osef K were a rock ‘n’ roll rarity: a band that arrived seemingly fully-formed, manifestos unpronounced but doubtlessly concealed somewhere up their natty sleeve. Never mind the post-punk bollocks—these fine young lads were positively anti-punk. Teetotalers in a land of booze and dirty needles, they projected an austere and hyper-intelligent image. Naming themselves after the main character in The Trial, Kafka's masterpiece of alienation and paranoia, they courted bookishness just in time for the rise of the effete and literary youth in British rock—and promptly broke up before they could reap the benefits. Not because they were violent or did too much coke, but simply because they felt they'd accomplished all they'd set out to do.
On their scrapped first LP, Sorry for Laughing, Josef K perfected a kind of insectoid funk, brittle and tenebrous but shuffling along on invariably tight rhythmic tendrils. Acerbic and taut, their music was ideologically vague but emotionally complex. Paul Haig's characteristically dry vocals call for examination and investigation, rather than excitement, and though feelings are the subject under the microscope, the lens is clouded with the grit of a murky, confused world. "Sorry for laughing, there's too much happening." This was a band that nearly banished brightness from their kingdom—even their cover of Alice Cooper gonzo obscurity "Apple Bush" comes across more as whimsical than carefree. Their singles during their brief existence (under two years) paint the same picture in more strident tones: "Radio Drill Time," "Sorry for Laughing," and "The Missionary" are irrepressibly urgent, slices of fierce and unforgiving punk-funk that dismiss punk as childish and slice up funk into shards to be used as weapons against a brutal world.
Though the band allegedly rejected Sorry for Laughing as too rhythm-heavy, its follow-up, The Only Fun in Town, is even more pummeling. Despite the scabrous guitar of songs like "Forever Drone" and "16 Years," this is a sound rooted in bottom-end, replete with yards upon yards of sex-free hip-shaking. Josef K’s sterility, though, was coupled with a vibrant and tenable intelligence—at times a bitter pill to swallow ("I smash up the radio, that's enough for one day") but one providing necessary medicine. One could lose oneself in the cavernous maw of the rhythm section, find a compelling if cold partner in Haig's voice and express one's distaste with the callous world through the alternately scraping and chiming guitars of Malcolm Ross. Rarely has a band created a world-space so monolithic yet provided a listener with so many easy routes to the interior.
Entomology curates the Josef K story with the kind of lover's touch that should grace all such collections of under-appreciated bands. Culling from both LPs, it's dotted with single versions, b-sides, and a concluding trio of Peel Sessions. Which is to say: it feels more like a fine novel than a work of reference (the fault of far too many similarly well-intentioned compilations). Perhaps the secret lies not so much in the virtue of Entomology's overseer, but in the band itself: Josef K served with distinction, in a manner befitting no one but themselves, and made an end of it. A clean, perfect end: the only sane response to a suffocating, befuddling world.
Reviewed by: Mallory O’Donnell
Reviewed on: 2006-11-10