Knock 'Em Dead

Killing Joke's ghoulish rock has the last laugh.

Mark out the points! Build the pyre! Assemble different drummers! Light up the fire! Put on your masks and animal skins!"

Dictums for an ancient pagan ritual? Canons handed down by a Druidic high priest during Samhain, the Celtic precursor to Halloween where worshipers draped themselves in costumes and the dead came back to augur the future of the hapless living? Close. They're lines from "The Death & Resurrection Show," the opening cut on Killing Joke's new, self-titled album. The band, originally based in England and now spread across the globe like sleeper cells of a secret society, has risen yet again to make one of the best records of its quarter-century career -- not to mention the spookiest.

"We're on tour in the north of England right now. It's fucking bleak," states Jaz Coleman, the 41-year-old singer/keyboardist of Killing Joke. His voice, raw and eroded, sounds like he's guzzled a bit too much blood and nicotine over the eons. "You don't want to go there. The drinks are cheap, but that's about it.

Creatures' features: Jaz Coleman (from left), Youth 
and Geordie of Killing Joke.
Creatures' features: Jaz Coleman (from left), Youth and Geordie of Killing Joke.


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"But if it's a bleak place," he adds with a devilish laugh, "Killing Joke is normally way popular."

"Bleak" doesn't even start to describe Killing Joke's new disc. The cover is a stark drawing of a demonic clown face fixed in a hideous rictus, rendered in festive orange and black. Pagans originally chose those colors for Samhain because of their symbolism: black for death and magic, orange for harvest. Coincidentally, those three themes are intertwined throughout the album. On "The Death & Resurrection Show," a malevolent riff pounds away with primordial ferocity as Coleman chants, "Choose the crucifixion/Or Osiris slain/Recurring themes, time again." The rest of the record is a litany of cataclysm -- biochemical warfare, corporate imperialism, apocalypse via asteroid -- set against a dark backdrop of splattered rhythms and gutted guitars.

Amid all its morbidity and decay, however, the album reaps fruits of defiance, even triumph. "You'll Never Get to Me" is swelling and anthemic, with an epic melody propelling Coleman's gob of spit into the eye of cruel reality: "You'll never get to me/Survival is my victory/Time for celebration/Overcome with a sense of elation." The party doesn't last long, though: On "Total Invasion," the singer sounds like he's sucking gasoline through his lungs as he hisses, "Just enough water/For a third of the world/Oil barons running the government/So I'll start a war/It's a fucking crusade/A lesson in trade."

"We traditionally always do well during any war periods," says Coleman, cackling again like Mephisto huffing nitrous. "And then there's the astrology factor. I mean, when it's the right time, it's the right time. What can I say? You have people going through loads of shit and dying everywhere, and then you go do a record. You can't predict it. It just happens."

Killing Joke's eerie ability to reflect the sickness of the world around it has been one of the group's trademarks since its inception. Formed in 1978 by Coleman, guitarist Geordie, bassist Youth and drummer Paul Ferguson, the quartet released its corrosive, pummeling debut two years later. With equal parts viciousness and detachment, it jammed the cold, glinting spikiness of post-punk into the savage fever of rock and roll -- in the process sculpting a nightmare diorama of the depressed, corrupt, post-industrial landscape of the time.

"Killing Joke emerged just as punk was dying," Coleman remembers. "We didn't really like punk rhythm sections. We liked the fire from punk and the attitude, but that was about it. Apart from that, the world was our oyster in terms of musical style. We created what was comfortable to us, what we wanted to hear. The whole idea of a dance beat or a groove underneath fire from heaven was our kind of dream."

Growing up in an affluent, academic household, Coleman wasn't always a mystic alchemist of beats and noise -- actually, quite the contrary. While most English teenagers in the 1970s were trying to mimic David Bowie or Johnny Rotten, this future avatar of dystopian rock was studying Gustav Mahler and Felix Mendelssohn.

"Since I was about five, I've had an intensive classical training," Coleman divulges. "I was with the National Youth Orchestra in Great Britain, playing violin and singing." Indeed, by the age of fourteen, he had won numerous awards as a chorister in some of the great cathedrals of England. "I was a straight kid. I didn't listen to any pop music, though I met Brian Jones once as a kid. He went to school with my uncle. But I wasn't interested in rock music or pop music."

Epiphany came in the form of temptation: a young girl, a bag of weed and -- most important -- the otherworldly music of Germany's legendary avant-rock collective Can.

"I was with this orchestra, I was fifteen actually, when I met this girl who was a cello player -- you know, that big violin where they keep their legs apart," Coleman recollects with a wink in his voice. "She asked me if I enjoyed rock music, and I said, 'No, what's that?' So she said, 'Well, I'll play you some.' So we went to her house, and she said, 'You wouldn't smoke marijuana, would you?' And I said, 'I wouldn't dream of it.' But I did, and she played me this group called Can, and I stayed with her and had a wonderful night -- you know, incense, joss sticks, lovely woman, marijuana, all those things you do as a kid. And I listened to Can; I was a total convert. I thought, 'Wow, I finally hear rhythm.' And when I heard rhythm for the first time, it coincided with my sexuality.

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