First up I need to declare an interest. I think Killing Joke are an amazing band. I loved them when they first emerged as part of that morass of styles that has been termed ‘post-punk’, and they are probably currently my favourite band. In between times I have lost touch with them, found them, and lost touch again. I fully reconnected with them again at a gig at Sheffield’s Corporation in March 2012. It was in many ways a shambolic gig. Front man Jaz Coleman was clearly not so well, and they failed to reappear for what could have been a triumphant encore (judging by the set list) because of a ridiculously early curfew due to the venue wanting to cram in a second event that night. There was definite menace in the air, but out of the chaos they still delivered a performance that had me mesmerised; Killing Joke were fully back in my consciousness and their MMXII album was easily my most played of last year.
In many ways that gig is what Killing Joke are about for me. When they are at their best they operate in that grey area between order and chaos, and now they are back to their original line up they are doing just that and are quite a force to be reckoned with (see Postscript). Their recent renaissance over their last two albums (MMXII and 2010’s Absolute Dissent) has been quite a revelation. So despite being around for nearly 35 years hearing the words “here’s one from our new album’ is not something that need fill one with dread, quite the opposite. Indeed, one of the singles from the Absolute Dissent album, European Super State, is requested by my 5 year old on the way to school every morning (I love to hear him sing lyrics such as: “Why are the proud descendants of Plato/ Paying off debts accommodating NATO”).
What this new collection of 33 tracks over 2 CDs shows is that while I may have dipped in and out of the band over the that time, their output has mostly been consistent. I say mostly because I find some of their later 80s output (though not the track ‘Eighties’ itself) to be very dated now, and find that I am usually skipping tracks at the end of CD1 as a result. This period seems to divide Killing Joke fans, but I would argue that by their very high standard this output was poor, and seemingly an attempt at the time to go mainstream.
Now I have got that out of the way let’s get on with the superlatives. One of the reasons I like Killing Joke is because they are so difficult to pin down. If you look at a list of bands who claim them as an influence (far too many to mention here but there is a good one on their Wikipedia page) you see how they have been key to the development of Metal (in many guises), Hardcore, Industrial, Goth, Grunge, and many more. This is because they have a unique sound which, apart from the aforementioned eighties diversion, underpins everything they do. However, while 1979’s Nervous System can be identified with 2012’s Corporate Collapse, both musically and lyrically, this Singles Collection shows that while there may be a ‘house style’ this a very varied set.
What this collection also shows is that one of the keys to their success is their anger and their attitude. They are at their very best when they are railing against the establishment, and especially corporations and politicians. As I have said they operate in that grey area between order and chaos and this is reflected in their ongoing theme of a world on the edge of a breakdown, as exemplified in the chorus from 1994’s Pandemonium: “I can see tomorrow/ I can see the world to come/ I can see the world to come/ Hear the Pandemonium”. The closer they get to the edge the better they seem to be.
It is difficult for me to pick out the key tracks from this collection, but here goes. The first track, Nervous System, shows that Killing Joke arrived on the scene fully formed easily matching other key bands of the time such as Gang of Four and Wire. The next 5 tracks Wardance/ Requiem/ Follow The Leaders/ Empire Song/ Chop Chop, are something of a masterclass of post-punk sensibility that are not only vital in their delivery but also (and this is something you really need to see them live to appreciate) as Wardance states: ‘Music to dance to/ Music to move”. They may be intense but you can throw some shapes too. The first disc continues with a scattering of classics such as Eighties, famous for ‘lending’ Nirvana the riff for Come As You Are (a debt repaid when Dave Grohl took the stool for the 2003 (2nd) eponymous Killing Joke album, brilliant but underrepresented here).
The second disc, covering the period 1990-2012, is remarkably consistent. It shows that despite changes of personnel, only (or perhaps because) singer Jaz Coleman and guitarist Geordie Walker have been ever present, there has been a discernible strand through their work. The highlights for me are Money Is Not Our God, a searing attack on capitalism often cited by some Killing Joke fans when the band attempt to do anything as outrageous as to make a living; the trio from the outstanding 1994 album Pandemonium (Exorcism/ Millennium/ Pandemonium) which marked a return a more heavy sound; and the final seven tracks from the last two albums which show a band revitalised.
This 3CD set (there is also a CD of rarities) is easily the best introduction that exists to this compelling band. It does not tell the whole story, but it does provide the listener with a broad course steered through the parts of the musical map that might well be annotated “there be dragons”. It shows a band that are significant, genre-defying (even genre-creating), relentless and, above all, intelligent. You might not agree with everything they do and say, few have; but you really cannot ignore them.
The original line up came back together again following the sudden death of long-term bassist Paul Raven in 2007. In many ways this is somehow fitting of a band who seek meaning where it is often hard to find. Since the return of Youth (bass) and Paul Ferguson (Drums) they seem set on a trajectory that can only enhance the band’s legacy and, with another studio album in the pipeline, on recent evidence it is not unrealistic to think that their best years might be ahead of them. How many bands well into their fourth decade can you say that about?