Fire from Heaven, or Guitar as Invocation

Killing Joke recording inside the Great Pyramid

Picture this.

1991, Pachyderm Studios in Canyon Falls, Minnesota. With arch-geek Steve Albini twiddling knobs and faders now and then, a pack of aging Anglo-Punks bash away in a serviceable if somewhat routine manner in the recording studio. Aping then-current Industrial Metal sounds in addition to the work they have done in the past, the sound is perfectly acceptable, if not a bit unoriginal. Pretentious Scottish poet Chris Connelly comes in and lays down his best Bowie imitations over the din.

Then, he comes in.

Impeccably dressed in expensive Italian clothes and bearing an uncanny resemblance to Rutger Hauer, he calmly sets up his rack in the center of the room. He tunes up his guitar, dons a pair of headphones, and waits for the playback. As the first string is struck, the air seems to shredded by
burning shrapnel. A sound that seems indescribable fills every corner of your consciousness, and thoughts of savage possibility rush by in a blur.

You look through the control room glass into the studio, and the man sits on a stool, motionless, impassive, and yet obviously possessed by a grim state of absolute concentration. The primal, subconscious contents that lay dormant in your brain, the hot buttons of fear, rage and awe well up in you. It's dredges up an ancient and atavistic landscape, flashes of ancient twilights, a black-purple sky, impossibly huge, being torn apart by thunder and crackling bursts of fire from heaven.

As the playing stops, you tremble and wonder what could have possessed you. As you ponder what you have heard, you realize the man only played one or two simple patterns over and over again.

Later as the folks in the control room do their best to completely bleach the music of any color or complexity, you think back on those riffs. The murderous rush of "Hole in the Wall", the wall of terrifying noise in "Uninvited Guest", the tribal swing of "Motion Sickness", the galloping thrust of "Mania" etc etc. and you wonder how such simple little phrases can be so evocative. How so few notes can tell you so much about yourself, about the deep-seated instincts that must be suppressed in order to insure the very survival of civilization.

As the man walks into the control booth, quietly sipping a cup of tea, laughing almost inaudibly at a bandmate's joke, you wonder, does he realize what he is doing? Does he realize what he can unleash?

You go to the record store, to investigate what this man has done before. You find his band's most recent album, because that's the only thing the crappy chainstore in the strip mall has available. You go home and put it on. The first two songs do nothing for you, just plodding rants. The third song, appropriately entitled "The Beautiful Dead," is something else. As the band pounds out a savage syncopation, the guitar flies like quicksilver, the aural equivalent of a flamethrower. The man plays multiple variations on the song's main riff and you wonder, what in God's name is he playing?

As the last bar of the measure is sounded, those hot burning chords fly out of everywhere, and you sit stunned. What is he playing? You can hear the notes, but there is something else there, something dark and unknowable. The whole album is full of this dark, unknowable presence. Summoned by this unlikely shaman.

For over 30 years, Gregory "Geordie" Walker has been an unsung hero of rock guitar. Scores of guitarists have hijacked his riffs, from Kurt Cobain in 'Come as You Are' to Mick Mars in 'Dr. Feelgood' to Kim Thayal in 'Fourth of July' and on and on. Artists as unlikely as Van Halen, and Green Day have grafted trademark aspects of his playing onto their own styles. Dozens of alt-rock guitarists claim him as inspiration.

But his circle of admirers is limited to other guitarists, for the most part. It is stunning to note that a guitarist who unleashes such unbridled aural savagery with his instrument seems so oblivious to its effect. What drives him? He seems totally disinterested in the rock star circus. His longtime partner does all of the talking to the press. His near-silence creates an aura of mystery that deepens the impact of his art.

All we have is 30 years of ferocious, incantatory guitar magic. All we have is a sound that for 30 years has dug into the listener's consciousness, pulling up primal instincts from the genetic morass.

I remember seeing Killing Joke in 1989 in an outdoor concert. As shrieking ethnic noise poured out of the PA, the band walked down the adjacent street to the stage, accompanied by a bunch of kids carrying torches. I will admit, I was frightened. I know the potential for mass hysteria. It was a potentiality they seemed to be actively courting.

The feeling in the crowd was palpably apprehensive. The primal fears dredged up by a torchlit procession are unmistakable, no matter what the time or setting. The taped music sounded like the soundtrack to some Lovecraftian human sacrifice. As the band took the stage, Geordie looked around and smiled, mildly of course. He was enjoying this. The potential of three thousand drug-addled kids going insane and rioting didn't seem to faze him at all.


Raj said...

Killing Joke...boy oh boy, gimme more of that sweet dark sorcery!

venusinpieces said...

Well, that is some serious hype and honestly I was not expecting to be too impressed. But you proved me wrong! Actually it reminds me of the most recent Swans album, which I mostly love just for this track alone. Usually the Swans are a bit too overwrought for my tastes but that song is amazing and, coincidentally, the last time I listened to it I was imagining the scene in Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath where the cthulus perform ritualized dirges accompanied by human sacrifice!
Seriously. I've always heard Killing Joke listed as an inspiration by many of my favorite bands, such as the almighty Godflesh, but haven't been able to get into their music since their catalog seems to be cluttered with some duds as well. But thanks for these links.

Returning to the Gaga question from last week, which is obviously more relevant here than on a UFO post, the point I was trying to make was that the cult of Isis could also be used as a means of placating the masses while discharging subversive sentiments.
A lot of people have made the point that Gaga encourages narcissism and vacancy, so under this analysis she would fit the Isis archetype in terms of promoting corporate materialism. I actually give her more credit than that after watching some of her interviews, a few of which contain some surprisingly transgressive ideas.

venusinpieces said...

The paparazzi video, for example, is about how celebrities are exploited by the music industry, and this was dramatized at the VMA awards where Gaga acted the idea out in gruesome detail, which of course sent the conspiracy watchers into a frenzy since they assume it was a masonic initiation ceremony. And perhaps it was, although my sense is that the media itself (including the afore-mentioned bloggers) is used to condition celebs and fracture their minds and spirits and this is what she was getting at in the video. So it was nice to see someone in a position of power speaking about that even if the context was lost on much of the audience. I think there is certainly an attempt to exploit and destroy creativity in the entertainment industry and this was likely the plan for Gaga. But it stands to be seen if she will live up to that role or not. I have mixed feelings about her activism, since the pro gays-in the-military video she made hardly espouses the anti-war ideals of her hero Lennon. I do think she is quite genuine about identifying with marginalized people and again this is quite unusual for someone from a relatively privileged background. Madonna tried to work this angle as well but I'm not buying it from her since she comes off as someone who exploits and uses those around her. It's funny too that so many people are calling Gaga a mind controlled slave because actually she has talked about using celibacy as a way to channel creative energy, which I personally think is a pretty amazing thing for a pop star to say. I'm not trying to turn this into a Gaga commercial, I promise. :p

venusinpieces said...

As for the manipulation of Isis for nefarious ends, I think that was amply demonstrated in Egypt, where her image was used to reinforce the authority of the state. So it's kind of a complicated issue, since archetypes are inherently neutral with great potential in either direction, both positive and negative.

Christopher Knowles said...

Raj- Definitely get their new album- you will NOT be disappointed.

Venus- Interesting points, but I really think you're giving the Gagger too much credit. As to KJ's discography, the only dud is Outside the Gate, which is a Jaz solo album that EG slapped the KJ brand on since Jaz went so over budget. From Extremeties on it's been nothing but one classic after another.

Raj said...

Already on its way, dude, as is your new book.