A little after 10pm on Wednesday, Killing Joke frontman Jaz Coleman was stomping around the stage of New York’s Irving Plaza, bellowing out the band’s brutish 2003 industrial-metal anthem “Loose Cannon,” which as he told the crowd beforehand, was inspired by a period when excessive drinking sent him off the rails. “I’m an urban animal!” the 58-year-old shouted. “One step from a cannibal.”
Like so much of the show — from dreadlocked, raggedly dressed bassist Martin “Youth” Glover reminding the crowd of his days spent spinning records at bygone NYC nightspots like Twilo and Tunnel, to the Eighties-goth-night attire favored by a certain sector of the audience — Coleman’s display could have come off as tired, or even a little corny, given that he’s been playing this role since the late Seventies. But instead, Killing Joke’s 90-minute set, part of the deeply influential London band’s ongoing tour to mark 40 years since it formed, felt brisk, urgent, even celebratory, the work of an outfit that’s thriving rather than going through the motions.
The ever-unpredictable Coleman deserves plenty of credit for that. With his shoulder-length black hair, craggy features and long black coat, he looks a little like Gabriel Byrne playing the part of a spooky undertaker. Around half the time he’s onstage, he’s playing up that dark image by grimacing, convulsing in time with the music or fixing the audience with wide-eyed horror-villain stares. But at other moments, as hinted at by the band’s name (which Coleman has said alludes to “the laughter that overcomes all fear”), he’s projecting pure joy: beaming, shimmying in stiff, endearingly dad-like fashion or telling the crowd how good it is to see them again. There’s duality in his vocals too: He’s equally convincing whether he’s crooning a supple melodic postpunk tune in the vein of 1985 Top 20 U.K. hit “Love Like Blood,” which opened Wednesday’s show, or roaring his way through a breakneck riff workout from the band’s later era like “Asteroid.”
It doesn’t hurt that he’s got an incredibly tight, efficient band behind him. The version of Killing Joke that’s currently on the road — Coleman, sometime Paul McCartney collaborator Glover, guitarist Geordie Walker and drummer “Big” Paul Ferguson — is the original lineup, which appeared on their first three albums in the late Seventies and early Eighties and reunited in 2008 after a lengthy period of shuffling lineups and a six-year break from ’96 to 2002. Their long history together shows. The grinding, hypnotic groove the musicians established on their self-titled 1980 debut, a blend of Walker’s brittle, rusty-wire riffs, Glover’s relentless bass throb and Ferguson’s machine-like, tom-tom-heavy beats, only sounds more insistent in 2018.
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Several Killing Joke tracks stood out as highlights of Wednesday’s set, from tribal-punk crusher “The Wait” (covered by Metallica in ’87) to the danceable, downtempo “Requiem.” But it says a lot about the consistency of the band’s output over the years that there was no drop-off in intensity when they drew on their later catalog. Some of the wildest moments in the set came during the eerily driving “New Cold War,” from 2015’s Pylon (named by Rolling Stone as one of the best metal albums of that year), and the frenetic “Corporate Elect,” off 2012’s MMXII.
The set zig-zagged across the catalog, showing just how many styles this band has attempted and mastered in its four decades, and how much their legacy has been mined by later artists. Balloons bounced over the crowd during peppy postpunk fist-pumper “Eighties,” the direct inspiration for Nirvana’s “Come as You Are.” And the skillful combination of sleek synths, courtesy of auxiliary member Roi Robertson, and harsh vocals on songs like “Butcher” pointed directly to bands like Nine Inch Nails, whose Trent Reznor has cited Killing Joke as an influence and even remixed one of their songs.
But as Wednesday’s set proved, Killing Joke are much more than your favorite band’s favorite band. To their fans, who were out in force for the sold-out show, singing along, moshing or dancing furiously as the moment demanded, they’re an institution. “This is a place of freedom,” Coleman told the crowd before the Pylon dance-metal rager “Autonomous Zone.” He was referring to the show itself but he could have been speaking about the niche that Killing Joke have carved out during the past four decades, a weird little world out of sight of the mainstream. It’s a space where diverse musical styles clash, where menace presses up against mirth and where these four veteran loose cannons will keep sounding off for as long as they damn well feel like it.