The recent disappearance of Killing Joke frontman Jaz Coleman acts as a reminder of the manner in which the eccentricities and extranaeity surrounding the band often defined them in the eyes of the public. One might recall that it’s not even the first time Coleman has performed a disappearing act, having absconded to Iceland in 1982 in preparation for what he believed to be the impending apocalypse (though in that case, the band’s other members went along with him). Or there was the incident with maggots and raw liver tossed about the Melody Maker office, the occult involvement, the contentious relationship with Nirvana for basically lifting the main riff of “Eighties” for the beginning of “Come As You Are.”
Killing Joke – MMXII (Spinefarm Records)
The recent disappearance of Killing Joke frontman Jaz Coleman acts as a reminder of the manner in which the eccentricities and extranaeity surrounding the band often defined them in the eyes of the public. One might recall that it’s not even the first time Coleman has performed a disappearing act, having absconded to Iceland in 1982 in preparation for what he believed to be the impending apocalypse (though in that case, the band’s other members went along with him). Or there was the incident with maggots and raw liver tossed about the Melody Maker office, the occult involvement, the contentious relationship with Nirvana for basically lifting the main riff of “Eighties” for the beginning of “Come As You Are.” And perhaps these, to some extent, may be a fair gauge of what they do, considering the frequency with which such occurences have transpired (compared to most bands at least) or the fact that many of the incidents seem the product of genuine iconoclasm, a truly rare quality in an age of weirdness as a pre-fabricated marketing ploy. But to simply consider Killing Joke in terms of their instabilities and idiosyncracies ignores the extent of the band’s reach: it’s worth considering the diversity of artists with which members have collaborated, a group as wide-ranging as Sarah Brightman, Ministry, Kate Bush, and astrophysicist Piers Coleman (himself Jaz Coleman’s older brother); the less tangible but no less important number of artists, from Napalm Death to the Foo Fighters, who have drawn inspiration from their music; and the level of consistency in the quality of their thirty-plus years of output, which has seen them not only engage in a constant state of creative evolution, never offering two albums that sound the same, but being able to create recordings now that are every bit as good as what they produced three and a half decades ago.
One of the means the band has used to retain relevance has been its unflinching confrontational side. That they ended an extended hiatus a decade ago in response to the political climate surrounding the War on Terror and its concomitant military actions only highlights this tendency. That they subsequently made some of the most vitriolic and vivacious music of their career only emphasizes the point further. This contentious approach carries over onto MMXII, the band’s fourth release since their early-aughts reformation, and the contrasts that define the band remain intact – aggressive agitprop one minute, reflective atmospherics the next; strident and bordering-on-didactic denunciations of the world’s oppressive machinations inseparably intertwined with, and fundamentally supported by, a strong emotional core; equal respect allocated towards the redemptive qualities of both esoteric mysticism and scientific reason.
Musically, the band seems to be stepping away from the catchiness and accessibility of 2010’s Absolute Dissent. Though there’s definitely an emphasis on the metallic industrial heft on which the band has relied since the ’90s (though I hate to even use “industrial” and “metallic” in conjunction for fear that it’ll evoke the millions of KMFDM clones – Killing Joke’s take on that sort of thing is far more organic and fully realized, to say nothing of the fact that they were doing it first), an aesthetic that underlies most of the songs present, it’s expressed in different fashions, such as the martial stomp of “FEMA Camps” or the more punk-oriented “Corporate Elect.” But Killing Joke has never represented themselves with a single approach, and MMXII is no different, with the bludgeoning heaviness balanced with songs like “In Cythera,” “On All Hallow’s Eve,” or even the first few minutes of “Pole Shift” (before it kicks in with some of the aggressiveness one would expect from one of their lead-off songs), each possessing an expansive melodicism that provides both a contrast to their heavier songs and even more evidence of the band’s ability to craft memorable material regardless of the overall tone.
The conceptual side to the songs is wide-ranging in its scope, if occasionally problematic. Much of what Killing Joke does best is on prominent display, namely the strong overarcing theme of mankind’s collective spirit standing in direct contrast to government oppression and technological dehumanization. This can reflect in some genuinely life-affirming material. The wistful “In Cythera” (the title a reference to the Greek island on which the mythical Aphrodite was said to have been born, an island that’s provided inspiration for artists from Botticelli to Baudelaire) recalls an arcadian retreat from the world’s bleakness and turmoil, whether that’s achieved through a physical isolation, through creative discovery, or through the fortifying effects of the mutual support that mankind can offer each other. It’s just propulsive enough to prevent it from falling into maudlin or nostalgic sentimentality, and just atmospheric enough that it stands in the starkest contrast to the album’s other material. A song like “On All Hallow’s Eve” has a similar reflective element, greeting mortality with a sense of reverence and celebration (possibly a reflection of Coleman’s work with quantum physics, imbuing the work with the implicit suggestion that conventional ideas of death are fairly limited due to all matter being comprised of energy, which can neither be created nor destroyed). On the opposite end of the spectrum, but no less cathartic, are songs like “Corporate Elect,” “Glitch,” and “Colony Collapse,” denunciations of the manner in which individuals hand their liberties over to those who control the world’s resources, and to those technologies which might make life more convenient or extended but don’t render it any more fulfilling, and how both possess the very real capability of killing us all, either through avaricious destruction of the environment, through the mayhem that ensues when technology fails, or through out of control nanotechnology.
But elements of the content can come off somewhat questionable. Opener “Pole Shift” bases its lyrical conceit on the largely dismissed pseudo-scientific idea of a rapid re-shuffling of the Earth’s poles and the ensuing environmental and social cataclysms. Which on its own is an interesting (if scientifically questionable) idea, except that Coleman has suggested in interviews that this shift in magnetism, rather than vicious systemic failure to address the needs of humanity as a whole over those of the financial elite, acted as a primary cause of events like the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street (a statement rendered all the more perplexing because it seems at odds with so many of his other views). Or a song like “FEMA Camp,” based on the idea of government internment camps erected to silence dissenters. Which isn’t too outlandish of a concept in and of itself – America’s history is littered with such endeavors, from the sequestering of Native Americans on reservations with far substandard access to resources, to Japanese internment during World War II, to the government’s disastrous mishandling of displaced New Orleans residents after Hurricane Katrina – but the idea of FEMA concentration camps is one that seems to prominently exist as the bread and butter of the more paranoid strains of far-right pedagogues (not to mention an idea whose primary evidence has in many cases been proven a hoax). And while the lingering threat of totalitarianism is certainly one to address, parroting the extreme right doesn’t really do much to address other concerns present on the album, such as the amassing of power in corporate hands. This isn’t to say that these FEMA camps don’t exist – I have no conclusive evidence either way – but one should be careful when choosing one’s ideological allies, whether their agreement is incidental or explicit. Perhaps the context is different in Coleman’s home base of New Zealand, but it’s difficult to ignore the manner in which some of his concerns are reflected in the contemporary zeitgeist.
It is good, however, that somebody is raising points like this, whether everybody is going to agree with all of them or not. Coleman is a charismatic figure, and he’s able to make statements that can act as catalyst for a wide variety of discussions and debates. Whether he believes every point made in the lyrics to be literal truth, whether some of it was intended as a rather forcefully proposed hypothesis, or whether elements are to be seen as allegory or speculative dystopianism, the concepts reflect a very brave willingness to tackle ideas that most artists would have no idea how to approach (though once an artist has written an orchestral piece based on quantum physics, I suppose most other topics would be a walk in the park). And even when some of the specifics of his beliefs might raise eyebrows, each idea acts in service of the very noble cause of trying to incite a spiritual revolution, one that acts counter to materialism and oppression, one that unites reason and scientific exploration with the sort of spiritual currents that have overarched the human experience as long as such a thing has existed.
And this is why Killing Joke has not only existed for nearly thirty-five years, but stayed relevant. Theirs is a constant state of musical and conceptual reinvention and reimagining, with years of experience and reflection deepening both halves of their approach. It’s confrontational, but not cheap nihilism or empty sloganeering. It searches for answers in places that might seem unlikely, raises just as many questions as it provides explanations, and relies on an emotional palette that’s far broader than most bands who have dedicated a lifetime to heavy, angry music. They have attained a consistency achieved by few, and hopefully will keep it up, if somebody can just track down Jaz Coleman.