Absolute Dissent (Universal)
Of all the unexpected post-punk comebacks that have taken place in the last decade, few have been as unlikely or as rewarding as the resurgence of English proto-industrial grinders Killing Joke. As a story, it’s not that dramatic—the band doesn’t have the canonical status of Wire and Gang of Four, and they’ve been active, more often than not, for most of the past 30 years. But the band’s recent albums, starting with Killing Joke in 2003 and continuing with Hosannas From the Basements of Hell in 2006, mark a streak of consistency and creative accomplishment that the band hasn’t seen since its earliest days, and their third album of the decade, Absolute Dissent—the first recording from the original lineup since 1982—is among the band’s best, and one of the best rock records of recent memory.
Killing Joke’s first three albums, released between 1980 and 1982, were a fitting soundtrack for the apocalypse: jarring, confrontational, and theatrical, hitting a point somewhere right in between Joy Division and Motörhead. So it must have made sense, back in 1982, when three of the band’s members moved from London to Iceland for what they thought was the imminent end of the world.
The world didn’t end, exactly, but the first chapter of Killing Joke did; when a slightly different lineup regrouped in England in 1983, the ferocious immediacy of those first three albums had been streamlined into a more conventionally palatable, if still iconoclastic, sound. (Check out the minor, sort of New Wave, sort of Goth hit “Love Like Blood” for details.) Frontman Jaz Coleman kept Killing Joke going until 1996, but the band never mustered the momentum to rise above cult status in the U.K., and they were largely unnoticed in the U.S., even after Metallica’s cover of “The Wait” in 1987. A 2003 reunion found the band in surprising form after so long, and so long apart, and set the stage for Absolute Dissent, a late-period masterpiece that combines the best part of its previous eras.
Coleman is a conspiratorial sort, and a little paranoid (in “The Great Cull” he takes on the World Health Organization and Monsanto and frets about vaccinations and bee depopulation), but the strength of Absolute Dissent is his capacity for hard-bitten optimism and solidarity. His vision of political resistance in “The Raven King” (“Forever in this moment/Rejecting those who would control us/Touched by a common genius/All bound by fate and common purpose”) seems kind of clumsy in its naked Henry V populism, but it works as a rousing, mid-paced rocker. He’s even better on the hard-rock hymn “In Excelsis,” an almost embarrassingly straightforward celebration of the brotherhood of man that’s nevertheless the album’s most potent anthem: “The glory of freedom, simple liberties/In excelsis/The rights of man to eat and drink and breathe/In excelsis.” And the band (guitarist Kevin “Geordie” Walker, bassist Martin “Youth” Glover, and drummer Paul Ferguson) finds a sound that melds the crusty brawn of the earliest records with the hooks of the band’s middle period. The song “European Super States” suffers from its resemblance to Depeche Mode, but otherwise Absolute Dissent is an effective distillation of an important band’s evolution, a reminder of why they matter, and a call to arms that’s hard to ignore.