Released November, 1986
"As pain and joy and sorrow mingle..."
One of the “black sheep” of the Killing Joke discography, Brighter Than a Thousand Suns is in my eyes a vastly underrated and hugely powerful work. A true modern classic, if there is such a thing (a bit pretentious I know, but bear with me). It came out bang in the middle of the band’s “accessible” phase in the mid 80s, directly following 1985’s outstanding Night Time LP and the accompanying single “Love Like Blood”, which is still the most successful thing the Joke ever put out (criminally it only reached no.16 in the UK charts, not a flop by any means, but truthfully it deserved to make the top 5 at least) . Now when I say “accessible”, I mean it somewhat loosely. The Killing Joke of this period was still aggressive and powerful, just in a different way. Despite the strong commercial/new wave leanings of their 84-86 material, it is still true to the Killing Joke spirit. I doubt there’s a Joker out there who doesn’t worship Night Time, and rightfully so. Brighter, however, seems to get panned a bit more.
On Night Time, the band’s sound still had a lot of “impact” to it despite the heavy use of synthesizers and Jaz Coleman actually singing (something he is apparently rather good at doing) instead of roaring his lungs out. On Brighter, the aggression is toned down a little more for some tracks, the majority of the album is soaring and epic with some hints of the fury of old. Take the first song, “Adorations”. Its like “Love Like Blood” with the epic and romantic qualities intensified twofold into a soaring (you’ll see me using that word a lot in relation to this album), beautiful hymn to the decadence of humanity with a subtle, yet gravely sombre edge to it despite the uplifting motif of the chorus. “Sanity” follows suit, with wonderful haunting keyboards contrasting with Coleman’s powerful singing in the chorus, and overall a magnificently sad set of lyrics that seems to perfectly embody the concept of fading power and glory.
There’s plenty of variety to be found. “Chessboards” and “Twilight” are notably more propulsive and aggressive, the former being more energetic, the latter more contemplative. Both addictively catchy. Elsewhere, tracks like “Under a Southern Sky” and “Victory” show that Killing Joke can write a moving ballad as well as the best of them. These may not be to the taste of the rabid fan of the first 3 classic albums, or the later more metal influenced stuff, but taken on their own merits they are both brilliant songs. “Wintergardens” defines the term “dark funk”, with its stabs of icy guitar from Geordie Walker punctuating Raven’s deliciously moody slap bassline, over Coleman’s esoteric rambling. “Rubicon” brings the album to a terrifying finale, the sound of the world ending, of a man’s mind tipping over the edge. If this song doesn’t persuade you, then give up. One of the CD bonus tracks, “Goodbye to the Village”, is an incredibly powerful song about the fickle nature of progress and the destruction of places that dwell within our hearts, in the face of gleaming nightmares of modern architecture. The music and Jaz’s delivery of his impassioned lyrics are honestly tear-jerking. Not what you would typically expect from Killing Joke, but they pull it off so damn well here I can’t help but love it.
This album (the original version at least, more on that in a bit) does have a very “1986” sound to it. Lots of reverb on the vocals, keys, and drums. Geordie’s signature guitar is more textural than ever here, but no less effective as listening to any of the tracks will reveal. Paul Raven offers up some of his finest basslines, though they may not be as thunderous and raw as some fans may like they are technically sound and work fantastically well within the songs. Big Paul’s drumming is at its most “80s” sounding, with a machinelike precision more befitting the nigh-on synthpop style of the album. Purists may find themselves missing those characteristic tribal rhythms that Killing Joke are traditionally most loved for. Indeed, purists may dislike most of, if not all of this album on principle....but as fans of Killing Joke, they would be doing the band, album and themselves a serious disservice in my opinion. This, coming from someone who admits to being a purist about some things himself, should say something about the quality of this album.
When the Joke’s discography was remastered in the mid 2000s, Brighter Than a Thousand Suns was given a complete overhaul. Julian Mendelsohn’s final mix was replaced with an earlier mix from Chris Kimsey, who worked with the band on Night Time. In this “restored” version, the keyboards and reverbs are toned down noticeably in favour of an emphasis on guitar and bass. Some tracks, such as “Victory” were also edited. This version may appeal more to hardcore fans of the “classic” Joke sound, indeed it makes the album resemble Night Time soundwise a lot more. That version of the album was actually the first one I heard and bought, though I also made a point of getting a copy of the original too, because I like the album that much. Frankly, I do prefer the original. However, the alternate version is just that: an alternate look at the album which should not be discredited on that basis, as the music is still the same. The original has a more "wall of sound" feel, everything blended together richly. The restored version, more punchy and with better definition to the rhythm section.
There are albums that belong in people’s collections that are hugely important to them in a personal way, due to where and when they heard them, and other such circumstances. This is one of those for me without a doubt. It pretty much defined a period of my life, and to this day I still find inspiration and solace in its epic soundscapes and Jaz Coleman's poignant lyrics. I admit that this does give me a strong personal bias towards it, but frankly it is well founded. This is potent stuff. Give it a try if you haven’t already.