Saturday, June 12, 2010

Starfish



Veteran Goth-rockers The Church have never been more commercially successful than they were in the late 1980s, when they shifted temporarily to the decidedly alien surroundings of Los Angeles to lay down tracks for what would become the 'Starfish' album from 1988. Up to that point, the outfit had only tasted cult success in their native Australia and a few other limited markets, with a handful of modestly charting singles that consolidated their reputations as competent exponents of psychedelic rock. However, it was 'Starfish' that constituted their real breakthrough in the all-important American market, managing to reach the Billboard Top 40, with the lead single 'Under the Milky Way' creeping into the Top 20.

'Starfish' also marked a noticeable change in the band's basic sound, moving from their usual jangly-guitar template to a wider canvas of various sonic colours and wide-screen production values. The band also tightened their songwriting focus, laying some of their most engrossing and engaging tunes on record, a discernible break from the hazier textures of their preceding efforts. This translates into a wonderfully dynamic and resonant record that successfully bridges the gap between critical acclaim and commercial achievement, while greatly improving the band's creative sensibilities.

'Starfish' opens 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 indisputable highlight, 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 was a surprise entry into the American Top 40, and remained The Church's signature song.

The rest of 'Starfish' doesn'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 the band's electric-guitar riffing skills to considerable effect. 'Reptile' was another standout, being as sinuous and snaky as the title suggested. Rhythm guitarist Peter Koppes laid down a rhythm-guitar riff that slithered stealthily, punctuated by lead guitarist Marty Willson-Piper'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 the whimsical 'A New Season' is a mid-tempo number with wailing seagull-guitar effects. The closing 'Hotel Womb' was another winner, a confident rocker garnished with ringing guitar riffs and carefully modulated synth effects that detailed the end of the journey started in 'Destination'.

It's no overstatement to say that 'Starfish' has truly stood the test of time, even more than 20 years after its initial release. The performances here are uniformly excellent, and the band has never sounded more artistically confident than on here. Truly the work of a band at the virtual height of its powers, and arguably the Church's most commercially realised record.

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