Saturday, November 28, 2015

Killing Joke At Full Throttle

I have a skeleton in my closet when it comes to Killing Joke: In my first band, the Young Aborigines, my colleagues and I used to make fun of them. Our main target of ridicule was their early single, Change, finding hilarity in it's minimalist lyrics and what we saw as a crude approximation of funk. Can't be right all the time, I guess. It took Andy Berenyi, the guitarist in my college band, to show me the light. And it shined bright in both of us: we named the band Silly/Hate and did a fair cover of Wardance, from KJ's debut. 

I went all in, tracking down all the music I could find and even citing a "Killing Joke fact of the day" when information was thin on the ground. But even with that devotion, I never would have predicted the current situation, with the band releasing Pylon in 2015, the third and best in a trilogy of records both classic and contemporary. Starting in 2010 with Absolute Dissent and including MMXI from 2012, each album a clarion call to take nothing in today's world for granted. Pylon is also their most scintillating release since 2003's self-titled return to form

Just to rewind a sec, understand that we are talking about a band more than a decade into its second (or maybe third) career. Their first life began in 1979 when they quickly established themselves as one of the most fascinating bands of the burgeoning post-punk era with Nervous System, a slice of taut reggae-funk with a large helping of modern dread. At first their label, Malicious Damage, was distributed by Island Records, but they really dropped the bomb on their debut, distributed by Editions EG, Brian Eno's label. That connection helped astute early listeners make sense of the mixture of ambient sounds, blistering guitars, pummeling drums and massively treated vocals from a former choirboy and classically-trained musician named Jaz Coleman.  

This was a man both disciplined and open to chaos. His partners were Geordie, a Grecian ode to rockabilly swagger, dealing death from a huge hollow body guitar, Youth, a sloppy-perfect bass and production maven, and Big Paul Ferguson, whose name aptly describes his sound. Most of these characters were unknowable if you only bought the records - their faces never appeared clearly until their fifth album in 1985. 

Along the way they managed to attract fan bases in both the worlds of metal and industrial music (which, it should be said, they helped invent), two groups that don't always agree on much. It was an eye-opener, at least for me, when Metallica included a cover of The Wait on their Garage Days EP. 

By the time of their most popular period, with singles like Eighties and Love Like Blood and the Night Time album, they'd already weathered their first storm, with Jaz off to Iceland to wait out the apocalypse and Youth nearly becoming an acid casualty of Syd Barrett proportions. In an interview he described tripping so hard that he looked at his bass and couldn't imagine a possible use for what appeared to be a random collection of metal and wood. When he came to, he knew he had to leave Killing Joke and produce Bananarama. Survival instincts. 

There's a polluted ocean under the bridge at this point, including the introduction of Paul Raven, muscular on bass, who remained until death did he tragically depart. Big Paul himself was briefly displaced by Martin Atkins, late of PiL etc., and even Dave Grohl, among other comings and goings. But the death of Raven seemed to lead to a rapprochement with Youth and all of a sudden we were looking at the four original members creating together again. 

This is, I believe, without precedent and feels at the same time completely inevitable. After his time in the pop market and as the other half of The Fireman (with Paul McCartney, who also plays a little bass) Youth has emerged as an historian-provocateur, spearheading projects like Killing Joke In Dub (mostly fantastic) and recording a crushing live album, Down By The River, without telling his band mates. These activities seem to have cemented the group more firmly. 

So what elevates Pylon above its recent companions, which were both very good albums? For one thing there's a stronger sense of each member's personality. Big Paul, for example, seems to be driving from the front seat more, with aggression and attention to detail. Jaz is letting his voice soar, spooling out longer melodic lines over Geordie's chunky chording. Geordie is a mighty force, slashing, scrubbing, or spraying widescreen arcs as befits the song - and his brawny guitar has never sounded better. Respect to Paul Dalgety, who produced the album with the band. Youth manages to inject a bit of wit into the proceedings, while still holding down the bottom. You will hunger for his louche little lick in Autonomous Zone after just a couple of listens. Jaz's use of keyboards is also distinctive, putting dissonance, white noise and other sonics into the mix alongside more traditional synth sounds.

The songs also seem stickier, as if they took their time a little more, rather than accepting the first impulse. New Jerusalem, for example, starts with a wary dialogue between bass and guitar, which soon develops into a lethal strut enhanced by some squirrelly synth. Jaz enters calmly, almost reciting the lyrics, but the calm is brief. With almost frightening ease they are instantly at full throttle, and that is always something to behold with this group. 

While they didn't print the lyrics, and Jaz's vocals are deeply embedded in the sound, there's a sense of depth and variety that feels a little different for them. I wouldn't say Jaz has mellowed but songs like Euphoria and Big Buzz make me think he's found a way to embrace broader ways of being. Don't get me wrong: there's still enough skepticism towards modern society and the security state to keep Edward Snowden entertained for some time. One point, however: If I ever meet Jaz I may have a quibble with him about his 9/11 truther line in I Am The Virus ("No one believes/In 9/11/Steel framed buildings/don't fall in seconds") - can't be right all the time, I guess.

Like some of Wire's recent albums (though not this year's, alas), Pylon is good enough to serve as an introduction to the venerable band, which is no small thing considering the creative half-life of most rock groups. So whether you're a dyed-in-the-wool Gatherer or new to the fold, find a safe place (an Autonomous Zone with "no phones, no drones," perhaps) to blast Pylon. And as you heed Jaz's call to "Dance to the beat of Goldman Sachs," don't be surprised if the world shakes a little. 

NOTE: This will be my last regular review of 2015. My "Best of 15" series will begin soon with a look at the best reissues of the year. Subscribe above, Like the Facebook page, or follow on Twitter to be sure not to miss anything.

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