Record Review: Killing Joke – Brighter Than A Thousand Suns

EG | US | CD | 1986 | EGCD 66

EG | US | CD | 1986 | EGCD 66

Killing Joke: Brighter Than A Thousand Suns US CD [1986]

  1. Adorations
  2. Sanity
  3. Chessboards
  4. Twilight Of The Mortal
  5. Love Of The Masses
  6. A Southern Sky
  7. Victory
  8. Wintergardens
  9. Rubicon
  10. Goodbye To The Village
  11. Exile

I first encountered Killing Joke in print, in the pages of Trouser Press. They were described as “punk funk” which I could only guess what that meant as I never heard the band playing in any case. It remained until 1984, when, somehow, the video for the single “Eighties” managed to sneak on MTV in the margins. Wow! This was just the kind of aggressive, yet intelligent, guitar-driven rock that I was needing in my musical diet with the passing of Bauhaus from the scene the year earlier. Though I was smitten, to this day have never seen the single in the bins. Ever.

<flash forward two years>

By 1986, MTV had established the 120 Minutes ghetto for music I liked now that the dinosaurs like Bruce Springsteen had taken over MTV proper [at great cost]. I once again met up with Killing Joke when their video for “Sanity” got substantial airplay on 120 Minutes. It was a grower; more subtle. Nowhere as immediate as “Eighties” had been, but after a few plays, it began to work its way under my skin. By that time, I had also made the transition to the CD format the year earlier, so I saw import CDs by Killing Joke though this new album had been domestically released, so I picked it up to see what the story was.

“Adorations” was the opener, and a single that I had seen in the import bins. It had a minor key chord progression hook, but the song flipped polarity to have a major key chorus. Jaz Coleman’s vocals were dignified and melodic here. More accommodating than the snarling “Eighties” had been. The song was carried on the backs of a thunderous rhythm section that was the high end of the mid-80s “big music” brigade. This could, sonically, sit cheek by jowel with a group like Big Country.

The difference here was that while the music had a low-level bombast and was built upon a foundation of European classicism, the emotional tone of Killing Joke was steeped in the kind of European melancholy that spoke to me. The overall tone of the music seemed to be lamentation and disappointment with society. “Sanity” could almost have been a song from U2’s “War” album by the way it sounded, but it reflected a pessimism foreign to the Irish band.

It was when the third song began playing that I knew I had gotten in on the right side of a good thing. “Chessboards” is to this day one of my favorite Killing Joke tracks. Built on a fevered motorik drumbeat, built with widescreen guitars and throbbing bass to gallop over the still smoking ruins of civilization. “Love Of The Masses” was constructed on a foundation of  the sort of bass lines that I had depended on Derek Forbes to provide me, but he was gone by 1986. Paul Raven would do more than adequately in that regard.

Amid all of this bluster, “A Southern Sky” gave the album a breather to indulge in some quieter, keyboard-led moments of crystalline beauty. Next came the first of the bonus tracks on the CD version of the album. “Victory” played like a dubfunk buildup that took its sweet time to coalesce into a monster groove of a song. Guitarist Geordie building up repetitive funk riffs until I began to see the “punk funk” discussed years earlier. That a song of this strength was left off of the album proper astounded me then as now.

“Wintergardens” began with almost abstractly bluesy guitar probing alone in the dark before the loping drumbeats and bassfunk brought it back into the familiar fold of the album. Then the coup de grace was delivered. “Rubicon” once again built on motorik drum patterns that built up, and  up, and up without release until the song’s cold, albeit, reverberant climax. Then two more bonus tracks added the denouement that capped the album at a healthy 61 minutes.

Killing Joke certainly sounded at their best when they were not rushed. The better songs here were all over the five minute mark, possibly an indication of the role of Krautrock in their influence and development. Clues to the emotional tone of the band were found in the CD booklet, where an Aleister Crowley quote was helpfully reprinted, though the lyrics, referring to “golden dawns” and matters of mortality needed no such embellishment. But this was far less the hippy affectations of early Bowie or the simple decadence of Jimmy Page. This was a band who had a lead singer who freaked out a few years earlier and abandoned Killing Joke for a stint in Iceland, awaiting the apocalypse. What make Killing Joke interesting to me is that they seem to be built on the premise that the ultimate breakdown of civilization may have irrevocably begun and the death throes of society are now already occurring. They posit questions as to how we can possibly survive this with our dignity intact, if nevertheless battered. And you can dance to it.

– 30 –

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5 Responses to Record Review: Killing Joke – Brighter Than A Thousand Suns

  1. Echorich says:

    Ahh…Killing Joke. Post Punk’s moral/amoral compass and social consious. From the opening synth/guitar/drum alarm calls of Requiem off their debut, to the subterranean, martial beat of Adorations on BTATS, Jaz Coleman and Co. took me from cautionary moment to cautionary moment throughout the majority of the 80s. I have remained a fan, as the band got harder and harsher and more recently returned to a more familiar sound.
    You are right on the mark Monk, describing their sound, their approach, as being built on a foundation of European Classicism by the time BTATS was released. This gives their music a certain level of gravitas that the Big Country’s and U2’s always seemed to lack. Coleman is out to teach, expose issues and concepts to his audience; make them think and react. KJ sang anthems of fears and disappointment, not odes to abstractions. There was never any “hope for blue skies on the horizon” in Jaz Coleman’s words, no celebration of the unrealistic. For any young listener in touch with their own personal angst, Killing Joke opened the door to a world of Societal Angst.
    In the Early 80s I had many friends who listened to metal and hardcore but seemed to all get something out of Killing Joke. In a way they are a logical sidestep. There’s a particular pulse that has always run through Killing Joke’s music – even with its sonic evolution from rough and angular to widescreen and – yeah I’m gonna say it – epic, their music drills down deep inside you.
    It’s interesting you bring up The Big Music Brigade. I am of two thoughts on that subject. There are Big Music Bands and then there is Big Music. Big Country, U2, Mid 80’s Simple Minds were Big Music bands, but then there were bands/artists (Icehouse, The Bunnymen for example) that were making Big Music without all the attached bluster and arena sized egos overshadowing it. Killing Joke fits that definition for me.

    Brighter Than A Thousand Suns is just a great album, start to finish. Adorations leaps out at you slowly rising out of the darkness and grabs you by the neck racing away. Sanity spins you around and around forcing you to look around yourself and realize just what the world has become. Chessboards reflects how governments and religions drill their predetermined mores into us, making us conviction-less pawns. Jaz hints at a possible escape though, through compassion. Twilight Of The Mortals is a battle cry, a call to consciousness, a Post Punk wake up call. Raven’s bass on Love Of The Masses is killer. The second verse reads like a critique of our 2016 presidential election. There’s no calling Jaz Coleman’s lyrics silly. A Southern Sky reflects Colemen’s fascination for the primordial worlds of New Zealand and Iceland. It’s a beautiful ode to the natural world. Victory is a link back to the Killing Joke of Night Time. It’s interestingly produced by Stewart Levine which makes wonder if there was an idea it might have been initially considered as a bridge single between the albums. Wintergardens is deceptively approachable musically, but it is about as dark as the album gets in it’s apocalyptic view. Coleman lets out his inner Crowley on Rubicon. God fearing and Godless, progressive and regressive, nihilistic and hedonistic, Coleman’s world is a mess waiting for the final wipeout. Goodbye To The Village is among my favorite KJ songs. Coleman paces his storytelling of the rise of cookie cutter cities and societies at the expense of smaller, closer knit world. His themes of returning to a simpler world as its only chance for survival are not hidden behind metaphor here. Killing Joke’s ends the album, not with an uplifting “thing will get better” message, but one that pushes the listener to realize it’s too late, they are caught behind the fence, chained to their existence. Musically Exile moves along with an a skewed mechanical pace, effortless but somehow also emotionless.

    My first trip to London after finishing college was sort of done with an element of winging it. I knew where I would stay, but I didn’t plan anything to do until I was in my hotel room on the first day. Armed with NME, i-D and Time Out I knew I could figure out the perfect trip. Well, I opened NME from the back only to find an ad for Killing Joke at The Hammersmith Pallais. I was straight out of my hotel room and down Shaftesbury Avenue to the ticket agents which I had seen earlier and purchased my ticket. My most outstanding impression of the show was how exciting, yet chilling each and every song was. I managed to get down front within the safety zone of not getting pummeled slamming an pogoing fans, and my eyes were fixed on Jaz Colemen throughout the show. At the time Love Like Blood from the previous year’s Nighttime was a song that still resonated greatly with me but they opened with Twilight Of The Mortals and Chessboards which were new to our ears as the album wouldn’t be out for a month or more. These songs were fierce and attention grabbing. There was something much more real and important coming from the stage than I was used to. Killing Joke were entertaining us, but there was a level of sermonizing that was powerful and entrancing as well. There aren’t a lot of concerts I remember with the same vivid recollection – Talking Heads in Central Park, Gary Numan on the Telekon Tour at the Palladium, The Clash at The Palladium and New Order at The Felt Forum are up there. Killing Joke as my first concert in London will always stand among the most memorable.

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      Echorich – Thanks so much for really contributing such great and illuminating commentary to my hacked out filler! Great commentary makes doing this much more valuable. Good call with Icehouse there, given their great cover of “Love Like Blood.” After buying this album, I began filling in the blanks on Killing Joke but have to admit that I lost the plot after “Pandemonium,” an album I really enjoyed, for no reason at all, other than the overall reduction of music purchasing that accompanied marriage and saving for our first house. I need to catch up with The Joke.

      I will never forget seeing the band the one time I did in 1989, anticipating an “Outside The Gate” show but instead receiving freshly minted songs that would not be released until “Extremities, Dirt, And Various Repressed Emotions,” hands down my favorite album of 1990! It was stunning, but I was unprepared for what was delivered. A year later how I wished I could see that show again.

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  2. Rob C says:

    One of my all-time favourite albums, hands down. As powerful now as it was when I first listened to it (and bought on the day of release on cassette) – then I had to have the CD with the bonus tracks and tracked down all the vinyl 12″s for further bonus tracks. Track down the non-album b-side, Ecstacy, in its 12″ goodness for a fantastic ride! Victory was considered for single release – there’s a single version in existence which is on the For Beginners compilation and has replaced the extended version on the remastered version of this CD.

    On another note, I can relate to the 1989 gig – I went to see the Joke for the first time in Hollywood also expecting a heavy dose of Nighttime/BTATS/Outside the Gate only to be treated to what would become Outside The Gate…the crowd seemed miffed as well – but what a fantastic gig at any rate!

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  3. Vlad says:

    Having never heard anything else by them yet, I still feel obliged to chime in with praises for “Night Time” and “Brighter…” – these two are great stellar works that somehow remind me of “Vienna”/”Rage in Eden” couple where the first album is the energetic one and the second is more reflective and epic (for want of a better word). On “Brighter…” the comparison above with Icehouse is right on target – that’s the band I listen to heavily these days for some reason and the similarities in approach are apparent. There was a distinct thread of bands during the 80s who offered this lush, atmospheric, dramatic, even desperate music, “end of the world” like in mood (that’s how I term it for myself). KJ certainly moved to that territory – which I find surprising but at the same time approve of as I don’t really like the heavy/metal/rock stuff that they seem to be famous for. So good call on this album – off to listen to it now :o)

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      Vlad – Your antipathy for early KJ is somewhat ironic considering that The Joke had Conny Plank produce their third album, [I still don’t have a copy – shock] 1982’s “Revelations.” I have all albums from ’84-’92 and love them all; even the industrial metal ones. The difference between this band and, let’s say, Nine Inch Nails/Gary Numan is that I feel that Jaz Coleman is an adult. His concerns are not adolescent in the least, whereas I feel that Trent Reznor/Gary Numan have never ever grown up. As a man in his 50s, I don’t mind aggression in my music, but it had better not be facile, self-absorbed, adolescent aggression. That’s just a pose.

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