Monday, March 31, 2008

The Church

The Church mutated from being one of a handful of college-rock pioneers of the post-punk era to become key luminaries of the Goth-rock and neo-psychedelia community (also peopled by notables like The Cure, Bauhaus and Echo and the Bunnymen). It is interesting to track The Church's musical evolution; it is difficult to believe that the same band that wrote simple three-chord jangle-pop songs in the beginning would later turn out sprawling, abstract epics that sometimes ran over the ten-minute mark. The major component of The Church's music was the twin-Rickenbacker guitar interplay between Peter Koppes and Marty Willson-Piper, which brings to memory the heydays when legendary 12-string guitar bands like The Byrds and Big Star ruled the roost. Of course, none was ever as cabalistic as The Church in terms of production values and lyrical matter.

The Church's mysterious and dreamy aura also stemmed from the wilfully obtuse lyrical wordplay of vocalist Steve Kilbey, whose lyrics often sound like stream-of-consciousness thoughts in motion (e.g. "Vastness of science, eternal night shrouded in dark space, runes and tunes and frequencies flowing through their phases", from Magician Among the Spirits). Perhaps it is this deliberate surrealism that has kept The Church from ever achieving a mass following. But commercial considerations aside, the cult that surrounds the band is one of the most loyal in the music scene.

The Church started its services in Sydney, Australia, in 1980 when Steve Kilbey, Peter Koppes and Nick Ward formed the band, adding on transplanted Englishman Marty Willson-Piper later. This line-up recorded their debut album, 'Of Skins and Heart', which was mixed by legendary producer Bob Clearmountain (who would go on to produce, amongst others, Bryan Adams and Simple Minds). 'Of Skins and Heart' was a clever if somewhat formulaic jangle-pop album, filled to the brim with the requisite resonant Rickenbacker riffs. The big single off Of Skin and Hearts was The Unguarded Moment, which was a massive hit in their native Australia. The Unguarded Moment had become so synonymous with The Church's early days that they eventually came to view it as an albatross of sorts, steadfastly refusing to play it live in the later phases of their career.

Nick Ward left shortly after Of Skins and Heart was released, and was replaced by Richard Ploog. This new line-up recorded 1982's The Blurred Crusade shortly after, basically an extension of Of Skin and Hearts, although with new textures like synth overlays added to the basic jangle-pop structure.

Bob Clearmountain was on board again, this time doing production duties. The Blurred Crusade spawned the college-radio favourite Almost With You, a good showcase for the stronger and improved guitar interaction between Koppes and Willson-Piper. Willson-Piper even took lead-vocal duties for one number, Field of Mars.

Seance came out in 1983 and anted up the synth textures, with several songs actually emphasising the keyboards more than the guitars. Seance commenced with Fly, with prominent synth strings at the forefront, and went on to the adroit guitar-and-keyboard combination on Electric. Although synths were much in evidence here, things like Travel by Thought and Dropping Names were guitar-rockers in the vein of The Church of yore. Another unusual aspect about Seance was that drum machines were used for the first time, although Ploog still remained the credited drummer. Electric Lash became an Australian hit single, with its synth-marimba lines anchored by a surprisingly effective machine-gun drum-machine bedrock.

On the strength of their burgeoning popularity, a deal was inked with Warner Brothers to distribute The Church's albums in America, which led to the recording of the zenith of the band's early-phase achievements. 'Heyday' was different in the sense that Kilbey had written the majority of the songs this time round, rather than the entire group being involved in the songwriting process.

Heyday, in terms of production, was The Church's fullest and most rounded to date. This was due to producer Peter Walsh's layering interlocking guitar and synth parts into a seamless whole. The liberal sprinkling of horns and strings also proved to be worthy additions to the proceedings. Myrrh started the proceedings admirably, with an insistent, propulsive bass line anchoring shimmering guitar riffs on top. Tristesse was a mid-tempo jangle-rocker enhanced by strategic synth fills, and Already Yesterday benefited from a low-key backing choir. Things slowed down for a while with the medieval-soundtrack instrumental Happy Hunting Ground, before the band turned up the volume for the rugged U2-like rocker Tantalized, embellished by a defiant brass section.

Despite the all-round excellence of Heyday and the new deal with Warner Brothers, the album barely made a dent in the American market. No significant chart position was recorded in the biggest market in the world, and so another change in plans was called for. Taking the bull by the horns, The Church packed their bags for Los Angeles to record their next album with Greg Ladanyi and Waddy Wachtel, acclaimed producers in the Californian studio circuit.

Starfish was rightfully tailored as The Church's breakthrough album in the United States, but the American public merely served passing notice to it, nudging it into the Top Forty. This was despite the fact that 'Starfish' was The Church's most accessible and melodic offering to date, with Ladanyi and Wachtel adding a considerable dollop of radio-friendliness to the band's usual abstractness.

Starfish might be a commendable pop-rock effort, but it was edgier and tougher-sounding than any other previous Church records. The guitars were more resonant, and there were trace elements of hard rock present in most of the songs. It opened with the expansive Destination, which detailed a disquieting journey through a harsh and surreal landscape. Destination also helped to set the pace for the rest of the album, which seemed to be a musical travelogue of the band's American sojourn. But it was the next number that was the highlight on Starfish, the uneasily dreamy but highly atmospheric Under the Milky Way (complete with a synthesised bagpipe solo as a middle-eight). This well-constructed and elegant tune even crept into the American Top 40, and remained The Church's signature song.

The rest of Starfish didn't let up for a minute. The quietly menacing Blood Money practically brimmed with cunningly concealed venom, while the assuredly charging rocker North, South, East and West showed off Willson-Piper's electric-guitar riffing skills to considerable effect. Reptile was another standout track, being as sinuous and snaky as the title suggested. Here, Willson-Piper laid down a rhythm-guitar riff that slithered stealthily, punctuated by Koppes's quick lead-guitar stabs, which sounded like the musical equivalent of a serpent's bite.

Elsewhere, Antenna was a sea-shanty guitar waltz that danced along at a stately pace, while Peter Koppes got a chance to do lead vocals on A New Season, a mid-tempo number with wailing seagull-guitar effects. The closing Hotel Womb was another winner, a confident rocker garnished with ringing guitar riffs that detailed the end of the journey started in Destination.

Following the modest success of Starfish, the band decided to work with Wachtel again for their next album. Gold Afternoon Fix was once again recorded in Los Angeles. The same sort of studio sheen was applied, but Gold Afternoon Fix fared even worse in America than its predecessor. This was despite the fact the album produced some strong singles, which could have made the charts if the American public had only broadened its musical horizons.

Pharaoh made for a dramatic start to the proceedings, with furiously strummed guitars and echoing drones providing a backdrop to a curious tale of alien visitations in ancient Egypt. The second track, Metropolis, could have been the hit single from 'Gold Afternoon Fix', with its standard rock-guitar riffing and singalong chorus.

The album then went on to the weird alien-abduction tale Terra Nova Cain ("Terra Nova Cain, I need you again, deep space jam on an alien terrain"), with its squalling guitar storm and vaguely Eastern-sounding chords. There was also the mandolin-enhanced guitar waltz Monday Morning, which was almost the equivalent of the earlier Antenna, albeit shorter and with less impact.

The song anecdotes in Gold Afternoon Fix continued with You're Still Beautiful, which painted a sympathetic tale of a fading screen siren, and Russian Autumn Heart, Willson-Piper's vocal showcase, another bizarre sci-fi tale of an alternate-future world populated by cyborgs. Grind ended things suitably, a cautionary parable about the end of the world, marked by an endlessly repeating wrathful, descending guitar line which ad-libbed itself into infinity.

The band, deciding they have had enough of Los Angeles, decamped back to Australia to commence work on the follow-up to Gold Afternoon Fix. Ploog left the band after Gold Afternoon Fix, and was temporarily replaced by Patti Smith Group drummer Jay Dee Daugherty, who sat in on the recording sessions in Sydney. Work continued throughout 1991, with the new album finally seeing the light of day early the following year.

Priest = Aura was the strangest Church album title to date, and its songs were equally surreal, akin to cryptic snapshots taken in some otherworldly landscape found only in LSD-induced nightmares. It was undoubtedly an incongruous album to release during the supremacy of grunge in the early nineties, but in retrospect, it might well be The Church's strongest work.

The epic sprawl of Aura (vaguely about a soldier's wanderings in a distant war-torn land) made for a great opener to the album, setting the pace for the arcane, unsettling atmosphere to follow. Ripple followed, a nervous, shadowy invocation of a merciless femme fatale, anchored by trademark Church jangly-guitar riffs and Kilbey's almost somnambulant vocals. The haunted-house tale of Lustre was marked by monstrous snare drums and a throbbing bass line, while the deceptively gentle waltz-time Swan Lake detailed a hellish family life with unflinching candour.

Some succour came in the form of the soothing mid-tempo dance groove of Feel, but soon the sense of unease takes over again, in the whimsical but highly disturbing English music-hall chanting of The Disillusionist, whose titular character is "famous from the waist down, but the top half of his body is a corpse". Things finally ended with the menacing, frenzied turmoil of Chaos, which lasted for a staggering ten minutes, collapsing into an utter mess at the end in an insane explosion of over-the-top guitar feedback.

Priest = Aura was a modest seller in their native Australia, but once again, it made absolutely no impact at all in the American market. It would seem that the American market would invariably remain impenetrable, much to the chagrin of the band. Things got worse - prior to the recording of their ninth studio effort, Koppes jumped the Church ship, leaving just the duo of Kilbey and Willson-Piper to carry on (which meant that Willson-Piper had to pull double duty on lead and rhythm guitars). It wouldn't be too surprising if the band did break up at this juncture.

Fortunately, that was not the case. Kilbey and Willson-Piper bravely soldiered on, recruiting session musicians to fill the spaces. The remaining duo did gain tremendously from the session-drumming services of Tim Powles (who would later become a full member). Powles's distinctive brand of inventive drumming added a new dimension to The Church's music; his style ran the gamut from standard rock beats to delicate, light brushwork to unusual cadences in exotic time signatures.

The Church's ninth studio album was released in 1994, and was their most intricate effort to date. Called Sometime Anywhere, violins and violas were liberally added to the mix, amongst other exotic instruments. However, Sometime Anywhere lacked the cohesion that was present in previous Church efforts, simply because Kilbey and Willson-Piper jumped from one style to another without regard for overall integrity. The result was a bit of a mess, but in a way, its flaw was also its saviour, for the diversity of styles here gives credence to The Church's ability to absorb various music trends and give them their own particular sheen.

The cinematic Mexican death-festival epic Day of the Dead, which saw Willson-Piper squeezing various feedback-noise effects out of his guitar synthesizer, set a great pace for the rest of the album to follow. Lost My Touch experimented with murky trip-hop, while The Maven saw Willson-Piper doing an admirable Neil Young electric-guitar impersonation.

The Church also attempted incorporating dance elements into their music for the first time on the techno-inflected, Willson-Piper-sung Angelica, and in Lullaby, tried their hand at setting a tale of the Nativity event to a soft, looping synth-harp accompaniment. A particular highlight was 'Two Places at Once', a sublime AOR-inflected epic about reincarnation, with the first ever duet between Kilbey and Willson-Piper. The diverse Sometime Anywhere ended with the meandering alternate-future epic The Dead Man's Dream, which glided along on a surging synth-wash backdrop.

Powles was drafted in again to provide drumming duties for the follow-up to 'Sometime Anywhere', 1996's Magician Among the Spirits, which appeared to be an album-long treatise on eschatology, transmigration and all things concerned with death and the afterlife. The tone of the album was decidedly more obscure and phantasmic than previous works, with a noticeable aura of melancholy surrounding each track. Welcome provided an apt introduction to the album with its whispered invocations of dead celebrities and the simple chorus "We welcome you" set to a creepy electro-Gothic backdrop. Comedown could be the only 'normal' song on the album, with a standard rock backbeat and archetypal guitar riffing. Could Be Anyone incorporated Native American chanting and tribal drumbeats into an extended meditation on the science of reincarnation. There was even an Irish gypsy-folk number, Romany Caravan, complete with authentic bodhran percussion and swooning violins.

The centrepiece of the album had to be the highly atmospheric and extremely creepy 14-minute seance epic Magician Among the Spirits, not something to play at 3.00 in the morning, unless one wanted to be scared silly. Anchored by a brooding bass line and various sound effects, Kilbey's fanciful lyrical wordplay was given full rein here, with inscrutable lines like "Hand of God has sprinkled jewels inside the velvet ceiling, filling up our unsure hearts with wonder, awe and feeling" and "Singing about the old times, sepia and faded, magician among the spirits, the past has been invaded". The album finished with the downhearted, burnt-out piano instrumental After Image, a fit coda for the album after the spaced-out atmospherics of Magician Among the Spirits.

By now, Tim Powles was a permanent member of the band and Peter Koppes had rejoined, just in time for 1998's Hologram of Baal. It was a rather unfocused work that tried to extend the spooky atmospherics of Magician Among the Spirits, but rather ended up sounding over-stretched and forced. However, it was redeemed by several rockers like the opening Anaesthetia and Ricochet, the bluesy Buffalo, the spacey Tranquillity, and the carefully paced Glow Worm. Song subject matters were the same stock Church material, with lyrics about alien worlds, spirit realms, trippy journeys and just feeling rather strange generally.

The Church took a break after Hologram of Baal, reconvening briefly in 1999 to record an album of covers of acts that have played a large part in influencing them. The twist was that A Box of Birds contained obscure tunes by well known acts; rather than record standards, The Church opted to do their favourite songs instead. For instance, instead of The Beatles' more obvious Yesterday or Let It Be, The Church chose to cover the minor George Harrison gem It's All Too Much. Other covers on A Box of Birds include a snarling cover of The Endless Sea by perennial heroin advocate Iggy Pop, a rugged take of Alex Harvey's The Faith Healer, and an extended version of the Neil Young anti-colonialist parable Cortez the Killer.

It was not until 2002 that The Church actually emerged with their new album. The long break had done the band good, revitalising their songwriting instincts and prompting the band to emerge with their best album since 1992's Priest = Aura. After Everything Now This showed a distinct Pink Floyd influence, with the same kind of astral space-rock that characterised that legendary British band's music. Numbers made for a superb opening to the album, with its icy guitar arpeggio runs and Kilbey's typical soporific vocals, the song being vaguely about living in a mechanical, dystopian future. The almost-title track After Everything popped up next, which sounded like an outtake from Pink Floyd's 1973 opus Dark Side of the Moon, with a similar mystical vibe. The languid Radiance dealt with the Fatima Visitations, while the lounge-piano atmospherics of Song for the Asking was a step in a new direction for The Church.

The penultimate song on After Everything Now This was the appropriately druggy Night Friends, a kind of sequel to the earlier Magician Among the Spirits, with its quirky story of late-night visitations by the ghosts of long-dead companions. After Everything Now This ended with a literally moving epic, the eight-minute Invisible, which revisited a favourite Church theme; a long, unsettling journey to a mysterious destination, this time by rail, with more insufferably cryptic lines like "Scenes fly past the curtains that the darkness paints uncertain" and "The wind blows through the headstones and the milestones making music".


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow, great summary man! I'm impressed.

4:37 PM  

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