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Killing Joke
Absolute Dissent Ben Graham , November 10th, 2010 10:47

You know the back story by now, I'm sure. The four original members of Killing Joke- Jaz Coleman, Kevin "Geordie" Walker, Martin "Youth" Glover and Big Paul Ferguson- are reunited at the funeral of former bassist Paul Raven, and decide to put the old band back together. Not that they'd ever really been away- 2006's Hosannas from the Basement of Hell was the thirteenth studio album from a band defined almost by their schisms, crises and abrupt changes of direction and personnel, with Coleman and guitarist Geordie the only constants from their inception in punk's second wave in late-seventies London. But reconvening the “classic” line-up that recorded Killing Joke's first three albums was always going to excite interest and raise expectations, as well as anxieties lest those expectations be dashed. After all, for many, that opening trilogy of releases, plus the accompanying singles and EPs, are the Killing Joke canon - everything since, according to this viewpoint, has been a misstep, an aberration, a flawed attempt to recapture past glories. I must state that I am not of this camp, being an unashamed fan of their supposed “sell out” record, the spacious, drivingly melodic Night Time. And there's no doubt that nineties albums like Extremities, Dirt and Various Repressed Emotions and Pandemonium introduced the band to a whole new generation of fans, who have just as much invested in the group as do the class of '79.

Whatever your position though, one thing was certain: Absolute Dissent was never going to be a nostalgic return to the sound of 1982. Killing Joke have always looked to the present and future, even if all they see there is fire and destruction raining down. That said, following the raw noise hymnal of its chorus, the opening title track soon settles into a classic KJ groove which, as many have noted, is more than slightly reminiscent of 1980's 'Pssyche.' Essentially an overture to the whole album, the song finds Jaz listing an overview of the things he's against- unelected control, space weapons, a poisoned environment and the “brainwashed masses” and “useless eaters” among them. But it's the hiss of the hi-hats, the way the bass locks in with the whump and judder, between the plate tectonics of guitars, hammering and chiming, that really lifts the soul and sets fists pumping, confirming everything we'd hoped for: that Killing Joke are back, reclaiming the territory they originally mapped out, and showing their imitators just how the masters work it.

Appropriately roused and energised then, we move on to specifics: 'The Great Cull' takes on the Codex Alimentarius as a form of covert Malthusian eugenics, the band pounding as one, an implacable machine, a tightly coiled fist wrapped around Jaz's anthemic vocal. Like the album as a whole, this song combines the best elements drawn from the full sweep of the Joke's career: the proto-industrial rhythms and claustrophobic urgency of their early albums, the melodic, neo-gothic yearning and darkness of their middle period, and the techno-tinged metallic heaviness that has characterised their sound from 1994's Pandemonium onwards.

The pace drops slightly for the two-chord punk stomp of 'In Excelsis'. Given Jaz's blanket anti-Americanism, as expressed in his recent Quietus interview, it's odd that this song should celebrate the US constitution's famous guarantee of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; any irony remains unexplored and unstated, and the song emerges as a straightforward celebration of personal freedom. From the American dream, we move on to the European one, and the EBM/eurodisco of 'European Super State': a welcome diversion into industrial dance music, if slightly one-dimensional. Like 'In Excelsis' and many of the tracks on Absolute Dissent, it evolved from a studio jam session, and while this way of working generates many positive qualities- immediacy, freshness, energy and spontaneity- the results can also lack the nuance, complexity and invention of more considered songwriting. The same could be said of 'This World Hell,' which is certainly punishingly heavy- it sounds like it's being dragged across the rack, flayed and pounded with pistons- but lacks much in the way of a tune.

The nursery rhyme rhythms and shopping list of global paranoias and armageddons-waiting-to-happen on 'Endgame' suggest an industrial metal 'Subterranean Homesick Blues' for the 21st Century, Jaz sounding remarkably like Lemmy on the rasping verses. Of course, Coleman has always used Killing Joke's records as an opportunity to address the state of the world, and he's generally found said state to be in critical condition, with the end times just around the corner. But for me, the best songs on Absolute Dissent are those where the band address more personal concerns. 'The Raven King,' the album's centrepiece tribute to Paul Raven, appropriately evokes the chiming, widescreen hymnals of the Night Time and Brighter Than a Thousand Suns era that Raven is most closely associated with. Jaz has said that 'The Raven King' isn't so much about the bassist as about the subjects that concerned him, that it's a song for other disaffected Englishmen. Certainly, with references to “flags of black and red unfurl” it suggests and celebrates the anarchist uprisings that London has seen recently, the successive May Day riots and the G20 protests. The image of the Raven King also conjures some shadowy pagan spirit, and in its opening lines the song explicitly refers to the ravens in the grounds of the Tower of London, their wings clipped in fear of the superstitious legend that should they ever leave, England will fall. Over sombre verses and raging chorus, these images are presented for the unravelling, and again, the song is stronger for its poetic ambiguity.

'Honour the Fire,' too has a broader emotional palette than just righteous anger, being a genuinely touching lament for all of the aging punk rockers refusing to go gently into that good night. Jaz pleads plaintively for one more sunset, “one perfect gig please, before I die.” But it's a celebration, too: of comradeship, of “the fire that drives us,” and the assertion that despite the pain and the frustration, it is all worth it. The music is elegiac but defiantly un-mellowed, pounding and chiming, the battle-scarred quartet playing in perfect unison.

'Depthcharge' has the same mix of turbo-driven metal and Arabic, mystical textures the band explored on Pandemonium, while 'Here Comes the Singularity' is a hard-rocking pop song, as commercial in its way as anything on Night Time, with Youth reviving Raven's chorus-effect bass sound from that album beneath the chugging metal guitars. But the record ends with the last in the trilogy of personal, reflective numbers, 'Ghosts of Ladbroke Grove,' and in a way we're right back where we started; the song's languid, ravaged dub returning to the ground-breaking sound of their first EP, a style they've rarely revisited since. The song mourns the gentrification of their “tribal area,” but it's as much a requiem for all the lost years and departed friends as it is for a part of West London changed almost beyond recognition.

In many ways, this album feels as though Killing Joke have closed the circle, and laid old ghosts to rest. Though never less than topical in its lyrical subject matter, and with an overall sound belonging resolutely to 2010, it's also a summation of everything that has made Killing Joke so vitally important over the course of their thirty-year-plus career. And if, at the same time, it also restates their weaknesses and limitations, then that too seems appropriate. With bands, as with human beings, these qualities are all of a piece, and make us what we are, for good or ill. In particular, in the three songs where we glimpse the wounded heart beneath the armour of the righteous warrior, Absolute Dissent stands as a testament to all that these four musicians, and their comrades along the way, have achieved. This was, is, and remains, Killing Joke.