Friday, August 03, 2012

The Church

Hoary old veterans The Church metamorphosed 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. It is highly 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 effortless 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.

In all fairness, it is probably this deliberate artistic strangeness 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. Therefore, it does seem like high time to run through the more notable releases in the band's extensive discography.

A clever, if somewhat formulaic jangle-pop album, filled to the brim with requisite resonant Rickenbacker riffs. The big single off here was the practised guitar-rocker ‘The Unguarded Moment’, and Kilbey also starts to hone his surreal storytelling skills in things like 'Bel Air' and 'Fighter Pilot Korean War'.

SÉANCE (1983)
Synth-generated textures are introduced here, with several songs actually emphasising the keyboards more than the guitars. Standouts here include the synth-string touched 'Fly', the adroitly seamless guitar-and-keyboard combination 'Electric', and the whimsical 'Electric Lash', marked by synth-marimba lines and a surprisingly effective machine-gun drum-machine bedrock.

HEYDAY (1986)
The Church's richest and fullest-sounding album up to that point, due to new producer Peter Walsh's innovative technique of layering interlocking guitar and synth parts into a seamless whole. The liberal sprinkling of horns and strings also proved to be worthy additions to highlights like the propulsive alternative-biblical parable 'Myrrh', the nicely measured 'Already Yesterday' and the rugged, U2-like 'Tantalised'.

The most accessible and melodic offering in the catalogue, with the addition of a considerable dollop of radio-friendliness to the band's usual abstractness. 'Starfish' was edgier and tougher-sounding than previous Church records: The guitars were more resonant, and there were trace elements of hard rock present in most of the songs. The expansive opener 'Destination', the appropriately snaky 'Reptile', the quietly menacing 'Blood Money' and the elegantly dreamy 'Under the Milky Way' (the band's sole American Top 40 entry) are amongst the many self-assured gems that populate this career milestone.

PRIEST = AURA (1992)
The strangest album title to date, with equally surreal songs, akin to cryptic snapshots taken in some otherworldly landscape found only in LSD-induced nightmares. It was also undoubtedly an incongruous album to release during the supremacy of grunge-rock, but in retrospect, it might well be one of The Church's most realised works. The epic sprawl of 'Aura' set the pace for the arcane, unsettling atmosphere to follow: the album also boasted other highlights like the nervy, shadowy 'Ripple', the percussion-driven 'Lustre' and the deceptively gentle waltz-time 'Swan Lake'. The band even took a tentative foray into indigenous music forms with the mutated English music-hall pastiche ‘The Disillusionist’.

A bit of a mess, this, but still considered as the band's most intricately woven work. However, it did lack the cohesion that was present in previous Church efforts, simply because there was a fair amount of liberal style-hopping going on, without regard for overall integrity. This resulted in a schizophrenic record that took in diverse genres like ambient electronica ('Lost My Touch'), rough-hewn blues-rock ('The Maven'), AOR rock ('Two Places at Once') and mutant folktronica ('Lullaby').

Regarded as a return to form after a number of years of rather pointless experimentation, this assured work saw the band introducing more pronounced prog-rock elements into their basic template. And it did work for the most part, in songs like the mildly rocking 'Anaesthesia', the spacey, elongated 'Tranquillity' and the coldly distant, wintry 'Buffalo'. Song subject matters were the same stock Church material, with lyrics about parallel universes, spirit realms, trippy journeys and just feeling rather strange, generally.

The prog-rock influence is even more conspicuous here, with an almost palpably Floydian feel throughout. Meticulously crafted and possessing a confident artistic identity, this 13th official album practically defines the word "atmospheric". This belief is ably borne out in tracks like the icy, tension-filled 'Numbers', the luxuriously unfolding 'After Everything' and the purposefully languid 'Radiance' (which deals with the Fatima Visitations). The appropriately titled, intensely cabalistic ‘Night Friends’ is a Goth-rock tone poem par excellence.

This cacophonous album basically emerged from a series of freeform jam sessions, making for arguably the heaviest and coarsest collection to date. The opening space-rock blast of 'Song in Space', the layered-guitar wonder 'Telepath' and the roaring, feedback-drenched 'Sealine' all give firm notice that the band can rock out as hard as they want to, when they want to.

An unplugged album with a refreshing difference, this elegantly designed collection has the band incorporating subtle electronic effects, adding some artful vocal trickery, and modifying a few instrumental bits. This makes for a highly intelligent, if somewhat unorthodox, assortment that easily bears up to repeated listenings. Familiar chestnuts like 'Under the Milky Way' and 'Unguarded Moment' do benefit greatly from this innovative treatment, while the handful of new tunes are well on their way to becoming firm fan favourites.

A partial return to the jangle-pop aesthetics of the early era, but wisely leavened with the prog-rock leanings that the band has been indulging in of late. Wonderfully detailed production values breathe life into standouts like the psychedelic soundscape 'Block', the exuberant, chiming 'Easy' and the dramatic, spaced-out 'Space Needle'. Meanwhile, the stately 'Song to Go' flirts with a neo-classical texture, constituting a new musical diversion for the band.

UNTITLED #23 (2009)
Ostensibly the final studio work from the group, and if it was, what a hell of a way to call it a day. Opener ‘Cobalt Blue’ is virtually Church 101, while the taut ‘Deadman’s Hand’ resurrects some of the gauzy edginess that defined the masterful ‘Priest = Aura’. Elsewhere, both ‘Pangaea’ and ‘Sunken Sun’ supply the mandatory space-rock quotient, and the widescreen ‘Operetta’ is a crafty autobiographical summation. The award for most striking track, though, has to go to the mournful dirge ‘On Angel Street’, particularly vivid in its poignant narration of a post-relationship aftermath.