Tool. Primus. Faith No More. Metallica. One thing all of these respected rock bands have in common is citing the British band Killing Joke as one of their key influences. Born out of the Notting Hill section of London, England, in 1979, Killing Joke went onto become one of the more stealthily influential and underground bands of their time. Yes, there is a chance you haven’t heard of them before, but once you do have a chance to flip through their vast discography, you’ll at least recognize all the different musical genres they’ve had their fingers in and all the various bands they’ve encouraged over time. From their punkish beginnings, to their dabblings in Depeche Mode-style synth-rock, to full-on industrial gloom, Killing Joke have run the gamut of expression and are all the better for it.
When their latest — and highly regarded — album, Absolute Dissent, brought the band (with the original members vocalist Jaz Coleman and guitarist Geordie Walker) around on another tour, I knew I had to finally see what the fuss was about. Killing Joke has written some amazing, riff-driven music over the years, and since they’ve influenced almost all of my favorite bands, I wanted to see how the band has held up over time.
But before I can get into that, I’ve got to mention the real joke that almost killed the crowd at Vancouver’s The Venue on Tuesday night: the opening act. I am not sure how a band like The Cowards managed to open for someone as legendary as Killing Joke (perhaps, as the displeased group next to me mused, they won some sort of contest), but it happened. The band and their heavy (plodding) metal wasn’t bad, per se. The drummer had some skills, the songwriting was nothing to scoff at, and they knew their instruments well. But the singer couldn’t, well, sing. At all. Not that he really was attempting to for most of the 30-minute set, but still, the fact was hard to ignore. You’d think he would have made up for the lack of vocal function by exerting some charming stage personality of some sort, yet that didn’t transpire either. As someone said, maybe some dude from the audience just went onstage, zipped up their hoodie so that you couldn’t see anything but their beard, and decided to give it a go. I could believe that.
Needless to say, the packed crowd at The Venue hooted and hollered when that band was over and Killing Joke finally took the stage. The younger keyboardist and bass player were quite the contrast to the grizzled, seasoned vets, Coleman and Walker. It kind of worked, though, giving one side of the stage pep and optimism and the other experience and respect.
I have to say this about Killing Joke; they sound better live than they do on their albums. A lot of it has to do with the mixing and dated sound that the older albums have, plus I actually think Coleman’s voice nowadays has improved, providing a better fit to each song. That’s no easy task considering the various vocal styles he has swung through over their career, but live he makes it all mesh together.
But while the songs sound better and Coleman’s voice is a lot more pliable, his stage shtick is a little dated. Looking like the love child of Alice Cooper and Robert Smith and acting like a mental patient disguised as a janitor, his stiff “I’m being electrocuted” movements and other signature moves got a bit tired halfway through the set. On one hand, the man is disturbingly magnetic to the point where you can’t help but keep your eyes on him (like driving past a car accident), but on the other hand, you were wanting him to do something, anything, different.
However, I know Coleman’s makeup and moves are a throwback to their older live shows; you could see, when the spotlight wasn’t highlighting his pancaked face, the grin of a normal guy reliving the theatrics of his past. They knew it was dated, they knew the joke, and they knew the audience wanted it.
Speaking of which, the audience not only wanted it, they thrived off of it. It was an interesting crowd to start with, a mix of baby-boomers in Killing Joke shirts, bald men with beards, and a handful of belly-baring young women thrashing away in the pit. As the show went on, the squished hardcore fans in the front were reaching out for Coleman, mesmerized by his every (three) move(s), singing out loud to each bellowed lyric and really getting into it. It helped too that the songs got progressively harder with time, as they pulled out a lot of heavy classics such as “Primitive”, “Asteroid”, and “Pssyche”. During the thumping, driving “The Wait” and “Requiem”, there was a full-on mosh pit going on, something that was quite amusing to watch in a tiny, sleek nightclub.
Killing Joke managed to play for an incredible two hours with a setlist that spanned the length of their career. Both old classics and new songs from Dissent were featured as well as some rarities. In my opinion, it almost went a little too long, but I’m probably alone in thinking that. Even with the encores approaching, no one was leaving the venue. The fans were sticking it out to the very end, just as the band has done over their 31-year career. If Killing Joke can continue to keep up their solid songwriting and energy, I don’t see them stopping anytime soon, nor should they.
Love Like Blood
This World Hell
Fall of Because
Gallery by Karina Halle