Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Killing Joke - Killing Joke

Killing Joke is one of those bands that are made an enigma by their own inconsistency. At times, they are electrifying, a post-punk/proto-industrial hybrid that feels a full decade ahead of their time, playing moody, driven music loaded with political and existential angst. The band’s combination of ‘doom-and-gloom’ metal heaviness with the faster tempos of the burgeoning punk rock scene was notably different from the parallel direction hardcore bands were taking in order to further push the envelope in its stress of mood and atmosphere, as opposed to the catch-all hardcore solution of ‘just play a little faster’. Not only was this combination unique for post-punk, a movement splintering more and more into arty, futurist-aping synth bands, but it was a direct precursor, both spiritually and sonically, for the industrial metal movement of the late 80’s and 90’s. Listening to their self-titled album now with the benefit of almost 30 years of hindsight, Killing Joke practically define industrial as we now recognize it, even though they pre-date our current understanding of it, existing in a time when industrial was an often radically experimental genre lead by the Throbbing Gristles of the world.

And yet, for a band so well ahead of their time, Killing Joke is as much an object of frustration as they are an object of adulation. The group seems to exist so much better in singles and playlist snippets than they do on a full album listen. Sure, a track like “The Wait” is the kind of thing that will force you to take notice, comprising of an infectiously brooding buzz saw guitar line and a rapacious tempo that once again heralds industrial comparisons. The song is noisy like a steel mill and excessively bleak, yet there is no denying its inherent catchiness. And it’s not the only highlight: Opener “Requiem” is EBM at its most anthemic, a dance-y affair where the appeal transcends the no doubt gothic core of Killing Joke’s audience, and “Wardance” is an echoic, strongly-paced synth-metal track where the vocals are spitted out in a guttural, Germanic rasp.

Ultimately, what makes these songs great is their sense of urgency. Not only are they the fastest-paced songs on Killing Joke, but they just carry with them a feeling of intensity. Elsewhere, however, the band lulls about far too much to keep up this feeling. “SO36” is a plodding gothic waltz that never goes anywhere interesting, content just to linger awkwardly and take up space. This is symptomatic of a greater problem at work in Killing Joke. Too often the focus on atmosphere comes at the expense of listenability, and while it is this unique dynamic that makes Killing Joke so fresh and different, you get the sense that they don’t really know what they’re doing with it yet. Which is a shame, considering that just a few years later they’d be moving in the opposite direction, with their sound coming off as overdramatic and cheesy as opposed to overly insular.

So while it is flawed, Killing Joke remains a landmark, both for its influence and its ingenuity. Great at times yet occasionally middling in quality, as an album, it still manages to hit more than it misses. With their debut album, Killing Joke escaped the routine experimentation post-punk was mired in, and instead created something new, something rough, yet something genuine enough to be the launching pad for an entire generation of artists. And while it’s easy to get frustrated by what could have been, it’s just as easy to think of what couldn’t and wouldn’t have been without a jumping off point to begin with.

Killing Joke