CD Review of Brighter than a Thousand Suns by Killing Joke
Recommended if you like
Echo & the Bunnymen,
Public Image Ltd.,
Siouxsie & the Banshees
Label
Virgin
Killing Joke:
Brighter than a
Thousand Suns

Reviewed by Will Harris

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A
sk a roomful of music critics to reel off their picks for the most influential British bands of the early 1980s, and there’s little doubt that Killing Joke will be cited by more than a few. Ask those same critics to cite their favorite album by the group, however, and it’s unlikely that very many would find the words Brighter than a Thousand Suns trickling forth from their lips. Met with (at best) blank stares and (at worst) outright derision upon its release, the album is generally viewed as Killing Joke’s failed bid at mainstream success, serving as the formal diving line between when they were awesome and when they started sucking.

Twenty-two years later, as the band performs a mass restoration of its back catalog, we decided to check back in on Brighter than a Thousand Suns and find out if, indeed, it’s really as bad as all that.

It isn’t, of course. But, then again, it isn’t exactly the same album you remember from 1986, either. With this 2008 reissue, Killing Joke has taken it upon itself to fix the one thing wrong with the album that didn’t require a time machine: they’ve completely done away with Julian Mendelsohn’s mix.

The story goes like this: Brighter than a Thousand Suns was produced by Chris Kimsey, who had already worked successfully with the band on 1985’s Night Time and managed to embolden them with a commercial sound without sacrificing the inherent darkness of their music, thereby resulting in the band’s biggest hit, “Eighties.” Unfortunately, in a classic case of fixing something that wasn’t broken, someone decided that Kimsey’s work on Brighter than a Thousand Suns needed a touch more mid-1980s bombast to take the band to the next level of commercial success. Enter Mendelsohn, whose previous credits included work on Nik Kershaw’s Human Racing, Level 42’s World Machine and ABC’s How to be a…Zillionaire! It would appear to be a gross understatement to say that the band did not appreciate his work; not only have his mixes have been removed in favor of Kimsey’s originals, but the name “Julian Mendelsohn” is completely MIA from the CD booklet, not even receiving a cursory mention within the six-page history of the album and the band’s goings-on during that time period.

Unfortunately, Killing Joke has given Mendelsohn way too much credit for the album’s critical lambasting. Yes, his work was somewhat inappropriate for a Killing Joke album, and it dated the album sonically to a certain extent, but in truth, returning Kimsey’s work to a more appropriate prominence doesn’t change the fact that a lot of songs on the album sound disconcertingly similar. That said, “Adorations” and “Sanity” still remain among the best tracks in the band’s catalog, without or without Mendelsohn; “Goodbye to the Village” is a ominous stomper, and the combination of the wall of guitar in the verse and bass line in the chorus of “Love of the Masses” are enough to make anyone swoon. (The beginning of “Chessboards” still sounds it was swiped from a Journey song, though.)

So is Brighter than a Thousand Suns worth reinvestigating? Sure. The disappointment of the record not being another Night Life may not have dissipated for the diehards, but for anyone who enjoys gloomy alt-rock from the ‘80s – the Cure, Depeche Mode, et al – it’s absolutely worth checking out. You might, however, consider putting it in shuffle mode on your iPod so the same-ness of the songs isn’t quite as evident.

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