Killing Joke – Pylon
The lifespan of a longstanding, influential band can be an odd trajectory. This is especially true for Killing Joke, the act that more or less set the template for what would become commercial industrial rock in the 1990s.
So I suppose that “commercial industrial rock” requires a bit of explanation, right? Such generic hair-splitting is part and parcel of music writing, so let the dancing about architecture begin.
Industrial music (as opposed to industrial rock) emerged in the post punk scene of the late 1970s. Industrial music was basically an evolved variant of musique concrete, the noise of the physical world re-understood as music. Artists like Factrix, Monte Cazazza, Boyd Rice, Nurse with Wound and (especially) Throbbing Gristle corralled the sturm und drang of manufacturing sounds into abrasive compositions that were anything but pleasant and everything but rock ’n’ roll. Nobody really liked industrial music – not really. It was sonic junk packaged as art for dilettantes and aesthetes.
But Killing Joke was different. Killing Joke’s eponymous 1980 debut was rock ’n’ roll, albeit a mutated form. Their music sounded like a bunch of robotic storm troopers on a mechanized death march to hell. Killing Joke was a revelation, a postmodern redefinition of the form that sounded pretty damned revolutionary at the time.
This brings us to Killing Joke’s aforementioned odd trajectory as an influential band. Influential bands influence a glut of other, subsequent bands, right? Killing Joke sure as hell did. JG Thirlwell, Front 242, Nitzer Ebb and (especially) Ministry revised the Killing Joke formula in the late 1980s. And then “alternative” carpetbaggers like Nine Inch Nails (ugh), Marilyn Manson (double ugh) and Fuel (triple ugh) took the whole thing to the bank as early 1990s post grunge industrial rock that sold like hotcakes and was actually played on radio.
And that’s where things went awry for Killing Joke. Somewhere in the last 35 years, Killing Joke started sounding like its myriad imitators. The band began to sound more like the hacks they’d spawned than sounding like themselves. In other words, the referent became a reference – a simulacrum of itself. Or at least it seemed that way.
The last decade has been a renaissance for Killing Joke. The band reformed in its original lineup and resumed their business of riveting together rock-solid rock. Oddly, commercial industrial rock has more or less ebbed, and Killing Joke is currently most revered by heavy metal artists. So the post-millennial Killing Joke is thriving in the world of metal – another irony in itself. (Granted, metal has changed drastically in the last 35 years as well.)
This brings us to Killing Joke’s umpteenth album, the newly released Pylon. Pylon isn’t really a return to form for the band, because the band never really left the form. But Killing Joke has streamlined its own formula. And, thus, the band is cranking out a more potent variation of what it does best.
Lyrically, Pylon offers more of the dystopian gloom ’n’ doom that’s honestly a bit clichéd. Sure, we live in an Orwellian present. Sure, corporations don’t have our best interests in mind. Sure, war is bad – and war is commerce. But what else is new?
But it’s not the lyrics that matter on Pylon anyway. You can barely make them out, but who cares? It’s the sound that matters.
Interestingly, Pylon is more melodic than much of the band’s earlier fare. The robot vocals are entirely gone. Instead, vocalist (and figurehead and cuddly kook) Jaz Coleman croons drill sergeant styled Gregorian chants over repetitive riff that are often just one chord. Killing Joke has jettisoned much of the stylistic ornamentation that burdened much of their earlier work. And less is more. What we have here is a lean, clean killing machine that sounds relevant and modern – even if it’s just a highly evolved variant of the same old (great) thing.