02 Institute, Birmingham, November 9 2018
It couldn’t have been any more different from the preceding night if it tried. Less than 24 hours ago, Plus One and myself had been sat cosily in the Town Hall, listening to the gentle strains of three of Britain’s premier female soft-rockers: a blink of an eye and suddenly, we’re in the Institute, surrounded (much like I was at last week’s Nephilim/Church bash) by a heaving sea of black shirts and even blacker hair. Like all of them, we’re waiting for the four-man hurricane of searing post-punk intensity that is Killing Joke: more importantly, once it finally arrives, it doesn’t disappoint.
Currently commemorating their fortieth anniversary with the release of the mammoth Laugh At Your Peril box set, West London’s insurrectionist madmen once more have something to truly laugh about. Sure, as we’ve now come to expect, the introduction to almost every song bar opener Unspeakable is prefaced with a minor ‘rant’ or ten concerning a wide range of social ills from global banking conspiracies through to the crushing of citizens’ rights to peaceful protest: yet rather than directly preaching at his audience (ala Crass, a band to whom the Joke’s stark monochrome imagery was often initially compared) frontman Jeremy ‘Jaz’ Coleman still prefers to allow them to think, ponder and consider any number of possible alternatives. And that makes all the difference.
Bonkers he may be (social media reports of onstage ‘conspiracy theory’ schpiels having regularly surfaced to mixed responses); forceful he certainly is, but never has he ever hectored. Quite apart from the fact that many of his messages are far too drenched in cosmic hippie mumbo-jumbo (a former suspicion later corroborated by at least two of the band freely admitting to being avowed proggers before the media-generated ‘punk wars’), he’s the only member to have been present throughout all KJ’s incarnations, not least of all the poppier, more melodic one that gave us big hits like Love Like Blood and Eighties (both aired this evening) and thus retains, despite occasional bouts of delusional paranoia, a reasonably balanced view. Though his own principles have always remained central to his core, Coleman nonetheless knows only too well how perilously close the band came on several occasions to dancing with the capitalist devil: hell, they even supported Motley Crue once in the early 00s, simply to earn (as they openly admitted) “vast piles of wonga”, and curiously, they haven’t dropped the early Nineties classic that is Money Is Not Our God, or indeed many other songs from its attendant and criminally neglected album Extremities, Dirt And Other Repressed Emotions, into the set since. And they don’t tonight either (read into that what you will).
Unfortunately, anyone expecting anything from Revelations, Fire Dances, Brighter Than A Thousand Suns, Outside The Gate, Democracy or Hosannas From The Basements Of Hell is also bound to leave slightly disappointed, as not one solitary tune from those collections makes its way into tonight’s 18-strong run either. On the other hand, there’s plenty of solace to be taken from the unexpected treats that do receive airings, such as Bloodsport, Butcher and the tribal, reggae-jigging Death And Resurrection Show: never one to rest on their laurels or do the ‘done thing’, the Jokers are still just as able now to grab one squarely by the aural nadgers and squeezing them into their vice-like as they were four decades ago. And, with Coleman’s maniacal, white-faced terror-clown persona flanked either side by the chopping, cutting, barbed-wire riffage (on a semi-acoustic, no less) of Geordie Walker and squalling bass of Martin ‘Youth’ Atkins, and propelled into ever-challenging aural stratosphers by the grinding, mechanoid dance-march drumming of Big Paul Ferguson, it doesn’t look as if this ability is ever going to diminish.
Indeed, fascinating though the whole band may be to watch as a unit, it’s Ferguson in particular that catches the eye: sure, he may fluff the occasional fill here and thereabouts (most probably as a result of dodgy monitors, the bane of any live act) but even so, his singular ability to drill out what are essentially proto-techno beats with nothing but two sticks and a largely acoustic kit (especially when sharing lead vocals with Coleman and Youth on Pssyche) cannot be overlooked as a vital factor in the band’s rejuvenation. And, whilst obviously, the band is still to an extent recovering from the death of the very man who replaced him, the returning founder has expressed little or no compunction about performing material initiated during the reign of his deceased successor, and impressing his own personality upon it.
Or, for that matter, during the era when the ubiquitous Dave Grohl sat behind the kit: thusly, the likes of Loose Cannon and Asteroid (taken from their self-titled, full-on-metal 2003 comeback release) have now morphed into classics capable of sitting easily among their elder brothers Requiem, The Wait and Follow The Leaders, and one day, more recent additions New Cold War and Autonomous Zone, characterised as they are by the same blend of clear-voiced diction, absurdist aggression and occult psychedelia (in the true sense of the latter word, rather than anything to do with flowery blouses and crushed velvet loons) will undoubtedly do the same. As if to illustrate this very point, it’s not Wardance that heralds their eventual departure from our company: sure, they tease us with it, but only as a prelude to the many-tentacled mid-Nineties anthem of assemblage and gathering that is Pandemonium.
Not only does this conclude proceedings on a positive note – something with which KJ have never by definition been associated, existing as they do through principles of chaos, anxiety and fear – but having first really discovered them in said era, it also results (for all of five minutes at least) in a personal experience, which by that very token achieves a closer connection than any of Coleman’s dialectic abstracts. Granted, other writers would probably dismiss the idea as ‘pure sentimentality’, but for me, such sentiments still remain- and probably will forever remain the most important element of any rock performance: and whilst in principle the Joke may live to sublimate their audience into a seething mass of ‘absolute dissent’, I can see several hundred people across this room for whom they’ve both evoked and invoked 40 years of nought but sheer pleasure. And in the end, even Coleman, relinquishing (at least until tomorrow) his status as Grand Vizier Of All Things Dark And Terrible, can’t resist admitting to the patrons of Digbeth Civic Hall (as he still calls the place) that he feels the same. In short – and even though they may not have played it in the set – we have joy.