When I got around to opening this package I couldn’t help but snicker to myself, “Just what the world was waiting for…a new Killing Joke album!” With every band that was cool 20 years ago now cashing in (not for the money they will instantly point out, but rather for the mass appreciation that might have eluded them) on the current fixation with the era, it’s not surprising that Killing Joke has a new album, but something about it amuses me. I guess in a time when New Order announces that their new album sounds like Joy Division, I wonder how all these dudes pushing 50 years old can possibly hold up to their contemporaries as well as their previous output.
After eight years of silence, Killing Joke has returned, confusingly, with a second self-titled album. Their 1980 eponymous debut quickly solidified their place in the post-punk pantheon, with their sometimes metal, sometimes dance-floor-friendly but always gloomy songs. Musically, they bridged a lot of ground, evidenced by the fact that Metallica covered “The Wait” in 1987 and Nirvana’s “Come as You Are” is a close reworking of “Eighties.”
Killing Joke didn’t fuck around; they were a little scary and you could feel the tension. Infamously, the band fell apart in 1982 when lead singer Jaz Coleman moved to Iceland fearing the imminent apocalypse. As the band regrouped and disbanded frequently for the next 15 years, Jaz eventually moved to New Zealand, where he now lives on a secluded island. It was there he decided to resurrect his old band, enlisting all of the original members save for one guy — Dave Grohl — who was recruited to fill in on drums. Yes, Dave Grohl of legendary D.C. band Scream. Brought in to produce was Andy Gill, guitarist of Gang of Four.
The album begins with a powerful epic entitled “The Death and Resurrection Show.” In its seven minutes, it showcases both the album’s strengths and its weaknesses. Geordie Walker’s signature chunky, palm-muted guitar opens the album, and immediately you think this could be the latest offering from Papa Roach or POD or something — nu metal. But when Jaz’s vocals come in, an uneasy Englishman singing about drums and animal skins, you know this isn’t your typical shitty, vapid MTV band.
When the drums kick in, huge and powerful it answers the question whether Killing Joke has aged. They haven’t; the songs are full of life. The music feels real, played by a band who knows how to funnel their primal rage into a real, visceral and ultimately cathartic experience. The problem lies with Jaz’s vocals. At about the two-minute mark in the first song, the fragile Englishman we were hearing disappears and is replaced by an ugly, sadistic, guttural grunting, and you wonder, “What the fuck is that?” It’s Jaz’s “other voice” and it’s terrible. It serves only to cheapen the music, to date it, and to genre-define it. And it sounds like Earth Crisis.
There are other moments of brilliance on the album, but unfortunately there is no song that Jaz’s embarrassing vocals do not ruin. “Impact” starts off with Jaz whispering in a voice that might be meant to frighten elves before launching into a truly awesome rhythmic assault complete with sound effects and keyboards. The album offers little diversity over its 11 tracks, and most go on far too long; only two clocking in at less than five minutes.
Perhaps Killing Joke hasn’t aged, but hearing these songs in a culture where kids put Korn in the same league as Nirvana, their audience has disappeared. So maybe I was wrong. Maybe the world really does need a new Killing Joke album. Listen to this, kids, and you’ll learn that Killing Joke did it first, and they still do it best.