If Americans in their thirties or forties ever heard a Killing Joke song, it was probably because "Eighties" was a standard at high-school dances for the latter half of that decade. The assistant principal never suspected that this was the band whom mothers and preachers ought to have been worrying about when they were breaking Elvis Presley and Black Sabbath records. Not only did the band write almost strictly about the end of capitalism and the world as we know it, but the members really were occult magicians who conferred with the spirits. The group even began with a ritual in 1979.
For those of us who blithely bopped to the spiritual descendants of Aleister Crowley and now drive mini-vans and fight the foreclosure of our homes, the band is still around. And they rock harder, heavier, and more beautiful than when any of us were young.
Timely as ever, Killing Joke has just released an emotional remedy for the age, their fourteenth album, MMXII. The Joke, back with the original line-up, did not jump on the 2012 bandwagon. They are finally having their I-told-you-so moment.
Singer Jaz Coleman said in a recent interview that he believes this year may bring a "revolution of consciousness," not catastrophe. Still, the new album follows where the last decade's three albums took off-with full-throatle fury at environmental decay, capitalism, and the erosion of individual rights. The opening track of MMXII describes, in a surprisingly upbeat tone, a shift in the magnetic poles, as well as the polarization of values. The shift is "calling on all of us to restore the biosphere." Another number warns that FEMA camps could just as well house dissidents like us. This is political guitar rock like we haven't seen in years, if ever.
A good part of the band's power is that they stand so unapologetically in contrast to media meant to sell. Killing Joke is what William Blake's visions or C.G. Jung's Red Book would sound like if they were recast as modern music: intense, mystical, personal, and incapable of embarrassment.
Truth be told, one must always stew in KJ's new work a few days to find the beauty; at first listen, they convey a feeling as oppressive as the authorities they oppose. (The line "Out of the virus, immunity comes" is a refrain in the band's discography.) Yet under the surface is a sort of soundtrack to an alternative lifestyle built on permaculture, friendship, and spirituality. Every movement needs its Wagner, and Geordie Walker's guitars part the heavens just as well. Paul Ferguson's drumming is capable of rallying the tribe once everyone looks up from their smart-phones. (A 1982 song, "Chop Chop," has us down pat: "And the bodies go by, barely half awake/awaiting things to come again, nice things to come.") Finally, in spite of all of the reasons to feel anxious, Coleman's shouted choruses leave me feeling triumphant. Defiance at its most absolute, the jester would say, is celebration.
Here are five lessons gleaned from three decades of Killing Joke. They may be thought of as survival strategies for artists and visionaries from a band who knows how to persist, uncowed:
Lesson #1: It's time to practice spiritual syncretism. Coleman, whose mother's family comes from Indian Brahmins, is at once a long-time practitioner of magic as well as an ordained Anglican lay minister with a parish near his home in New Zealand. Geordie Walker, the guitarist, is a Kabbalist, and bassist Youth is a druid.
The timing couldn't be better to request all the help the world needs from any spiritual agency that is willing. The ultimate song on Killing Joke's MMXII, "On All Hallow's Eve," is a shuffle-stepping how-to manual for invoking the help of ancestors:
rituals wake up the dead,
bring gifts and spirits:
good wine, just cheese and some bread,
incense of cigars and spices,
pleasures we shared,
light up the graveyards, to show how much we all care."
How have we forgotten the dead? No wonder we grope blindly in the direction of cataclysm.
Lesson #2: Keep your core but invite the new. Killing Joke doesn't fit neatly into categories. Their music isn't exactly punk, metal, hardcore, synth pop, electronica, New Wave, death metal, dub, and definitely not reggae-though their sound refers to each genre. What have stayed the same are Coleman's mania, Walker's orchestral noise, and the pounding drums. Killing Joke survived break-ups, '80s hair, shirtless videos, reformations, publication problems, failed marriages, physical fights, and death, including that of their second, beloved bass guitarist, Paul Raven.
The band left their native UK and have skipped around between New Zealand, the US, Prague, Zurich, and Spain. Rock musicians, it seems, have no full-time residence, and the rest of us who have lost our homes follow suit. Coleman and Walker never parted, but for years the group stayed flexible and brought on drummers from Martin Atkins of PIL and Dave Grohl of Foo Fighters to a lad half their age before reuniting in 2008.
More than doom, the most common theme in later Killing Joke's oeuvre is friendship, the sharing of bread and wine. Their circle of friendship, uncommon in long-lasting bands, almost seems old-fashioned. They brawl and express fondness like Captain Aubrey and Stephen Maturin do in Patrick O'Brian's popular historical novels. We are encouraged to open up our "private space" -- that post-modern concept of a compartment where we can protect our stuff--and accept friends who will have flaws and the occasional stretch of lunacy. They are the better for their demons. Let them steal the salt shakers and break the glass coffee table if we may keep our camaraderie.
Lesson #3: Madness is a normal part of adult emotional life. A regular comment to appear beneath Killing Joke videos and interviews with Jaz Coleman is, in one form or another, recognition that he is mad.
Coleman toyed with madness just as he courted the occult. An encyclopedia of rock music hidden in the reference section of my high-school library contained an entry on Killing Joke with a picture of Coleman holding a tribal spear and implements for conducting rituals. He explains the band began with a ceremony; he and Paul Ferguson offered a prayer to find their soul-brothers and in a few weeks, the other two arrived.
A clip in an upcoming and long-awaited documentary on the band's history, The Death and Resurrection Show, has Jimmy Page, the Led Zeppelin legend, saying of Coleman, "He's either playing with magic, or magic is playing with him." One may wonder if, like a character from Tolkien, he may have delved too deeply into the dark arts. In his interviews, he rants and circles his tail. His punctuation is maniacal laughter. (Admittedly, he can also be subdued and is almost always friendly.)
Shortly after recording MMXII, bassist Youth described with a sliver of humor how the singer spent a good deal of production alternating between depression and paranoia. In the new album's mildest, sweetest song, "In Cythera," Coleman begs his friends' forgiveness for having "lost the plot"; he goes on to invite them to meet on Aphrodite's island. He also has said that when he wears clown make-up and jester gear in concerts, mercurial energy is conjured, and the "masks" must be put away after a show, promptly.
One might also observe Coleman has lived a fuller, richer life than those of us who putt around in a mini-van. The late archetypal psychologist James Hillman wrote that periods of madness are probably normal in the emotional lives of healthy adults, but we cannot know for sure while the majority of psychological studies are performed on undergraduates. Killing Joke's example, on the contrary, begs the question whether we lost something in our inheritance of the Western tradition. Why did the Greek gods embody pathology? What if in our short lives we are wiser to seek the greatest range of experience and emotion, though we appear "unbalanced"? When is intensity, not merely going with the flow, the best gift?
Lesson #4: Intensity and paying the bills require mild side gigs. Killing Joke's guitarist happens to be an architect. Youth produced albums by Paul McCartney (the two collaborated as The Fireman), Dido, The Verve, and many others. Paul Ferguson restores art for the Rockefeller family. Coleman composes and conducts for orchestras including the Prague Symphony Orchestra. Classical music is where he says he places the Romantic impulse. Altering one's mode invites a larger and healthier range of expression. If Killing Joke is right, and the oil economy collapses, each of us will need to become jacks-of-all-trades.
Lesson #5: Get tougher with age, not softer. The biggest irony is that Killing Joke has lasted longer than many of the countless bands they initially influenced, including bands who went platinum. Killing Joke is the most important band almost nobody has heard of.Kurt Cobain certainly was inspired by the band; they nearly sued him for copying riffs from "Eighties" in his hit "Come As You Are." But Cobain died first, a victim of the short-lived-artist myth. Killing Joke defies that myth. The puer aerternus, it turns out, does not last long. Their music is more ferocious and menacing as its members have entered their 50s. Coleman's voice, after decades of smoking, is capable of an unmatched, if not unearthly scream. Those of us who grew up hearing Killing Joke at prom are never allowed to shout like Coleman does, save at a bad accident. The neighbors would call a SWAT team. But Killing Joke - this group of shamans -- steps over boundaries on our behalf. They are waiting for us to pull up at the bonfire and dance.