Sunday, July 31, 2022

Oddly Poetic: Killing Joke, "Revelations"

I first heard Killing Joke courtesy of Metallica’s 1987 The $5.98 E.P.—Garage Days Re-Revisited. On that five-song budget EP, Metallica shared their take on “The Wait,” gleaned from Killing Joke’s 1980 self-titled album. Even though I bought this compact disc in 2016, I hadn’t spent much time absorbing Killing Joke’s approach to music over the intervening years until listening to this record this afternoon.

Remastered and reissued in 2005, Revelations is the band’s third album, originally released in 1982. The reissue, digitally remastered by Steve Rooke at Abbey Road Studios in London, contains the 11 songs originally on the album as well as a bonus track, an alternate mix of “We Have Joy.” It is also the last album featuring Killing Joke’s original lineup—until 2010’s Absolute Dissent.

At the time the record was originally released, the band comprised Jaz Coleman (vocals and synthesizer), Paul Ferguson (drums and vocals), Geordie Walker (guitar), and Youth (bass). (The much more recent Corpus Mei, recorded by Crass’ Penny Rimbaud and Youth is an exceptionally excellent record.) Recorded in Germany, the album was produced by Conny Plank, marking the first time Killing Joke didn’t produce a record themselves. (Plank had done earlier work with Neu! and Kraftwerk, so the pairing might have seemed promising.) Because I’m not a student of Killing Joke, I cannot remark on any differences that his production introduced.

On the whole, the record is darkly tribal post-punk, with the drum and bass offering a compelling undercurrent to the largely discordant, jagged, angular guitar work. Ferguson’s dramatic vocals and synthesizer work are a highlight of the record, indicating the influence Killing Joke would have on later darkwave, gothic, and industrial acts. 

The first four songs of Revelations—“The Hum,” “Empire Song,” “We Have Joy,” and “Chop Chop”—are an awesome introduction to the band and album. “Empire Song” was released as a single and performed on Top of the Pops on television, though without Coleman. Then the record lands on “The Pandy’s Are Coming,” an oddly poetic song, before returning to “Chapter III,” which is more in line with the earlier songs.

The next three songs on the record diverge slightly, still offering darkly tribal post-punk, but with a slightly stronger pop or rock orientation. I can hear hints of XTC in “Have a Nice Day,” while “Land of Milk and Honey” reminds me slightly of Bow Wow Wow. “Good Samaritan” includes a Marvel Comics reference (“a Hawkheaded man”) and resonates with “The Pandy’s Are Coming”—another odd, surreal song, and one of the most somnolent songs about happiness that I’ve ever heard. (Danny Elfman’s “Happy” might owe a small debt to the singing at the end of the track.) The album ends with “Dregs,” returning to the form exhibited by the first four songs and featuring largely nonsensical lyrics.

An alternate mix of “We Have Joy,” the third song, ends the reissue. The production is a little thinner, and the primary difference seems to be the percussion, which is lighter, the bass perhaps further forward in the mix. There are also slight variations in the vocal performance and additional synthesizer work. It’s worth comparing to the original version, but presents a slightly lackluster—if esoteric—bonus for the reissue. Regardless, after repeated listens, I am torn in terms of which mix I prefer. There’s a lot to be said for the alternate.

Coleman didn’t appear on Top of the Pops with the rest of the band to perform “Empire Song” on March 25, 1982—Ferguson sang instead—because he’d relocated to Iceland. Many of the band’s members were interested in the occult, including the works of Aleister Crowley, and Coleman was concerned about a coming apocalypse. Coleman moved to Iceland to escape, Walker soon joined him, and Youth left the band. Thus ended the first phase of Killing Joke, a band that still had plenty of life in it. (I remember enjoying 2015’s Pylon with the original lineup well reunited. That record inspired me to further explore the band’s earlier output.) That creative longevity was a bit of a revelation to this listener.

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