Review by Phil Wilson
Having recently attempted to capture the essence of Killing Joke in only three tracks for a radio beginner’s guide (and failing), the feeling of accessing The Singles Collection 1979 – 2012 and its thirty three track filling is akin to a stream opening into an ocean. Although, arguably, giving fair comment on thirty-three tracks ranging a thirty four year period is equally as daunting a prospect. Killing Joke have relentlessly rendered themselves beyond pigeonholing; their back catalogue encompasses industrial, post-punk, new wave, dance, techno, the wide umbrella of ‘alternative’, instances of pop and sprinklings of acoustic. Any of which, alone, would relate to some incarnation of the group throughout their three decades. The band themselves are as eclectic as their shifting themes: with a lengthy list of former members and an array of maniacal incidents surrounding Jaz Coleman (frontman) – the latest being his unannounced cancellation of a live tour with The Cult before going AWOL without so much as a letter on the fridge for his fellows. As a final piece of backstory, Coleman’s decision for this release is a quintessential glimpse into the man’s mind: “Considering it’s supposed to be the end of the world in a short time, it gives me great pleasure to announce a new singles album with some real rarities on it…” So, to the music.
Disc one (of two) spurts into life with ‘Nervous System’, the band’s first ever single release. The track is an appropriate introduction, highlighting an early unwavering minimalist style of play, which depicts an aspiring group already comfortable in their own process. From here, via ‘War Dance’ (countlessly remastered/remixed over the years) and the formidable ‘Requiem’, the record arrives at ‘Follow The Leaders’. A primal suggestion of a sound to come; the track is the early beginnings of a solid collaboration of a synth/rock sound, running in tandem with an enticing rhythm underlying a galloping funky punk guitar riff. The teetering tower of a track is galvanised by Coleman’s signature, reverberating vocals – sifting in and out over the top of it all. For Killing Joke virgins, it’s important to note that the milepost represented by ‘Follow The Leaders’ is arguably the foundation upon which all future releases were built.
The disc frantically proceeds through ‘Empire Song’ and ‘Chop-Chop’, dropping, picking up, evolving upon and reconstructing the new style, already, tempering it into a tighter fit for ‘Birds Of A Feather’. This is the first of many Killing Joke career peaks. The mastered sound is perfectly balanced in pace, substance and ethereality. It expertly channelled the ethos of the alternative sounds of the era (1983 by this point) and crystallised them in the seminal ‘Let’s All Go (To The Fire Dances)’. Come the tenth offering, I’ve realised that every collection of three or so tracks is an event in itself, whether it’s a small snippet of the band’s history or another tonal shift – each carries its own unique gravitas within Killing Joke’s own atmosphere. Number ten is none other than ‘Eighties’: a track steeped in rumour and myth concerning its predominant guitar riff and its similarities to Nirvana’s ‘Come As You Are’ – vice versa, really. Naturally, Coleman was affronted and had his voice heard (a tiff which was later remedied somewhat by Dave Grohl’s percussion work on 2003’s second self-titled album, Killing Joke). Regardless, true to the track’s title: it’s an evened, early pop/new wave-esque effort from the group with an infuriatingly catchy rhythm… Picture ‘Come As You Are’ pressed through an Adam Ant prism. With its remaining time, disc one truly traverses into the territory of synth pop/sci-fi tinged efforts. Most impressive, when phasing through ‘Love Like Blood’, ‘Sanity’ and ‘America’ to name a few, is Coleman’s ability to adapt his intimidating snarl into a tamer, more delicate form.
As admirable and downright Logan’s Run as the music is, a lot of the momentum from previous, rougher albums dwindles amid the electric percussion and repetitive soundscapes. Luckily, disc two steps in and resets the audience on a thoroughly Killing Joke trip through the desolation of the human condition. Kicking off with an interesting, rare flexi-disc version of ‘The Beautiful Dead’, Coleman beckons the listener into the second record with the welcoming refrain: “The crowd was one (oblivion ran deep)/A consciousness of cannon fodder walking in its sleep/Vacant expressions and don’t look ahead/Everybody dance with the beautiful dead”. ‘Money Is Not Our God’, ‘Exorcism’ (Live in King’s Chamber, Cairo 1993), ‘Millennium’ follow on, seamlessly painting a perfect image of the band’s backward shift in the early 90s to their original heavy, discordant echo. With an emphasis on rhythm, percussive repetition and almost sermon-like lyricism: it isn’t difficult to picture the group as a cult like entity, with Coleman as its prophet figurehead. (In particular, I refer to ‘Millennium’ and ‘Pandemonium’: two testaments to the phenomenal unison the band was capable of). The latter half of disc two is a manic nod to the frenzied nature of all post 2000 Killing Joke releases. “I harbour thoughts of killing you” screams Coleman, amid a fervent bout of percussion as close to a mainstream metal sound as the band have ever come (‘Hosannas From The Basements of Hell’).
Explosion after explosion hurtles through choice cuts from 2010’s Absolute Dissent and 2012’s aptly titled MMXII to tumble towards the record’s final conclusion. A particularly enjoyable rarity in the form of a Record Store Day exclusive release of ‘Fresh Fever From The Skies’ rears its head in the final tracks, but the absence of ‘The Raven King’ (the band’s memorial for bassist Paul Raven) is a peculiar blight on an otherwise immaculate playlist. The past few years have seen Killing Joke fully incorporate everything they’ve learned along their fifteen album, thirty five year, genre hopping existence. The distortion plays to the ethereal, which lends itself to the theatrical and the unashamed dabble in synth. They haven’t come full circle so much as full decagon, stopping long enough to experiment in a new genre at each and every of the ten points along the way.
Fans of 1980’s first self-titled release, Killing Joke, will love 2012’s MMXII, but whatever occurs in between is entirely up to them. What’s clear is that this singles release double disc is a glorious offering to the seasoned Killing Joke fan; filled with pure offerings of some of the finest alternative music to consistently permeate the last three decades. Newcomers may find it difficult to open themselves up to the thirty-three independent and beautifully obscure tracks, but those that do are in for something as brilliant as it is nebulous and as frank as it is ceremonious.
- N.B. For those interested, ‘Eighties’/’Come As You Are’ may both have been preceded by The Damned’s ‘Life Goes On’.
9.5 out of 10
- Nervous System
- War Dance
- Follow The Leaders
- Empire Song
- Birds Of A Feather
- Let’s All Go (To The Fire Dances)
- Me Or You
- A New Day
- Love Like Blood
- Kings And Queens
- My Love Of This Land
- The Beautiful Dead (Flexi-disc version)
- Money Is Not Our God
- Exorcism (Live In Kings Chamber, Cairo – August 1993 – Mix Edit)
- Millennium (Cybersank Edit)
- Pandemonium (Cybersank Edit)
- Democracy (Album Mix)
- Lose Cannon
- Seeing Red (Edit)
- Hosannas From The Basements Of Hell (Radio Edit)
- In Excelsis
- Fresh Fever From The Skies (Record Store Day Exclusive)
- European Super State (Edit)
- Ghosts Of Ladbroke Grove (Dub)
- In Cythera (Edit)
- Corporate Elect