As with any of my musical heroes from my teenage years, I anticipate that each Killing Joke album will be their last good one -- and frankly, I doubted that they would ever surpass their phenomenal work on 1985's Night Time
. However, with a few exceptions, the members of Killing Joke have released interesting albums for the last twenty-five years.
One reason for the hits (and occasional miss) is Killing Joke's ability to reinvent themselves, while at the same time retaining a certain homogeny and connection to their roots. Killing Joke exemplifies this technique; it's as much the same as/different from 96's Democracy as that music is from '94's Pandemonium. This time around, there are two main distinctions, the first being the mix. Whereas previous efforts have yielded some sense of grandeur as far as volume and the size of the ensemble are concerned, it's never been this huge! Though the sound is more exposed, eschewing the usual wall of guitars, this "less is more" aesthetic is definitely successful. Engineer/producer/fourth member Andy Gill (Gang of Four) captured Jaz Coleman's dynamic vocals and the band's taste for Sabbath-like grooves, creating a tighter, cleaner and more cohesive sound reminiscent of Nine Inch Nails or recent Ministry. For example, take "The Death & Resurrection Show": Geordie's detuned opening guitar riff is par for the course, but as Coleman's tribal chant arrives on the line "Listen to the drums", it feels as if your speakers are coming alive for the first time. An A-bomb of distortion, snares and cymbals hits you in the chest, and you can actually hear every element as it does so -- something few rock acts consider as they scratch their heads and wonder why their 33 simultaneous guitar lines sound like mush. That's par for the course here -- the band bangs and growls and attacks in a most aggressive manner, yet every detail is experienced as it was intended to be heard.
Second, although the line-up includes regulars Coleman, Geordie and the Youth/Paul Raven combo on bass, there is a slight disturbance in the force: America's sweetheart Dave Grohl fills the drummer's seat. (Apparently the two camps made up after the "Eighties"/"Come as You Are" debacle.) Yes, I was skeptical as well (Grohl's work with Queens of the Stone Age notwithstanding), and I really wish I hadn't heard about Grohl's studio work before I listened to the disc -- but it's surprisingly good, recalling the aggressive sound he was known for on tunes such as "Scentless Apprentice" and "Drain You". Not since Martin Atkins's work on Extremities, Dirt & Various Repressed Emotions has the band had a drummer who matches the power of the rest of the ensemble, fueling a more "live" sound and a synergy upon which the other members feast.
Fortunately, Killing Joke retains Coleman's now-I'm crooning/now-I'm-a-screaming-banshee vocals, and their lyrical content still focuses on topics like ancient Middle-Eastern philosophy, fighting political hypocrisy, preparing for an Apocalypse and the occult. Ditto for Geordie's dignified preference to lay in a groove rather than dazzling us with guitar-wanking solos and a pseudo-ethnic flavor present in the harmonies and melodies. One complaint: there have been significant advances in samplers in the last twenty years, guys. You don't need to rely on the orchestra samples you used in 1986 ("Dark Forces"). It's not a huge deal, but it's still a bit distracting and takes the album's perfection down a notch.
I'm a fan of the older KJ material, and Killing Joke caught me off guard; during my first "three-second scan" of each track, I feared that the band had fallen into the trap of imitating their descendants (that is, the droves of bands who wouldn't have existed without their influence). That turned out to be pure ignorance -- I've voiced a similar criticism each time I've listened to a new Killing Joke record, and I've always eaten my words. Killing Joke feels as fresh and exciting as 1981's album of the same name, proving that there's no need to teach an old dog new tricks if their current batch is still perfectly relevant.