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Killing Joke - Absolute Dissent

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Artist: Killing Joke

Album: Absolute Dissent

Label: Spinefarm

Review date: Nov. 15, 2010

When the original line-up of an innovative post-punk band gets back together for the first time in decades, there tends to be some buzz. Not so much for Killing Joke. There’s no questioning their innovations. The chugga-chugga guitar tones they debuted in 1980 are a foundation of thrash. Mid-’80s singles sketched out a tangled and neurotic rock repeated by any number of filthy pig-poking bands in the following years.

But Killing Joke is a confusing enterprise. Right from the start, they integrated synths, and there’s been times the electronics have taken over, pushing them closer to remix-friendly goth (awfully effete for the metalheads). Other times, they’ve toned down to something closer to jangly anthem-rock (anathema to the noise crew). Also, they’ve never gone away. The longest vacancy in their catalog is a six-year stretch, during which leader Jaz Coleman created orchestral arrangements of the Stones, Floyd and Doors and wrote an opera about Jesus marrying Mary Magdalene. Hunh.

None of this has smacked of commercialism, as they’ve always been too far out to reach a big audience. Coleman’s paranoia is genuine - he once disappeared to Iceland, to weather out the nuclear holocaust, after seeing the signs fall into place. Killing Joke is odd, but their oddity is so inconsistent, Killing Joke fans have pretty much had the band to themselves.

Truth be told, Coleman and Co. have been more consistent in recent years than ever before. Killing Joke (a record from 2003 that my iTunes can’t keep straight from the debut) and 2008’s Hosanna from the Basement of Hell are albums that pass for metal. It’s abstract metal, with the occasional plea against the petroleum industry fit under the growl. But overall, those two records seemed most concerned with sounding evil and kicking butt.

This one is different. After the death of long-timer Paul Raven, original bassist Martin Glover drifted back in, making for the first recordings by the original band since the early ‘80s. But Absolute Dissent is not a return to the original sound. It’s more a summation of everything the band’s tried over the last 30 years. If this approach has worked out well for Swans, it’s because M. Gira has a pretty flexible vision. Killing Joke has left broken aesthetics all over the place.

Absolute Dissent reaches a few new peaks, no doubt. The band is still challenging itself, much like art punk peers Wire, The Fall and Nick Cave have in the past decade. “The Great Cull” is quite the apocalyptic vision, as strong as anything Killing Joke has dished out. It’s damn strange to have it a few songs away from “European Super State”, which not only isn’t paranoid, it’s apparently genuinely supportive of the European Union. And in case you doubt the support, each verse starts with corny synthesizer ripple ripe for the Eurovision song contest. Bonus WTF for being filled with creepy platitudes about European commonality. Between those extremes, there’s “In Excelsis,” which sounds like U2 taking a stab at metal (a frighteningly plausible scenario).

A Punch and Judy puppet has been the Joke’s intermittent mascot. Coleman himself has come to resemble Punch — and not just physically. His band remains both juvenile and violent. Sometimes it’s hard to tell if you’re supposed to be laughing with them or snickering nervously. Half of this record whips like “Cull.” Those lashings have a way of making the less assertive songs wither, when their sincerity might have had a chance in another context, another type of Killing Joke album. The cover image, a crucifix converted to a cell phone tower, might be a quick joke or guileless protest. So is this the ultimate Killing Joke record? Unfortunately, its is!

By Ben Donnelly

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