Josh Strawn (Azar Swan, Vaura) Talks Killing Joke’s Pylon

What makes music timeless? Listening to Killing Joke, we might just have the answer.

What makes music timeless? That question has been running through my mind ever since I first heard Killing Joke’s newest album, Pylon. It’s a slippery proposition to claim that a record will be able to escape the slings and arrows of passing time. To me, The Velvet Underground & Nico sounds like the late ’60s. David Bowie’s Low sounds like the late ’70s. Depeche Mode’s Black Celebration sounds like the mid ’80s. Still, there’s something naggingly reasonable about the assertion that these albums are more than just reflections of the era in which they were recorded.

That Pylon would even evoke the question of timelessness is a testament to its excellence. I haven’t been listening to it every day so that I can figure out what makes a band’s work seem timeless; I’ve been trying to figure out what makes a band’s work seem timeless because I’ve been listening to this record every day.

As their discography spans back to 1979, it might seem easy to debate over which Killing Joke period is the “best”: the punk rawness of the early stuff, the nocturnal dance anthems of the mid-’80s or the punishing grandeur of the recent material. The mid-’80s stuff hooked me first, but I’ve found something to love in every phase. My first Killing Joke record was a compilation cryptically titled Laugh? I Nearly Bought One! which I bought in the mid-’90s. It’s a solid collection of songs, but “Sun Goes Down” stood out to me: it’s a mesh of punk aggression, new wave melodic sensibilities and an almost metal heaviness mixed with subtle synth textures. That’s still a fair way to characterize Killing Joke’s sound right up to Pylon. From album to album, those core elements of Killing Joke are always intact, even if the focus shifts.

For one thing, Killing Joke’s music is almost relentlessly steeped in political lyrics — there’s rage, nostalgia, riots and anthems — that are more impressionistic than didactic. Their body of work is a sprawling expression of the emotions brought on by political forces: sometimes psychosis, other times revolutionary sentimentality. Pylon destroys your skull for the first three songs — “Autonomous Zone,” “Dawn of the Hive” and “New Cold War” — before levitating you into a state of reflection with “Euphoria” (my favorite song on the record). It isn’t that lead singer and lyricist Jaz Coleman never tackles specific issues. Song titles such as “FEMA Camp” (on 2012’s aptly titled MMXII) and “European Super State” (on 2010’s Absolute Dissent) make it clear that he has something specific on his mind. It’s just that he takes a more poetic approach. That’s a good thing. It means that even though they’ve said they had Cold War totalitarianism on the brain in 1985 when they recorded Night Time in Berlin, their meditations on totalitarianism survive into the present. I can read lyrics from “Darkness Before Dawn” from Night Time and see a century’s worth of faces abused by authoritarianism. Even when Coleman is explicitly screaming, “I’m living in the Eighties” (from 1985’s “Eighties”), the ensuing lyrics, “I have to push, I have to struggle” and “get out of my way, I’m not for sale no more,” still relate to the present.

Killing Joke communicates a raw rejection of the current world order, and I prefer as a listener to keep it at that, where incoherent screams give way to coherent concepts such as central banking (“Delete”) and an eastern border (“New Jerusalem”), both tracks from Pylon. Occasionally, you can catch some not-so-legitimate grievances alongside legitimate ones on the record. Most specifically, in “War on Freedom,” one can hear “compulsory vaccination” spoken in the same breath as “biometric facial recognition software.” In times like this, the pro-vax Killing Joke fan in me is content to let Jaz be Jaz. These are rare moments, however. As far as I can tell, Pylon isn’t a crackpot compendium of pseudoscience so much as it is an utter rejection of the status quo, which is as enduring a theme as I can imagine.

Beyond their themes, there’s a musical sensibility that’s also persistent when it comes to Killing Joke, despite lineup changes. While timelessness is often chalked up to production techniques — gated Phil Collins snares are ’80s and “dated,” whereas hollow-body guitars through Orange amps and a boutique fuzz pedal are “classic” — Killing Joke’s catalogue proves this notion false. There is no piece of gear, no production technique or mixing style that, applied to their music, creates anything other than their sound. Meanwhile, gear hounds will fill their pricey studios with all the most “timeless” equipment and manage to make music that sounds spiritless, save for the spirit of what wealth sounds like as it changes hands: real estate humming, the sound of pure capitulation.

There’s also something to be said for how these guys play. In “Autonomous Zone,” there is a bass riff that Martin “Youth” Glover attacks so hard that it almost slaps. It’s funk born of aggression. It’s these tiny zones of unintentional genre-bending that point toward what it is about Killing Joke that enamors listeners. In a time when the overthought and overwrought blending of styles amounts to little more than the Tumblr-ification of genre motifs, Killing Joke embraces a hybridization that’s a outgrowth of how they hear and play music — rather than hybridization that sounds as if it was undertaken merely to make fodder for a press release. And then there’s Jaz Coleman’s remarkable vocal abilities: he’s able to fade a guttural scream into a crisp, clean-sung tone over the course of the same note, all while seeming incapable of writing anything other than an infectious melody.

All of these elements combine to form what I think is really the meaning of timeless music: it’s just music that’s so good that people never stop wanting to make records that sound like yours. A younger listener could be forgiven for hearing the main riff from Pylon’s “New Jerusalem” and comparing it to Marilyn Manson, or being reminded of Nirvana’s “Come As You Are” when listening to “Eighties.” This doesn’t mean Killing Joke sounds like Nirvana or Marilyn Manson. Clearly, those bands were influenced by Killing Joke, not the other way around. It means that what Killing Joke has created still exists as a gold standard for each new generation of songwriters, from My Bloody Valentine to Nine Inch Nails to LCD Soundsystem. 

But there may be one more thing that contributes to Killing Joke’s timelessness. In order to say what I think that is, I’m going to break one of my own cardinal rules about music writing: presuming to know what was on the creators’ minds. It just feels to me like Killing Joke gives a shit. The band reunited the original lineup after seeing each other at the funeral of former bassist Paul Raven in 2007, when they claim that they realized how important Killing Joke was to all of them. And, by MMXII, they were not only making records as good as their influential earlier albums, the work was arguably grander in scope — even more concentrated and masterfully executed.

Album sales are dwindling and bands who swore they’d never play together again are doing reunions just to pay the bills. But Killing Joke sounds like a band that can’t not make records together. They sound like they’re furious with politicians, paranoid about the future and discontent with everything — and it’s absolutely glorious because it’s absolutely believable.

Josh Strawn is currently one half of the electronic duo Azar Swan and the lead singer of the moody metal supergroup Vaura. He was closely involved with the now-defunct Wierd Records label and party, at which time he fronted the post-punk band Blacklist and played in the psychedelic doom folk band Religious to Damn with Azar Swan co-conspirator Zohra Atash. He has contributed written works of political and cultural commentary to various publications including Flavorwire and Slutist.

(photo credit: Jason Rodgers)