One of the most punishing bands to ever walk this earth, Killing Joke continue to perform with enough feral intensity to make the average kiddiecore band wet themselves in fear, a fact driven home by their triumphant 25th anniversary tour in 2004-05, which was documented superbly on the live CD and DVD XXV Gathering. For all the critical praise the band was receiving for its formidable live shows and the heralded self-titled comeback album in 2003, there were still skeptics chirping about how the new record was trend-hopping, how it sounded too metal, and was not in keeping with the classic Killing Joke sound. And while not a bad album by any stretch, the naysayers did have a point; the presence of Dave Grohl on drums was a brilliant way to attract the attention of younger listeners, and songs like “Asteroid” and “Total Invasion” were invigorating blasts of primal energy, but for all its welcome energy and timely political bluster, the album seemed a touch too polished, a touch too one-dimensional, relying on blunt force instead of employing the brilliant subtle touches that the band specialized in during the mid-‘80s. The album didn’t appear to sit very well with lead vocalist Jaz Coleman, either, who stressed on the DVD that he was less than satisfied with the circumstances surrounding the recording, swearing the next album would get it right.
And does it ever. Recorded deep in the bowels of an ancient building in the seedier part of Prague, Czech Republic, the aptly titled Hosannas From the Basements of Hell is the sound of a band not just confronting their demons, but feasting on the bloody carcasses. Like Celtic Frost’s astounding 2006 comeback Monotheist, Hosannas is not just dark, it’s pitch black, but unlike the huge, cavernous sound of Monotheist, this album is downright suffocating, almost claustrophobic. Recorded with similar tape echo machines as the ones the band used on their legendary debut album, and mixed using old radio speakers, it’s a complete throwback to the beginning of Killing Joke’s career, massive, dense, brutal, and draining to listen to. In other words, everything we’d ever want from a Killing Joke record.
“Lift up your spirits!” howls Coleman at the very beginning of the CD; Part carnival huckster, part prodigious musical genius, part proselytizer, part raving lunatic, he dominates the new album. Despite being further back in the mix than on the previous album, his unmistakable howl is all over the place, a perfect foil for the stoic guitarist Geordie, who reels off riff after repeated riff with mechanical precision. The first two tracks on Hosannas are in a way a celebration of what the band is all about: “This Tribal Antidote” has Coleman singing of the band’s fans, the “Gatherers, celebrants in a state of merriment,” urging the collective horde to rejoice, as Geordie’s guitars slice away. The title track follows, with Coleman speaking from both a Gatherer’s point of view and his own, underscored by a muscular bassline by bassist Raven: “I harbour thoughts of killing you / Pour petrol on you and then on me / But then I walk down the stairs and Killing Joke waits for me.”
After that, the album gets down to some serious business, and it’s when we go deeper into Hosannas that we start to hear an amalgam of the band’s previous incarnations. The stately “Invocation” is laced with an orchestra’s Middle Eastern-inspired melodies, the combination of the powerful and the ornate very much like what the band did on 1996’s Pandemonium. The eight and a half minute “Walking With Gods” hearkens back to the first two albums, bolstered by an inventive riff by Geordie that doesn’t let up for a second, and the album’s other epic, the hypnotic, pulsating nine-plus-minute “The Lightbringer” is more reminiscent of 1985’s Night Time. “Implosion” is driven by the relentless drumming of the band’s newest member, Benny Calvert, as Geordie’s buzz-saw chords give way to Coleman’s startlingly melodic chorus, while Raven’s robust bass adds a huge bottom end to Geordie’s grandiose ascending riff. If there’s one highlight, it’s “Judas Goat”; by far the darkest track on the album, it’s driven by a tetchy, anxious beat by Calvert, Geordie’s unsettling, highly rhythmic guitar lines, and Coleman’s trancelike singing.
Hosannas is as far from a bid for commercial success as an album can get. Given the freedom to do what they do best, the band hunker down and have at it, taking as much time as needed to bring their songs to their logical conclusions, resulting in a CD with all but one song under five and a half minutes. Some might say it smacks of self-indulgence, but in all honesty, Killing Joke hasn’t sounded this focused in years. Hosannas might take its time, but never does it meander, the foursome sounding tighter than ever. Essentially, it’s the perfect album for the fans, the Gatherers, to whom Coleman dedicates the sincere album closer “Gratitude”: “When you find yourself on the untrodden path / Remember me with a smile, a drink / A gesture or a laugh / A toast for the man who loves every hour of every day.” Keep making albums this good, Jaz, and we’ll be thanking you even more.