MUSIC AND THE apocalypse were made for each other, don’t you think?
Why would you want to parade around the mean streets with a sign alluding to the end of the world and be shunned and ignored, when you could make music alluding to the end of the world bolstered by killer riffs and scary minor chords, and still get groupies?
I’ve always loved apocalyptic rock. I’m not really talking about some Jesus guy standing around predicting the end of the world for all the godless sinners, but musicians/composers/groups who, through their personal epiphanies, recognised the potential of music to do so much more than howl about failed romance.
More specifically, in the late 1960s, rock bands were just coming to grips with the explosive noise-making potential of the new technology, which enabled their instruments to create whole new sound-worlds via a brand new set of doo-dads, a new generation of amplification and loudspeakers, and the wonders of the multi-track studio. Where pure electronic music made by professors in lab coats amidst banks of computers had already suggested alien audio frontiers, now players of pre-existent instruments like guitars, drums, keyboards and bass could also make unearthly noises, except they were doing it together, in a mass orgy of sound, for hordes of young people on drugs.
It’s easy for the internet generation to research the psychedelic revolution from ’65 to ’69, and to see that while it all started with ideas of peace, love and flower-power, with the aid of paranoia-inducing drugs and the political turmoil of the times, the vibrations soon got very dark indeed. Think of the Beatles’ ‘Helter Skelter’ or ‘Revolution 9’, or Neil Young’s ‘Broken Arrow’ or Jefferson Airplane’s ‘House At Pooneil Corners’. It’s the last of these to which I attribute the beginning of apocalyptic rock. Recorded in late ’67 and early ’68, and released on Crown Of Creation, with its cover featuring the group huddled within a massive mushroom atom bomb explosion, ‘House At Pooneil Corners’ could easily be refashioned as a slice of 21st Century death metal, with lyrics like: “Everything someday will be gone except silence/And Earth will be quiet again!/Seas from clouds will wash off the ashes of violence/Left as the memory of men;/There will be no survivors, my friend!”
Note: This incredible rendition of ‘House At Pooneil Corners’ was performed in New York in December 1967, a few months before the Beatles’ famed rooftop session.
THIS MOST ARCHETYPAL San Francisco Haight-Ashbury band just two years before was preaching free love and tolerance. Now they finished off their latest fab album with a heavy, one-riff monster on which vocalists Grace Slick and Marty Balin caterwauled like crazies. The first time I heard it, I thought the world was ending.
It’s an incredible, epic piece of angry rock music that sounds nothing like anything else from the period, and it still has the power to send shivers down one’s spine.
A year later, there was King Crimson’s debut album, In The Court Of The Crimson King, which despite the rather ornate-sounding title, saw the ugly birth of apocalyptic rock with a suite of songs beginning with the impossibly heavy, precision-powered ‘21st Century Schizoid Man’. This album is generally held to be the catalyst for the progressive rock movement, but it has several strings to its bow, not the least being its jaundiced world view.
Note: A brief excerpt from ’21st Century Schizoid Man’ and the only live footage of King Crimson from ’69.
I COULD CITE hundreds of subsequent apocalyptic rock records, and pundits would no doubt point out the hundreds I had neglected to mention, but to me the ultimate, and most enduring apocalyptic rock band is Killing Joke. On their explosive, self-titled 1980 debut, they created a variant on rough and ragged hard rock that incorporated synthetic elements as well as disco and dub rhythms. While vocalist/lyricist Jaz Coleman’s vocals were inherently punk-influenced, his view of the world was deeply apocalyptic, and eventually saw him withdraw to Iceland, and then to NZ’s Great Barrier Island, which he maintained – through his study of geomancy – would be immune to the coming breakdown of civilisation.
Say of Coleman what you will, but the iron-clad rhythms and sheer power of his lyrical and musical vision was something to hear, even for those appreciating merely the theatricality of the presentation, or the brute tribal strength of the constructions.
Part of me has never been one hundred percent convinced by Killing Joke, or by Jaz Coleman. Even at the dawn of the ‘80s, music critics were attacking the group for being “rockist”, and I guess they did carry with them certain rock characteristics that other, hipper bands had pared back in line with post-punk aesthetics, which favoured a leaner sound, and less pomp and grandeur. But that wasn’t my problem. My problem with Killing Joke was that after that first, incredible album, the quality varied immensely, and at some point I gave up on them altogether. Still, every now and then over the decades, my interest has been piqued once again. Since the group’s re-ignition in 2003 with their second self-titled album, I’ve been slowly acquiring all their albums again, and recently, during a month of tortuous peak-hour commuting, I found the perfect excuse to chronologically sit/sift through their catalogue. And what a pleasure it was. In fact, angered by the gridlock and my daily peak-hour torment and the foul-smelling diesel of 4WDs and the barbarity exposed by livestock trucks that would invariably pull up beside me with pellets of in-shock chooks on the way to meet their maker, Killing Joke was the perfect antidote. Their music hasn’t aged at all.
The thing I love so much about Killing Joke is that they started angry, and they’re clearly still angry. Not because some hot wench had gone and left them, but because there are things going on in this world that deprive humans of the dignity and lives they deserve. Bands like Killing Joke give voice to the anger generated by news reports that tell us the latest on the carnage in, say, Syriah, but leave us feeling like voyeurs who can’t afford to care, and can’t give voice to our concern, who can do nothing except sign another fucking petition. A petition that, one suspects, will go right into some black hole of the internet and not make a damn bit of difference to this hellish miasma we’ve made of the planet.
To me, music can – and should – reflect just about any emotion. And yet it’s perpetually used to promote what Frank Zappa rightly called mental illness – the human being’s tendency to endlessly make up silly love songs, and silly not-in love anymore songs, and silly she’s left me and I want to die songs. As Zappa eloquently put it: broken hearts are for assholes. What he meant by that was that songs about broken hearts clog up the space we should be using to do something real, to make real changes in the world, and that music can be an agent for that.
Apocalyptic rock – these days pretty much the domain of all those groups with demon voices where you can’t hear what the hell they’re singing about anyway – is a particularly potent form of rock. Unlike the “protest song” of folk music, it’s not preachy and boring. It’s potent because it combines killer riffs and very heavy music with heavy, meaningful ideas; it helps to get the anger out of your system, anger about real things, not just silly love stuff. Unlike most heavy rock and heavy metal, it’s at least partly grown up, eschewing the typical and very boring rock tropes like pushing drugs and hot bitches.
But what about those masters of apocalyptic rock, Killing Joke? Are they still any good after all this time? I’ve been spinning their new album, MMXII, so that you don’t have to. But come on, you might as well. It could be good for you.
I well remember the reaction of a loose-spinning former colleague of mine to the 2003 Killing Joke album. Laughing derisively, he said it was like one man and his big organ, wanking. I get the gist of that, because Killing Joke do have a theatrical bent, and you have to buy into those minor chords and the biliousness of it all to feel the rage. And even though Youth is now back in the fold after years making dance music, KJ haven’t recovered the dub-disco foundation that helped to make their early records so different. MMXII, then, continues in the vein of the last few KJ albums, which means that these days, they’re very metal, but with some of the bombast, and ballast, of prog-rock. And by the way, that’s a compliment. Wagner was bombastic, too, and he composed some of the most haunting, powerful music in the dots on paper tradition.
Personally, I would listen to Killing Joke a whole lot more if they were more inclined to musical experimentation, because I’ve simply heard enough standard metal and hard rock machinations to last a lifetime. That said, it’s hard to dispute that Killing Joke are in fine form here.
Coleman’s voice, for one, just gets better. I’m amazed that he’s still got the ability to croon at all, like he did all over those late ‘80s synth-pop albums, but he does, and it helps to give power to the songs, and a sort of operatic grandeur. And when he changes gears and lets out his roar, it’s better than ever. His shouting voice isn’t unlike that of Motorhead’s Lemmy, but as an instrument it’s become more and more grizzled and epiglottaly explicit, and it’s a powerful instrument combined with the grind and stomp and barbed-wire terror of the music.
This time the themes are literally apocalyptic. ‘Pole Shift’ deals with the end of the world as we know it through field energy reversal, while ‘Glitch’ deals with technology, and its inability to save us from the inevitable decline and termination of existence, or at least the world as we know it. Other songs deal with specific ills of society: ‘Fema Camp’ with the erosion of human rights, ‘Colony Collapse’ with nano-technology, ‘Corporate Effect’ with systemic slavery. Except it’s not all bad. It seems like in Coleman’s vision, human life will scrape through in some form. On ‘Rapture’, he sings about escaping the earthly plain and attaining a kind of purification, and ‘Trance (In The Fields Of Light)’ – the closest the album comes to disco – talks about a “predetermined providence”.
Although it’s compressed in ways – just like any heavy rock album – to make its crashing layers effectively pummel the listener – the album has been carefully engineered to open up the sound spectrum and allow some bass through at the bottom end.
It’s a very good Killing Joke album, and for a band that’s at least 32 years old, that’s saying something. GARY STEEL