This is a special post for me. Many people have a “personal” musical act that really inspired them during their formative years, and I’m no different. Around 1990, as a geeky, sort of introverted (ok, very introverted) high-schooler, I came across the music of Australia’s The Church. The time it took from my first listen to full-on, raging fandom, was, oh, not very long!
This neo-psychedelic combo’s particular vibe was tailor-made for me in my lonely suburb. Singer and bassist Steve Kilbey possesses lyrical gifts far more potent than almost any other rock poet. His tales of far-off lands and mystical places, infused with a darkly poetic sense, really transported me and comforted me. Later I would hear many other great surrealist lyricists, but Bolan and Barrett never reached these otherworldly heights. Kilbey’s art truly took rock music writing to a different level.
The guitar duo of Marty Willson-Piper and Peter Koppes spun shimmering, interlocking webs of effects-laden guitar that gave aural substance to Kilbey’s visions and really haven’t been bettered by any other band (yes, that’s right, The Edge and Radiohead). It wasn’t until 2011 that I finally got my own Rickenbacker, but my teen self was beside himself with joy when I did, because he was now like his teenage hero, MWP!
I devotedly consumed their back catalogue and snapped up every release. I finally got to see the band live in my town in 1999, and even though they were grumpy that night because my countrymen and women don’t appreciate good music and the attendance was soft, my wife says I just stood there the whole time with my mouth hanging open, taking it all in.
Now, over time we grow up and I’ve got thousands of albums in my possession in almost every imaginable genre. I love many, many artists, and many of those as much as The Church. But over the years I’ve returned to their music more than that of any other rock act, and I still get a hold of each album and most of the side projects associated with the band.
The Church’s debut album was released in 1981 and the band has changed and evolved, as any act does, throughout the decades. So if The Church is a band that you’ve thought about trying out, look no further than this handy guide to what to expect. A note to completists: I know some of the b-sides-type albums and a few other limited releases are missing. Sorry.
Click on the songs to listen!
The Church’s debut is of its time, which was New Wave. It’s got elements of Bowie, Be Bop Deluxe, John Foxx-era Ultravox, and other ultra-hip acts of the era, but with a distinct psychedelic edge of its own. Kilbey affects a distant, cool vocal demeanour that suits the material. It’s best known for the energetic single “The Unguarded Moment” but also contains interesting tracks like the multi-part proggy epic “Is This Where You Live“. The guitar duo’s style is much more conventionally rhythm-and-lead oriented on this release but is an excellent example of good New Wave playing. Not the place to start but if you like your post-punk, you won’t want to miss it.
The band was already ready to change course. This album is a Byrdsian delight of jingle-jangle guitar mixed with bombastic glam-rock such as that heard on “Field of Mars“. The production is not as good as the first album, with thumpy gated snares showing up, but that was the time, after all. The first side contains a set of the band’s best-ever tunes, highlighted by the immortal single “Almost With You“, a song with special emotional resonance for me — and what a guitar solo, nylon-string no less! The best of the first four albums.
This album is a set of great songs marred by absolutely horrific eighties production. I mean, I understand that was the vibe, but some of the indignities inflicted on the drums are unforgivable, particularly on “Electric Lash”, a great psych-pop tune almost ruined by machine-gun snare nonsense. So why pick it up? Some of the songs are spectrally beautiful, such as the elegant lope of “It’s No Reason“, the mystery strum of “Fly” and the ultra-jangle of “Now I Wonder Why”. The band was so good that it could even overcome some pretty abject sonic nonsense.
I believe this is actually an amalgamation of a couple of eps. This is the weakest release in the band’s 80s catalogue…the production is not as bad as on Seance, but the songs aren’t as good. Having said that, “Constant in Opal” and “Violet Town” have a pleasantly sunny vibe, and the oddly personal “No Explanation” and “A Month of Sundays” feature some nice shimmery acoustic strumming. Not a throwaway release, but not essential. A couple of the songs are actually bad, but since this is a positive blog and post, I’ll not mention them.
All of the previous albums contain great merit, but this is the one that I proclaim to be the band’s first masterpiece, and it’s also the one where Kilbey hit his stride as a lyricist. Like the others, it’s psych-pop, but the production is excellent, with deep, deep tones and a classy sheen. The songs are wonderful from tracks one through ten. “Myrrh” is another early Church classic, a driving beat, wailing E-bow and a set of ultra-surrealistic lyrics with rich imagery (“New Christ beneath the drumkit moon”). Other highlights are the janglers “Tristesse” and “Already Yesterday“, and the better-than-U2 delay pedal freakout of “Tantalized”. An essential album for any psych or dream pop fan.
The one with the song you know. “Under the Milky Way” was a smash hit transcending the college-rock charts, and with good reason. This is a song that stays with you, so very hauntingly. Scarily, it’s only about the 6th best song on the album! Some super-Cali producers in LA give the album a drier, more commercial sound, but somehow it all seems so very eternally shiny, like it stands outside of time. Kilbey’s a lyrical force by now, with the snark of “Blood Money”, the ominousness of “Destination” and the gentle surrealism of “Hotel Womb” being the best examples. By this time, Koppes and Willson-Piper had perfected their meshed guitar parts, creating incredible soundscapes. If you don’t have this album by now…well…
This was actually my first Church album. Apparently the drums are mostly drum machine (drummer Richard Ploog departed during the sessions), but when I was sixteen I had no idea! The songs aren’t as good on this album, and while the same producers were used, something seems missing. That is, except on the wistful single “Metropolis“, which is probably, if I had to pick, my favourite song of all time. It just makes me feel so damn good. And the one-note guitar solo? It blows my mind. Several of the songs on this album don’t work (Kilbey’s lyrics had occasionally become a bit too self-indulgent at this time), but the ones that do are incredible, such as the mournful “Disappointment” and the snarling existentialism of the closer, “Grind”. Not as good as Starfish, but not to be missed either.
Many fans consider this the band’s best album. Not sure I agree, but it’s pretty spectacular. The album is a magic carpet of almost Gothic dark textures and bizarre lyrics, such as album opener “Aura“‘s lengthy tale of a meeting with a sinister tribe, the even more peculiar tale of “The Disillusionist“, a really scary enchanter, and a sci-fi post-apocalyptic story, “Dome”. That the band could get this album out on Arista is kind of amazing. The album cover of a hyena in front of the pyramids pretty well sums it up — this is one trip to the dark side you want to take…now.
The band was reduced to Kilbey and Willson-Piper by the time of this contract-filler. As in, GENIUS contract filler. If the last album was over the top, this one takes it to the max as the musicians indulge their every whim, from the proto trip-hop of “Lost My Touch” to the emotive tragic balladry of “My Little Problem“, to the weird and mega-surreal “Two Places at Once“, on which the two merge different lyrics into a double-edged psychedelic masterpiece. I should point out that by this time Kilbey’s baritone was a wonder of the world, soothing and illuminating. Willson-Piper holds his own too, and his guitar playing is sublime. Even the songs the band members later reputedly disavowed, like “Business Woman” and “Authority”, are beautiful. What a great album.
I thought The Church had ridden off into the sunset by the time I came across this one. An independently-produced album, it’s pretty uneven, even in the re-released extra-songs format. Having said that, the best work matches the sprawling glory of Sometime Anywhere, particularly the ambient rock of the title track (featuring the return of Koppes), the mega apocalyptic-Kraut-prog of “Could Be Anyone” and the chiming emotional anthem “Comedown“, which takes the band back to the glories of “Almost With You”. Though there are some stinkers on this album, the piece as a whole is a worthy addition to your collection.
With Koppes back in the fold and new drummer Tim Powles providing new energy, this album was a real comeback. Apparently Kilbey was in the throes of a heroin addiction, but aside from some lyrical cues such as the laconic opener “Anesthesia”, you’d never know anyone wasn’t at their best. The Church had embraced their status as the granddaddies of dream pop, layering ambient sound with their trademark guitar chime and ring. Kilbey’s lyrics on the southern tale “Louisiana“, the utopian idyll of “Tranquillity” and the hazy sadness of “Buffalo” (I was ecstatic to hear a song about a town so close to mine!) are amongst his most haunting. The album sounded current, it sounded beautiful, and it was and is near-perfect.
This album continues the plot from the last, with an extra dose of Pink Floydian progginess. When I heard “Radiance“, the story of girls encountering a vision of the Virgin, my face almost fell off. The grandiosity still leaves me feeling drugged-up. The intense sorrow and regret of the self-deprecating “After Everything” are a wonderfully enriching emotional experience. The mysteriousness of “Night Friends” is a meditation experience unto itself. Of all the band’s releases, the sheer sonic beauty of this album is the most stunning.
I’m of two minds about this one. On the one hand, it sounds great — the band has never sounded so huge, with cosmically vast guitar sounds and innovative production. On the other hand, the songs just don’t do it for me as much on other albums. It sounds kind of insular overall, and not always in a good way. Having said that, The Church being less than perfect is still head and shoulders above almost everyone else, and this album is well worth it for the mystically beautiful imagery of “Maya” and “June” (two of my favourite songs, period), as well as a few other standout tracks.
I’m afraid I don’t have a lot to say about this one. The Church was kind of treading water by this time, pretty good but rehashing their sounds and themes. Songs like “Unified Field“, “Easy” and “Pure Chance” are pretty, but Kilbey’s rhyming has occasionally become a bit trite and the songs overall just aren’t as strong as I was used to hearing. I do give this album a spin once in a while, but it’s not their best work by a long stretch.
Fortunately, all great artists are capable of making comeback after comeback, and this is an excellent album that mixes the vibes of such albums as Sometime Anywhere and Hologram of Baal. The band stretches out sonically, allowing the textures to speak for themselves and the players’ skill and experience to shine through. The lazy majesty of “Pangaea” is a definite highlight, as is the killer use of mellotron flute sounds on the ultra-prog “Lunar“. An excellent album of true ambient rock. I should point out that while I find a couple of the later albums more uneven, one thing that has continually improved is Kilbey’s voice, which has retained that reassuring tone I loved, while becoming more expressive. For a “late career” album, this is a triumph for sure.
See my ecstatic review for more info on the introduction of one Ian Haug to the band!
OTHER RELEASES OF NOTE
-For fans of cover versions, the band made my favourite cover album, A Box of Birds (1999). Where else can you find covers of The Beatles, Kevin Ayers, Iggy Pop, Hawkwind… and The Monkees? Just check out their cover of Ultravox’s “Hiroshima mon Amour“….wow.
–Parallel Universe (2002) is one disk of ho-hum remixes and a bonus disc that’s almost a full album, and some of those tracks are very good.
-The Church released two very good “unplugged” albums, El Momento Descuidado (2004) and El Momento Siguiente (2007) that are a mix of reinterpretations of their classics with new songs. After getting to know the originals, these acoustic versions are delightfully different in tone and mood.
–Back With Two Beasts (2005) is like another studio album, except apparently not? I like it way better than Uninvited, Like the Clouds. Another cosmic tapestry, the highlight being the hazy lope of “Ionian Blues“.
Please, please, check out The Church, one of rock’s shining jewels. Learn more: