This week’s selection for our Retrospective column may come as a surprise since we are a primarily metal-focused blog. There are albums, though, to which many bands bow and pay homage. Killing Joke‘s self-titled debut is one such album. Outside of it being one of the most important genre-bending records of the 80s, it has inspired masses of metal, punk, and hardcore bands with its trade-offs between ominous gloom, politically-bent fervor, and nigh-danceable rhythms. Recently, Manny-O-War and I had a conversation about how this album helped shape crust punk early on, namely Amebix. While its musical influence is undeniable, another fascinating aspect of Killing Joke is how frighteningly relevant its lyrics are over 30 years later.
I’m known to aimlessly wax poetic about my younger days, so here we go: I first encountered Killing Joke in late high school, around the same time that I discovered Joy Division. When it came to Killing Joke, I was immediately taken by how they were seemingly the darker, grittier, version of Joy Division: The driving, hammering bass lines, the tribal thumping of the toms, angular guitars, and Jaz Coleman’s venomous vocals were the foil to the regal gloom and despair of Joy Division, and once I discovered Amebix down the road, Killing Joke’s importance became that much more apparent. The bleak, confrontational sound is no more apparent than on their self-titled debut, a blueprint album for the rest of the post-punk movement and a predecessor for industrial rock.
The abilities of Jaz Coleman and Geordie Walker to take elements that are usually at odds with each other — pulsing, rhythmic synthesizers and gritty, overdriven chords — have no rival. The raw passion in opener “Requiem” is clear in Jaz’s vocals, while Martin “Youth” Glover’s melodic, almost poppy bass lines play off of the buzzing synth rhythm that drives the song. On the other side of the coin, “Wardance” surges with a brutal, metallic groove with Jaz’s vocals at their most menacing as a screeching synth drones in the background, and “The Wait” was clearly vicious enough to warrant a Metallica cover. (Who, for the record, didn’t do that great of a job with it. Totally missed the menacing vibes and that weird warbly synth.)
It is, of course, impossible to talk about this album without discussing its political underpinning. Where the initial movement of British punk was mad at everything for just existing, the post-punk movement channeled its aggression toward very specific targets. In the case of Killing Joke, this album takes aim at the continuing downward spiral of society and the resulting disenfranchisement of the individual because of it. “Complications” is particularly brutal:
“See the sun turn green
From my penthouse windows
It’s different now
Because you got no shelter
This is the new age.”
Killing Joke forego the hellishly introspective nature of most post-punk bands and instead prove that the truest horror is to be found in the world around us, not within us; those same horrors, however, are what destroy us on the inside as well.
For all of the focus in today’s entertainment on post-apocalypse emptiness, let’s not forget that this is one of the albums that could claim responsibility for starting a fascination with the hopeless and desolate. As you listen to Killing Joke’s debut, the roots of many bands and hordes of imitators are laid bare only to prove that sometimes the prototype really can be perfect. Essential listening for… well, everyone, frankly.