Royal Albert Hall, London, 12 March 2023
When Killing Joke reformed with the original line-up towards the end of 2007, they returned to the first two albums of the three they had recorded together before Youth’s departure in 1982, rehearsing two live sets that would be previewed in Tokyo before the band’s triumphant two nights at the Forum in October 2008. These London concerts (released first as Live at the Forum and then as The Gathering) feature all 16 tracks from Killing Joke (1980) and What’s THIS For…! (1981).
At this point I should probably mention that the Joke’s second LP is not only my favourite album by the Ladbroke Grove jesters but one of my favourite albums by any band, and the promise of hearing it live and entire had been almost too much to bear since the gig – impishly titled ‘Follow the Leaders’ – was announced in June last year (anticipation that was duly rewarded when Youth swapped his signature Rickenbacker for the hybridised fretless which defines the loose, lurking, low-end elasticity of What’s THIS For…!).
Plummet headlong 15 catastrophic years on planet world and that same line-up is still intact, having released three new studio albums, a flurry of live sets, two benchmark remix collections, an EP including two new tracks and, a couple of days before this latest Gathering, a new single. But the gravitational pull of those first two landmark albums is justifiably inexorable and on 12 March 2023 at the Royal Albert Hall, Killing Joke again performed both discs – this time in the original running order. And how fortuitous the date, with the Joke yet again scheduling a magickal ritual just as a major bank went down (this is something of a trend across the band’s career with the Global Financial Crisis and the 2008 reunion happening pretty much simultaneously).
If you imagine this career pinnacle to be an exercise in nostalgia or retirement planning, then you are sorely mistaken. Played at breakneck pace with only one of Jaz’s deliberately provocative song introductions (“There’s going to be a Third World War!”), this was Killing Joke yet again proving that they remain the most vital of the bands that formed in the wake of punk’s magnesium burn. Honed across four sold-out club gigs in the preceding week, this was the band leaner, tighter and more forceful than ever.
Anchored by Big Paul’s megalithic metronomy and Geordie’s dendritic dissonance – constantly branching across multiple scales and modes – Youth and Jaz prowled the stage like the now-wily wolves of the Joke’s classic ‘Pssyche’, here a glorious fourth and final encore. You could even argue that with the Joke in this incarnation – fast approaching a cumulative 20-year mark – it is Big Paul and Geordie who are the rhythm section, holding the surface tension across the band’s occult ocean, while Youth circles in the sonic depths like an anarchist shark and Jaz glides, swoops and dives like a shaman in sea-eagle form: forcing us to confront our fears and self-loathing, and in our catharsis releasing us from the dead weight of deception and apathy so that the shaman can once again resume his human form.
The first album is so well known to Gatherers that it’s almost impossible to conceive of a new approach, but this adrenalised attack pulled all eight tracks into an inexorable charge of the dark brigade, taking in Cold-War dread, the terror of hot war, industrial decay, and social alienation. The second 8 tracks continued this forced march into the abyss, with social engineering, psychological breakdown, and ecological collapse. And it was in these tracks – especially the rarely performed but here thrillingly urgent ‘Who Told You How?’ and ‘Exit’ – that the theme of the evening came into focus: a society spiralling into psychosis while wondering which colour to paint the living room.
The leanness and pinpoint focus of the music and themes were echoed by the sparseness of the staging, with only two simple banners heralding the band’s discord mirth and a single video screen showing a stream of original, found and sampled images from the band’s regular collaborator Mike Coles (who designed the cover art for both of the albums being played).
The first three encores – all from the band’s first year – were the Joke’s very first composition ‘Are You Receiving?’, ‘Change’ (never more exasperatedly direct an edict, or cuttingly ironic a question) and the endtimes dub ‘Turn to Red’. Presciently paranoid 40-plus years ago; outrageously oracular today. There really is no-one better with whom to wait in Armageddon’s lobby.
Pre-order Killing Joke On Track from Amazon in the UK here.