I couldn’t just talk about ambient music forever on this blog, could I? No sirree. For your blogger has catholic tastes indeed. Peaceful and pretty music is all well and good and I love it dearly, but there’s a harsh other side to the coin as a member of this dominant species. Which is of course that the dominant species on Earth has been fucking up royally for quite a while, killing itself off and destroying the environment it depends on, while inflicting cruelty and anguish on all life on the planet.
Yay! OK, well, I don’t feel that bad all the time. But those truths need a voice, one of compassion as well as rage, an appeal to our saner instincts as denizens of this beautiful biosphere we seem intent on eliminating. In the music world, there is no greater voice than that of Killing Joke and its madcap soothsayer of a frontman, Jaz Coleman.
A little background. Killing Joke came out of punk, as so many great protest bands did. Their first two albums in the early 80s were examples of savage primitivism, sledgehammer riffs, power drill keyboards and Coleman’s maniacal yell. Visceral stuff. Even if these were the only two albums the band ever released, its place in the pantheon would be secure.
Over subsequent albums Killing Joke’s sound took a turn towards sophistication, adding proper singing, quite beautiful melodies and an aura of grandeur, while still retaining the integrity of the band’s core musical values: Geordie’s distinct, calmly vicious, liquid metal guitar sound and style, the godlike thump of the rhythm section and Coleman’s unhinged passion at the helm. You may remember the singles “Love Like Blood” and “Eighties”, but I prefer the unheralded album Brighter Than a Thousand Suns, a passionate statement of “big music” that should put U2 and their ilk to shame. Though nothing shames Bono, it would appear.
After a hiatus and a couple of less artistically successful albums, Killing Joke was reborn in the mid 1990s and revitalized by the albums Pandemonium and Democracy. These albums are firecrackers. Coleman’s grandiosity has been tempered as he digs into REAL issues like the joke that modern politics is and the incredible shame of our refusal to properly acknowledge and change our environmentally destructive ways. He even skewers the pharmaceutical industry.
At this time Coleman also unleashed a new gutteral howl of a voice that betters anything a black metaller could produce, for Coleman comes not to scare thee, but to scare thee straight. He’s the prophet of doom himself.
But the band’s run of glory was not over. The self-titled album of 2003 was the band’s heaviest yet and featured mind-blowingly crushing anthems like “Total Invasion” and “You’ll Never Get to Me” (a song which makes your blogger quite emotional, I don’t mind admitting). This was followed by the astonishingly appealing murky sludge of Hosannas From the Basements of Hell (2006) and the razor-sharp melodies and cutting sociological analyses of Absolute Dissent in 2010. Even casual fans should definitely check out “The Raven King“, Killing Joke’s tribute to deceased bassist Paul Raven.
So here we are at the latest recording. Unlike other fiftysomethings, Killing Joke have improved with every recent recording, and we all know how rare that is. This world desperately needs truth-tellers, and you never get anything but the unvarnished lowdown from Mr. Coleman.
While I would not say that MMXII is better than any of the last few albums, all of which I love, it’s another delightful entry in the band’s discography. Where Killing Joke (2003) was very clear and metallic and Hosannas was full of gothic subterranean mud, the last two albums have hopped between the various styles the band has hinted at through the years, from industrial to goth to punk to drony synth-rock.
This band never holds back and opener “Pole Shift”, while it starts with a rather pretty symphonic and synthy intro, soon takes us into familiar territory as Big Paul mangles the skins and Geordie spins threads of silvery guitar work, while Coleman glories in the possibility of destruction and renewal, all before the punky shouting begins.
“FEMA Camp” is predictably angry (look up the topic) and cops “Pandemonium”‘s tribal stomp to emphasize the message. “Rapture” and “Colony Collapse” are goth punk ragers. (“The future doesn’t need us – beloved Mother intervene!” howls Coleman.) After a short stop in punkland with “Corporate Elect” (self-explanatory), we get to the album’s heart.
When I first acquired this album, I played “In Cythera” probably twice a day for two weeks. This is a song that will break your heart. Driven by an insistent beat and delicate keyboards, this song is Coleman’s tribute to a fallen friend and a paean to the value of true friendship in a life that can be so trying. The lyrics are very beautiful. It’s also got a huge chorus…check 1:16, where after a break it kicks back in so massively that if it don’t raise the hair on your neck, I don’t know what will. One of the greatest songs I’ve ever heard hands down.
It’s hard for the rest of the album to maintain that incredibly high level, but the grinding industrial rock of “Primobile” and “Glitch” keep the energy level raised. “On All Hallow’s Eve” is a curiosity, copping a stomp from the glam palette (let’s not mention Gary what’s his name) accompanied by one of Coleman’s many odes to the tribal mindset. As always, the Joke goes out in style in “New Uprising” (if you have the iTunes version), a lengthy exploration reminiscent of the longer tunes from the 90s albums.
That Killing Joke can keep putting out recordings this relevant and this good may not be surprising but it is heartening. Kids, stop covering your faces with beards and horn-rimmed specs and singing about nothing. These guys could be your dads and they want you to know something: if you want your own kids to have a future, you’d better start changing the world now!
And they do it loud n’ proud with memorable tunes and genius lyrics.
Here’s to the next opus from the basements of Hell!