All of Killing Joke’s LPs have been meditations on the apocalypse. Throughout their thirty-three year career, and with every release, singer and frontman Jaz Coleman has prophesied the end of the world. Ominously titled MMXII (that’s “2012” for those of you who are Roman numeral-challenged) the original lineup of Killing Joke has delivered another sonic missive squarely in this fiery, millenarian tradition.
It’s worth pointing out that a cliché in music journalism is to remark that Killing Joke is making “a return to form” with every new album. This phrase has been used in every Killing Joke review since 1990’s Extremities, Dirt, and Various Repressed Emotions, and I have seen it trotted out again for MMXII. This cliché misses the mark because Killing Joke’s catalog is too multifaceted for there to be a single form for them to definitely return to. Fans have been at turns won over, alienated, and then wooed back by Killing Joke’s various style changes throughout the years.
A look at their varied (and some would say uneven) catalog shows an ambitious, restless, and unpredictable band: There is the late ’80s dancefloor new wave of Brighter Than a Thousand Suns, for example, alongside the industrial metal of 1994’s Pandemonium. There is the atmospheric goth of tracks like “Love Like Blood,” the proto-crossover metal-punk of The Wait, and the nihilistic postpunk of 1982’s Revelations. In fact, Killing Joke’s finest moments have been when they’ve synthesized these seemingly disparate elements into one unholy whole. Witness the powerful blend of metal, postpunk, and even Middle Eastern music on the 1985 song Tabazan, or the marriage of gloomy crust-metal with postpunk all throughout 2006’s Hosannas from the Basements of Hell.
It is the ability to constantly challenge and transcend the strictures of genre that underscores Killing Joke’s true power. Killing Joke have never grown complacent or lazy. Like fellow long-running postpunkers Wire, you never quite know what each new Killing Joke release will bring. Will it be guitar thrash? Dancey new wave? Instrospective goth? No telling. In contrast to 2010’s harsh and eclectic Absolute Dissent (their first LP with the original lineup in 28 years) MMXII marks a turn to a more industrial rock sound, recalling much of the band’s 90s material.
MMXII begins with the atmospheric Pole Shift, a nearly 9 minute opus about the theory that on December 21, 2012 Earth’s polar alignments will reverse and cause worldwide calamity. (Oddly, US investment firm TD Ameritrade has recently been running commercials that present a cartoon version of this exact same doomsday theory. Coleman’s vocal abilities have never received their proper attention; although he is now in his fifties, he retains a unique ability to switch between a romantic, gothic style of singing on the one hand, and a more menacing, Lemmy-esque dinosaur roar on the other. “Pole Shift,” like the lengthy Death and Resurrection Show opening track from the 2003 self-titled LP, sees Jaz taxing all these aspects of his vocal palette. The song speeds up into thrashy territory at some moments before slipping quietly back into atmospheric goth territory at others.
Guitarist Geordie Walker, who makes it a conscious point never to play solos, similarly alternates between metallic chug and a more nuanced, surgical approach to fleshing out the songs’ melodies, putting his trademark hollow-bodied gold Gibson ES-295 axe through the paces. The production on MMXII strangely buries a lot of Geordie’s guitar-work beneath layers of synthesizer generated textures and atmosphere. Because of this, one can never really point to any standout guitar moments on the LP. The 1980-1985 classic era of Killing Joke saw Geordie employing a unique, dissonant wall-of-noise style that seemed to constitute an extended essay on how to wring a heavy sound out of a guitar without resorting to power chords. The effect was usually something akin to hearing enormous sheets of metal scraping against each other. (1982’s menacing The Hum shows how wonderfully this approach could work.) Since the 1990s, however, Geordie has given in and embraced the power chord. For the thrashier moments on MMXII, he indulges in power chord progressions with a demonic relish.
Original drummer Big Paul Ferguson is also back on his second LP since his departure from the band in 1985. Ferguson’s trademark tribalistic, heavy-on-the-toms drumming style that was so present on classic KJ tracks like Unspeakable is, however, nowhere to be found here. There are a few moments, such as the opening of track 2, FEMA Camp, or on Glitch, that tease with Ferguson opening with a throbbing drum line that seems about to transform into a classic-era KJ stomper – but, alas, Ferguson returns to a more conventional drumming score each time. Overall, Ferguson delivers an extremely effective, if workmanlike, performance throughout the LP. (On 2010’s Absolute Dissent, the first Killing Joke LP to see Ferguson return to the stool in twenty years, it was similarly noted how his trademark tribal chops were absent.)
There is a ’90s industrial rock feel to much of MMXII. This seems to be a result of the production. Killing Joke’s previous two LPs, starting with 2006’s caustic Hosannas from the Basements of Hell, were notable for their comparatively raw, back-to-basics production. Indeed, throughout the past decade Killing Joke has seemed to be on a mission to flesh out the thrashier side of their sonic repertoire. Witness the uptempo numbers made in the noughties, like Implosion, the title track of Hosannas, and the devastatingly Motorhead-like “Endgame” on Absolute Dissent. Brutal slogfests like This Tribal Antidote and Universe B recalled bands like Amebix, or even Tragedy, reminding why Killing Joke have a fanbase in the crust scene. MMXII marks a turn away from that recent era of Killing Joke and into a new chapter that seems more mindful of the band’s appeal to audiences in the industrial and new wave demographics. Fans of 1994’s Pandemonium LP will probably rejoice at this turn of events, while fans of the 2006 Hosannas era (like me) may be a little disappointed.
Having said that, the LP is not bad at all. There are doomy and aggressive moments (“Glitch,” “Corporate Elect”) coupled with slower and more introspective tracks, like the single “In Cythera,” which is the closest the band have to a romantic “Love Like Blood” moment on this album. While the songs do vary in tempo, and feature Jaz cycling through an array of impressive vocal arrangements, there is an overall sheen of ’90s industrial rock that feels like it is inhibiting, rather than facilitating, the sonic impact of the LP. I found myself wanting to reach into the fog of over-production to wrest the songs out into the full light of day. It is more than likely that the live versions of these songs blow the studio versions out of the water. Europeans will be able to find this out on a series of live tours the band have embarked upon recently, including a recently-announced mini-tour with The Cult and The Mission UK in September in England.
Turning to the themes of the LP, one of the hallmarks of Jaz Coleman’s writing style has been his tendency to see an interlinkage between the occult and the political, always with an eye towards how everything adds up towards impending catastrophe. MMXII features tracks that border on the conspiranoid (the aformentioned “FEMA Camp”) with tracks like Primobile and Rapture that hint at the more metaphysical aspects of the impending end-of-times. Traditional Killing Joke themes of fire, doom, rebirth, and struggle are all present on MMXII. In recent interviews, Jaz Coleman has posited the need for “a sweeping green communism” to salvage what can be salvaged of mankind and the planet before Armageddon. There is no use trying to align Coleman’s politics on a traditional left-right axis. Overall, the eccentric frontman’s worldview is anti-corporate and antiauthoritarian, but is nonetheless flush with chiliastic symbolism.
In the larger context of Killing Joke’s catalog, MMXII is a middling release. Lest this be taken as “damned with faint praise,” I’d like to emphasize that a middling Killing Joke LP means it is still better than 90% of the music that is being put out today. It’s the kind of LP that will probably grow on me with repeated listening, as has been the case with several Killing Joke LPs in the past. If nothing else, it is remarkable that the original lineup of a first-wave postpunk band that used to play shows with Joy Division is still able to deliver something this powerful in 2012. Only a few other bands have those bragging rights. (Wire, The Fall, and The Ex come to mind.)
Oh, and about the LP’s artwork: It’s awful. A disembodied skull floats over what looks like Nevada, with some smokestacks in the background. It all looks as if it was designed in the 1990s, on a Commodore Amiga, perhaps as unused concept art for the computer game Myst. Probably cognizant of complaints about the quality of the album art, the official Killing Joke Facebook page recently posted about 20 of the alternate album covers that were considered, and just about all of them are better than the cover art ultimately used. (Incredibly, original Killing Joke artist Mike Coles, whose brilliant work on Killing Joke’s early singles and EPs is of an entirely different caliber, designed this cover!) Ignore the cover art and don’t let it color your impression of the music.
MMXII is Killing Joke’s fifteenth studio LP, and is out April 2nd, on Finland’s Spinefarm Records. Wikipedia has recently released a free PDF-fromatted book called Killing Joke: The Complete Guide, which collects 220 pages of Wikipedia articles about almost every aspect of the band. Download it, to get the big picture.