The Finest in Jaz
Joy Division. Adam & the Ants. Judas Priest. Pet Shop Boys. Midnight Oil. Nirvana. Pop Will Eat Itself. Tool. What do all these musicians have in common? At some point on The Singles Collection 1979-2012, you can draw a direct line to something in their sounds—and the sounds of countless others—from something in the work brought together here from the famed British rock collective, Killing Joke. Centered around oddball lead singer Jaz Coleman and guitarist Geordie Walker, with longtime partners Paul Ferguson (drums) and Youth, a.k.a. Martin Glover (bass), even the questionable parts of their expansive career influenced something in your MP3 collection.
As anti-establishment as the band and their messages were, Killing Joke’s career and noises always had hints of almost hedonistic excess. As they stretched from their post-punk origins into sounds like New Romanticism and industrial metal, their most fluid and skillful arrangements could feature surprising key and chord changes introducing uplift into the doom (and vice versa). They could beat catchy tunes into submission, the drumming of Ferguson and influential short-term replacement Martin Atkins turning many hot Walker riffs into military marches. Coleman’s stewardship of Killing Joke also includes weird, indulgent moments like doomsday-inspired travel to, and recording in, Iceland, keyboard infatuations released in the late 1980s under the KJ name and a recent disappearance into West Africa.
Even this compilation takes a trip overboard, as the most deluxe edition of The Singles Collection includes almost three dozen CDs with vinyl-single playlists—exhaustive in career range, exhausting in physical distribution. The best way to view the Killing Joke landscape, then, would seem to be the three-disc version, which starts by covering the band’s first decade in much the same manner as their 1992 compilation, Laugh? I Nearly Bought One!. You’ll hear music from their dubby 1979 debut EP, Turn to Red, and 1988’s Outside the Gate, a synthpop-loaded album as divisive as With Sympathy was in the Ministry fandom. Between those endpoints we hit “Requiem,” “Wardance,” “Love Like Blood,” “Eighties” and a clutch of other jagged, sociopolitically aware cuts that influenced countless gothic, industrial, and alt-rock acts.
Disc two, however, bears a lot of responsibility for how this compilation will be received. It surveys the next 22 years of KJ output from 1990’s Extremities, Dirt & Various Repressed Emotions through last year’s MMXII. It’s a long stretch of angry, dramatic music, challenging a listener’s attention but winning out more often than not. In it we hear how the band’s electronic touches and martial beats often transformed, and were transformed into, heavy metal. There’s a lot of music on here that builds on Killing Joke’s original New Wave edge with technology, bludgeoning production and Coleman’s mostly gravelly vocals, eventually suggesting everything from KMFDM (“Exorcism”) to Linkin Park (“European Super State”) to Motörhead (“Hosannas from the Basement of Hell”).
The third disc is full of odds ‘n’ sods—some rare studio songs, a few revised tracks and material from questionable movie soundtracks. For every strained political statement (“Our Last Goodbye”) and wasted B-side (“Zennon”) on the playlist, there’s a demo that should have seen the light of day (“Timewave”) and a remix that did (the Aotearoa mix of “Pandemonium”). It won’t blow you away, but it also can’t destroy the creative goodwill built up across the first two CDs. Ultimately, The Singles Collection 1979-2012 is proof positive that even a performer with faint impact on the music charts can leave behind a legacy that lasts longer than any sales metric.