby boom marketing, complete with uproariously self-important liner notes by both guilty parties. (According to Jaz, the “solo peasant violin [in ‘Money’ is] to remind us of a forgotten quality of life.”)
Amazingly, Killing Joke — Jaz and Geordie — reformed yet again in 1994, this time reclaiming the group’s rhythmic roots through the return of original bassist Youth. (Only drummer John Dunsmore is new.) Led by the engrossing minor hit “Millennium,” Pandemonium is a significant upgrade from Extremities, Dirt & Various Repressed Emotions. It really sounds as if Youth had never left — his cyborg bass throb fits like an iron glove around the stable core: Walker’s blindingly dissonant chord shapes and Coleman’s tyrannical shouts and doomsday themes. The crunching title track illustrates how Coleman’s affection for Middle Eastern scales yields a Zeppelin-like rock result; those elements meld regally with Tangerine Dream-state synthesizer on “Labyrinth,” while the exhilarating techno drive of “Whiteout” shows their acolytes how a Joke is properly told.
This time, the reunion took hold enough to yield a second album with the same four-piece lineup. The vigorous- sounding Democracy, however, is the wrong kind of joke — either Midnight Oil with a raspy singer or James Hetfield attempting to hijack U2 — complete with inane lyrics about “Prozac People,” “Intellect” and “Another Bloody Election.” Vote with your feet.
Laugh? I Nearly Bought One! is a commendable overview of the band’s first decade, with some notable omissions: a few obscure tracks take the rightful place of more essential choices, and Fire Dances isn’t represented at all. An Incomplete Collection is simply a boxed set of the first five full albums; released on Atkins’ label, The Courtald Talks is a lecture given by Jaz and Geordie, a spoken-word aside while the next studio album was gestating. Willful Days assembles a baker’s dozen 12-inch mixes, B-sides, rarities and otherwise unavailable material.