After about 32 years of being a slavishly devout fan of Killing Joke, the job of reviewing their new studio album with any semblance of balanced objectivity is a tougher task than you might imagine. Those who have embraced the music, mythos and accompanying sensibility of Killing Joke tend to do so with a bug-eyed fervor that borders liberally on myopic zealotry. In short order, no other band matters nearly as much.
That was me for many a year. Sure, I listened to loads of different stuff, but no one touched Killing Joke. Not even close. Even their less salubrious moments -- say, their first divisively populist single, “Me or You?” or Jaz Coleman's beleaguered ersatz-prog opus, Outside The Gate -- still seemed a thousand times more intriguing than any contributions from the rest of the rock rabble, despite any inherent flaws or deviations from the script. Simply put, there is no one like Killing Joke, and when they are at their best, it can be the most inimitably volcanic combination of musical elements imaginable.
I’ve also been fortunate enough, over the years, to become somewhat privy to (portions of) the inner circle of the notoriously difficult band. Beyond interviewing Killing Joke a few times as a rock journalist, I became friends with bassist Paul Raven for a few years (until his untimely death in 2007). It was Raven who also orchestrated my sprawling interview with then-estranged drummer Paul Ferguson in 2004. I’d like to think that said interview -- wherein the founding member broke his silence about his split from the proceedings -- helped ease the path, in some small way, towards his return to the fold (an event which was ultimately brought about by the reconvening of all original members at Raven’s funeral).
Big Paul did, in fact, resume his role in the band shortly afterwards, mounting a full scale tour with the original line-up (with Martin “Youth” Glover back on bass detail) and releasing a rough-hewn collection of their re-recorded standards dubbed Duende: The Spanish Sessions.
With the line-up complete, the band launched into a prolific album-tour-album-tour routine, first unleashing the explosive Absolute Dissent in 2010, followed by the comparatively dour MMXII in --wait for it -- 2012.
Okay, enough purple-prose-laden preamble….what about the new one?
Killing Joke's fifteenth album of new studio material is called Pylon, and it is perceived by the band as the final portion in a triptych that began with Absolute Dissent. Read any of the reviews currently making the rounds, and the usual citations are laboriously invoked (“covered by Metallica,” “worked with Dave Grohl,” etc.) Invariably due to their dogged bloody-mindedness, Killing Joke have repeatedly eluded the greater success they have otherwise inarguably earned. As a result, journalists are quick to explain them to the layperson by dusting off a few tired anecdotes and assigning them any number of misleading tags (foremost among them being “metal,” “gothic” and “industrial.”) While, yes, select elements of these (and other) sub-genres can be cherry-picked from within their music, Killing Joke have refreshingly never been accurately pigeon-holed, nor remained stylistically static. Their sound has been, at points, burly, stealthy and spartan as it has elegiacal, expansive and funky.
With this in mind, Pylon comes as close to a “something for everyone” record as the band is ever likely to record. This formidable collection of tunes finds the Joke frequently switching gears, from full-throttled paroxysms to stately, poignantly melodic anthems. Don’t get me wrong --- it sure as Hell ain’t Taylor Swift, nor is it suitable for twerking or inclusion in your local sports bar’s jukebox, but as a document of a single band, it handily demonstrates the breadth of their abilities.
Thematically speaking, however, Pylon mines some familiar veins. As has seemingly always been the case, being in Killing Joke means never having to say “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” as Pylon comes steeped in a brand of dystopian paranoia that has permeated pretty much all of the band’s work. But while previous albums cast Killing Joke in the role of a post-punk Nostradamus (would the plural of that be Nostradami?), perpetually warning of the immediately impending collapse of civilization, Pylon mostly addresses horrors already at hand. Forget worrying about the coming armageddon …. IT HAS ALREADY ARRIVED!
Less concerned -- this time -- about Mayan doom prophecy and its accompanying natural upheaval (although let’s not rule that out), the primary beefs rife throughout Pylon pertain to the Orwellian surveillance state, acute technophobia, the sinister, Machiavelian machinations of “the West” over “the servile brain,” and, of course, a requisite, palpable contempt for America’s corrupted capitalism. Like I said, “Bitch Better Have My Money” THIS AIN’T.
This all said, rarely has a scathing indictment of a callous society’s corrosive infrastructure sounded so life-affirming. Vocalist Jaz Coleman’s signature exhortations belie the band’s collective advanced years, trumped only by the inimitably thunderous engine that is Big Paul Ferguson. As ever, guitarist Geordie Walker’s guitar defines the band’s unique sound (at his “fire from Heaven” best, in my opinion, on “Star Spangled”), but it really is an intense, and intimate sounding group effort.
It’s not all doom and gloom, though. While most of the album's fifteen tracks (depending on which edition you acquire) arrive with all the gentleness of a weighty iron chalice of molten black coffee, Killing Joke exercise their comparatively -- dare I say it -- “poppier” side on songs like “Euphoria” and the downright optimistic “Big Buzz,” finding Geordie giving sway to the fabled bell-like tones of his hallowed, hollow-bodied Gibson ES-295 (a.k.a. “the Golden Harp”) over his equally lauded penchant for syncopated, metallic chugging. In a tradition of tracks like “The Raven King,” “In Cythera,” and, of course, “Love Like Blood” -- the latter being the inarguable high-water mark of the band’s accessibility -- these songs unveil Killing Joke’s stubborn regard for humanist compassion in a world otherwise wrought with radiation and moral squalor.
At the end of it all (if you'll pardon the suitably apocalyptic turn of phrase), to the uninitiated layperson weaned on whatever anaemic piffle passes for "proper rock" in 2015, the powerful expanse of Pylon might go down like something of a weighty horse pill, what with the average song therein rarely clocking out before the five minute mark. But for the afore-cited bug-eyed zealots, Pylon is bracing evidence of the band’s still-viable and still-bloodthirsty life force. With the possible exception of Killing Joke’s contemporaries in SWANS (themselves no strangers to intimidating intensity and myriad fractures in membership), it's hard to name another band of their particular generation that has side-stepped the pitfalls of nostalgic redundancy and is still capable of making music of this ferocious vitality. Pylon is out on October 23. GO GET IT!
Incidentally, those not entirely versed in the storied doings of Killing Joke (like, yes, immersing themselves in the occult, recording in the great pyramids, fucking off to Iceland, and indeed being covered by Metallica and playing with Dave Grohl) should avail themselves to Shaun Pettigrew’s long-in-the-making documentary on the band, The Death and Resurrection Show. - Alex Smith
This article first appeared on Flaming Pablum.
Mr. Smith is a native New Yorker who lives in downtown Manhattan with his wife and kids, use to work for The Man, blogs for Flaming Bablum and writes for other periodicals.