(From the Boston Phoenix, 28 May 2006.)
Killing Joke Resume Their Urgent War Dance
by James Parker
Jaz Coleman — magus, timelord, leader of the tribe of Killing Joke — is theatrically drunk on the end of a phone in the Czech Republic. Or might he just be very, very tired, having been in rehearsals for a European tour? “I don’t like human beings . . . ,” he insists, in a slow, scalded voice. “I think they’re parasites, they’re fucking parasites. What people will do for money disgusts me . . . dis-GUSTS me . . . I wanna build a big wall, and no one will be able to get in . . . ” And then you get the laugh, the Killing Joke laugh — “he-yurgh! he-yurgh! he-yurgh!” — the same phlegm-racked, bituminous gurgle first heard at the beginning of 1980’s “Wardance.” No, God love the old demon, he’s wrecked.
And somewhat depressed. In Prague, city of alchemy, city of changes, where Emperor Rudolf II hosted John Dee and Giordano Bruno, Coleman is in a moody, boozy flux. His talk balloons into grandiosity, sags into resignation, floats up again on huffs and puffs of eloquence. Have things been getting him down? “To be honest, yes,” he sighs, after a huge, crackling pause. “I’m disappointed with human nature. I’m forever disappointed by man’s ability to sell his brother or his sister or his best friend for a few shillings . . . for a handful of silver crowns . . . for some cheap gold. He’ll do it. He’ll fucking do it! Eternally disappointing.”
Has anything in particular brought this on? “Betrayal,” he says glumly. “I think that in peacetime . . . when your best friends betray you, they rip you off . . . but in a time of war they’d see you executed. . . ”
Long-time Joke-ologists will recognize in these pronouncements the symptoms of cyclical intra-band aggravation — another fight with bassist Paul Raven, perhaps. “The band has only ever been Geordie and me,” rumbles Coleman, referring to the guitarist he, bassist Martin Glover Youth (a/k/a Youth), and drummer Paul Ferguson recruited to form Killing Joke in 1978. “Geordie’s played the bass lines on nine or 10 Killing Joke albums, and he also writes the drum parts and plays the guitar. I sing . . . do a bit of keyboards . . . so between the two of us, we are . . . ” He trails off. The smell of the “psychiatric problems” blamed in a press statement for the delay of Killing Joke’s UK tour steals acridly down the line.
Killing Joke have been doing this for a quarter of a century — falling to bits and coming together, in successive incarnations, now weaker, now more powerful. The force that keeps the molecules on the merry-go-round is sheer atavistic bloody-mindedness: how could Killing Joke possibly go away when the world, the foe, the great evil spur to their music, keeps getting stronger? And from the paranoid London dub of their 1979 Turn to Red EP (Malicious Damage) to the fulminating Mahler metal of the new Hosannas from the Basements of Hell (Cooking Vinyl), the MO has been the same: accelerate breakdown, induce rebirth. As Coleman says, “It’s a pagan thing.”
Did he realize, at the band’s beginning, that this would be a life’s work? “That’s a very strange question,” he croaks, “and my voice is cracking up, so I’m going to try and explain to you . . .” He pauses, breathless, as if from the rearrangement of internal furniture. “I saw my diary . . . from 1978, before Killing Joke . . . and I dreamed of a band that sounded like the pipes of Pan were fashioned from shining steel . . . the pipes of Pan . . . fashioned from shining steel. . . . He-yurgh! He-yurgh!”
Jaz and his boys are into some heavy shit, always have been. From the moment in 1978 when Coleman, following a chain of magical coincidence to a room in West London, found himself face to face with drummer “Big” Paul Ferguson and the two were (as he later described it) “instantly repulsed by the sight of each other,” the band were plugged into a netherworld of pre-conscious imperatives. Killing Joke officially began when Coleman and Ferguson — the only members at that point — performed a “rite of consecration” at 3 pm on February 25, 1979. Within weeks, Geordie and Youth had arrived, and on their heels, the Killing Joke sound: brutal, slack-stringed bass, Dionysian drum clatter, and the weird post–Keith Levene flash of Geordie’s guitar. And Jaz bouncing crookedly behind his keyboard, squirting gouts of synth-malevolence and shouting about the apocalypse. The sound has undergone various refinements and corruptions over the years, but the elements are constant: you can hear them at work in Big Black, Ministry, and Nine Inch Nails, in Prong and Godflesh. Metallica covered Killing Joke’s “The Wait” on their Garage Days EP, Nirvana ripped off the riff from “Eighties” for “Come As You Are,” blah, blah, blah.
But none of those bands could touch the original Killing Joke model for urgency. When our inheritors are sifting the rubble of Western civilization, wearing crowns made out of cut-up Evian bottles, some fur-clad halfling with paint in his hair will put on his chipped copy of Revelations (the 1982 album that, along with what’s THIS for . . . !, Ha: Killing Joke Live, has been reissued with bonus tracks by Virgin) and do a shaggy little dance of half-mockery. “They KNEW!” he’ll crow, in his runt language. “They SAW!”
Coleman has misjudged the End a couple of times — it
wasn’t in 1982, when he fled with Geordie to Iceland, and it wasn’t the first
Gulf War — but he’ll get it right one of these days. “Economy and
infrastructure,” he roars in the new “Majestic,” “All of it will go black!/The
surface of the Earth will soon resemble Mars!” Not a threat but a certainty. Its
polarity is a rough celebratory urge, an invitation to firelit rave-ups, gory
rejoicings. . . . “Lift up your spi-rits!” he commands at the opening of “This
Tribal Antidote,” the first track. Does he feel there may have been a
misperception of Killing Joke, over the years, as proponents of negativity? “See
if I give a fuck,” he answers.
Coleman is a man of parts. “This Saturday!” he announces, forgetting for a moment that he’s talking to Boston, not London. “Get yourself down the Roll . . . the Rurl . . . ” The what? “The Royal Albert Hall,” he says, with great dignity. “I’m having some music performed at the Royal Albert Hall. Classical. It’s about the untimely death of a daughter of England. . . . It’s about the assassination of Princess Diana. You’re being monitored on the phone now, you know that? He-yurgh! Royal Albert Hall. Saturday night.”
And it’s perfectly true: on April 15, Coleman’s Daughter of England was performed at London’s Royal Albert Hall by 12-year-old popstar choirboy Joseph McManners. Coleman was once a standout chorister himself, trilling his way through England’s cathedrals, winning awards. To call him “classically trained” would be an understatement — he composes symphonies, conducts orchestras. He lives in Prague and New Zealand. He produces Czech folk groups. He writes and lectures. He’s an unstoppable fellow.
Recorded in Prague with new drummer Benny Calvert, Hosannas from the Basements of Hell is, well, another Killing Joke album, as vital and out-of-step as ever. Ritualistic repetitions, panegyrics to annihilation, and the alchemy-in-noise of Geordie’s Gibson ES-295, sulfurous/transcendent, still forcing the changes. “The scientist,” sneered Coleman in a 1987 talk delivered at London’s Courtauld Institute, “the scientist tells us that blood is pumped around the body by the heart. But what makes it tick? He doesn’t KNOW!” Probably better than any other band, Killing Joke know what makes it tick: they know, in Yeats’ words, “the fury and the mire of human veins.” As he looks around at his fellow rock musicians, is there anyone Coleman respects? “Sure,” he says pleasantly. “The voice of God in my head. He-yurgh! He-yurgh! He-yurgh!”