That voice. Jaz Coleman’s voice is what defines a Killing Joke album as a Killing Joke album, a voice that has maintained its power despite being utterly punished for a solid 30 years, and it is in top form throughout Absolute Dissent, the band’s latest album.
Coleman is 50 years old now, long past the age when most vocalists start to lose the power that defines them in their youth, and here he is, as ferocious as ever. There is an earnestness to that voice, the idea that the world needs Killing Joke, and that he is doing us a favor by not allowing Killing Joke to fall into the trap that some artists would call “maturity” and others would call “softening”. In fact, as much as any other Killing joke album released since the years started beginning with a “2”, Absolute Dissent recalls the early days of Killing Joke, hearkening back to a time when this band was still finding its footing, still experimenting with genres and ideas, still figuring out a primary conceit for its youthful idealism and drive.
The album’s opening track, also its title track, outlines this drive nicely, both as a statement of being and a call to action. While its platitudes may seem obvious (“I oppose poisoned water/I reject poison air”), the point is obvious: There is always a cause to fight for. If you think you’ve won, you’ve been brainwashed. If you conquer one evil, there are millions of other evils to fight.
If you think the band—back in its original form on a full-length album for the first time since 1982’s Revelations—has expended all of its energy on the opener, though, you’ve never heard Killing Joke before. Despite the breakneck live-drummed techno-style beats from Paul Ferguson, despite the room-filling guitar sound from Geordie Walker, despite Youth’s rolling and unrelenting bass guitar, “Absolute Dissent” is the sound of Killing Joke just getting started. The following track, “The Great Cull”, is the sound of the band in its stride. What starts out with a relatively simple, straightforward rock ‘n roll sound quickly turns into something more through an intense pre-chorus that finds the instruments in a holding pattern as Coleman bellows “Thin the herd…THIN THE HERD”, hitting notes in his screams that he has no right hitting any more. His voice is breaking the whole time, creaking and cracking under the stress, but never ceding an ounce of its power as he reminds us that “Our great cull is coming down” with all the power of the most apocalyptic of Malthusian prophecy.
Everything peaks on the absolutely brutal “This World Hell”. Walker employs a dry sort of distortion here on his stop-start chug of a riff that just assaults the listener in a very Swans sort of way, all while Coleman gives a performance that’s enough to give his audience a vicarious sore throat. What’s it about? Well, read the title. It’s not deep, but it’s effective.
To call “This World Hell” the album’s peak does not diminish other highlights throughout. “The Raven King” is a comparatively subdued epic that proves that Coleman can be incredibly tuneful when he wants to be, singing a pitch-perfect ode to dearly-departed friend and band mate Paul Raven, who always filled in admirably for Youth when the latter was off being a renaissance man. Despite the obvious theme of loss, there is a triumphant undertone to the song that serves as a beautiful, even moving tribute. It’s a perfect reminder that Killing Joke can be just as powerful when driven by emotions other than anger.
Perhaps the biggest surprise is saved for the album’s closer, “Ghost of Ladbroke Grove”. Killing Joke have tinkered with dub here and there throughout their 30 years together, but the style hasn’t been this unabashedly employed since 1979’s Turn to Red EP. Whether it was a simple lark, a callback to the way things used to be, or an intentional full-circle bookend to a long and fruitful career, the band feels so comfortable in this style that it wouldn’t be all that surprising to find that their next album was a collection of laid back (at least, as laid back as Killing Joke could possibly be with Coleman bellowing all over it) dub jams.
Apart from the highlights, the sound of Absolute Dissent is remarkably consistent—mostly straightforward rockers with some combination of tuneful singing and gravel-tinged bellowing over the top, well produced and tightly performed. There are a couple of low points, like the silly spaceship-gazing of “Fresh Fever From the Skies” and the oddly energy-free club beats of “European Super State”, but even those tracks pass fairly unassumingly. Remarkable consistency could well be the theme of Killing Joke’s career, after all. Coleman screaming, Walker finding new ways to get a tuneful drone out of a distorted instrument, and the ever-rotating rhythm section finding a way to keep it all from collapsing comprise a machine that just keeps humming.
Here’s to death, taxes, and Killing Joke.
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