A few months ago I did a roundup of albums by Aussie psych legends The Church, which many seemed to enjoy. I was asked to attempt a tougher task, the band’s massive solo and side project discography. Well, a chap only has so much money, so unlike with the band’s work, I don’t possess all of those recordings. Hence, the following is not a comprehensive guide, just me pointing out some of the more interesting recordings from the catalog. I’m aware that this is likely primarily of interest to Church fans, but here’s some background anyway:
The band has had three main creative forces: bassist/singer of most songs Steve Kilbey, and guitarists Marty Willson-Piper and Peter Koppes. In later years, drummer Tim Powles has played a strong role in shaping the band’s sound and also has done his own work on the side, which I’m sure is great and I hope to hear it sometime. Kilbey’s output is quite vast in comparison to the others, since he’s apparently creatively indefatigable. And he’s done very well in his solo albums and collaborations.
In the late eighties, the three mainstays were each signed to solo deals by Ryko. There’s a guy on my street who used to work for that company, so I asked him how that could possibly seem a lucrative commercial proposition — solo albums by three guys from a cult band, albeit a highly regarded one. He told me Ryko just did whatever the hell they wanted and signed whoever they pleased, big sales be damned! Those were the days!
That period produced a number of good albums. Since then Kilbey, Koppes and Willson-Piper have continued to do their own thing. As I said earlier, there are things I have not heard, like MWP’s Noctorum project, Powles’ work and some of Koppes’s solo albums. So what follows is not the best of the assortment of solo material, just the best of what I’ve heard.
And let me point out, Kilbey fans, that yes, this piece is missing things like Hex and Margot Smith. I know, I know. Good albums. The first Hex album is very pleasant. Here’s a track to mollify you.
This post will conclude my series of writings about Church-related things (unless they put out something new, of course). There’s a whole universe of music to write about, so I’ll be turning my attention to some other things. My related posts are listed at the end of this piece. But I thank the members of The Church for all of their wonderful music. And Fipster for his informative and comprehensive Church discography. Lastly, I’d like to say that whoever’s making all these Church-related vids for YouTube is pretty awesome.
The album Pharmakoi/Distance Crunching Honchos With Echo Units is an oddity in that the personnel is The Church minus Willson-Piper. As opposed to Sometime Anywhere, which was The Church (calling itself The Church) minus Koppes. Anyway, this is as good as any Church album, though a bit different. The sound focuses more (naturally) on Koppes’ darker, calmer Floydian guitar stylings, and some interesting industrial-style rattly percussion that you don’t find on Church albums. Highlights are the scary-sounding “Traitor” and the ominously ambient “Trying to Get In“. A moody, dark album, but a lot of fun.
A busy fellow with many collaborations under his belt as well as an extensive and growing solo discography. Kilbey’s work is characterized by his interests in mysticism, ambient music and vintage psychedelia, which he brings to all his projects. Each of his albums has a few great tracks. And since I’ve not mentioned the album, please listen to “Transaction” from The Slow Crack, easily that album’s best song.
An album of short instrumentals similar to Bill Nelson’s work in that period, an eccentric collection of wee pieces composed to accompany a book that came with the release! More of a giant CD booklet. But Kilbey’s writing in the book is actually some really good sci-fi stuff in the new wave Michael Moorcockian tradition. So good that I think it a shame he’s never produced a novel. I’d suggest that the album is best accompanied by the booklet if you can get a hold of it, because it lacks something otherwise.
This is a collaboration between Kilbey and his brother Russell. The first album is a collection of psychedelic instrumentals and ambient pieces that helped serve as a gateway for me to the wider world of ambient. The second album is less ambient, more a group of nice melodic instrumental psychedelia. There’s some fine violin playing on Gilt Trip as well. Adventurous Church fans who do not have these should definitely get them. Listen to “The Onset” if you can find a sample (really beautiful ambient).
This album has legendary status among Church fans. I had the double vinyl edition! Kilbey has never been more ambitious with his sprawling, mystical compositions and arcane lyrics, and there are some great tunes on this, particularly “Soul Sample” and “Celebration of the Birthday of the Elephant God“. Alas, Kilbey’s untrammelled creativity is a little limited by clunky drum machines and rather brittle, trebly sounds, though the genius does break through in many places. My fondest Church-related wish is that Mr. Kilbey re-record this entire album with the personnel and top-notch production quality on his later album, Painkiller, especially with Powles on drums. It would probably be the greatest thing ever. Nonetheless, for the sheer scale of the ambition alone and the many moments of beauty, this is an album to own.
In some ways this is Kilbey’s first “real” solo album, in that the sonic quality is definitely state of the art (an earlier release, Dabble, had a band on it, but all was not well with that album, and another release, Narcosis +, is very strong production-wise), and the artist’s second spring produced a batch of alternately aggressive and delicately lovely psychedelia. I’d say Kilbey had been listening to some Hawkwind when he put this together, and he sounds super-focused throughout with Powles’ help on drums, pushing him to greater sonic heights. The album has a “band” feel lacking in some earlier recordings. The highlight is the ethereal “Crystalline Rush” (possibly his best song ever). This is better than the Church albums out around that time. You should get it.
Kilbey made two albums with Go-Betweens member Grant McLennan (read my impassioned advocacy for his work here). These two musicians were possessed of very different styles (Kilbey dark and mystical, GM plain-spoken and melodic) but somehow it came together beautifully. The first album has a bit of that artificial late eighties/early nineties sound but contains several standout tracks, including the heartbreaking “Providence” and the sorrowful “Civil War Lament“. The second album is much more organic and features some rousing rockers as well as some really sweet-sounding ballads. Check out “Angela Carter” and “Aviatrix“. Alternately psychedelic, groovy and folky, Snow Job is a masterpiece without a duff track to be found.
Kilbey has made three albums with Martin Kennedy, the brain behind instrumental ambient rock outfit All India Radio. The first album, Unseen Music Unheard Words, is an impressive collection of chamber rock, the standout track of which is “Maybe Soon“, a really, really moving song. The second album is merely OK, but the recently released You Are Everything is definitely a highlight of Kilbey’s career. Read my review here.
Kilbey has also made two albums with Jeffrey Cain of American alternative band Remy Zero. Both albums are quite good (I reviewed one here). The music is actually not dissimilar to that of the Kilbey/Kennedy project, psych pop with elements of ambient as well. The first album is consistently good if a bit samey in places (highlight tracks are “The Memory Cloud” and the closing “Untitled“) while the second has a bit more variety, including the most excellent acid folk title track and the personal lyrics of “Old Black Spirit“.
Renowned for rocking a delay pedal like no one else and for his energetic freak-outs onstage, Willson-Piper is also a capable songwriter influenced by the sixties and seventies sounds of his massive record collection. He’s also quite ambitious lyrically, which gets him in trouble once in a while when he overreaches. But when he’s on, he’s very on.
The third of his Ryko albums is his best of that period. He’s definitely going for it, which means he occasionally goes into the territory of preciousness. But the guitar playing is of course top-notch and there are several really nice songs, including the killer main lick and driving energy of “Luscious Ghost“, the ferocious acoustic ballad “Can’t Ever Risk an Openness With You” (I once recorded a cover of it) and the elegant “Scandinavian Stare”. Not essential by any means, but very pleasant.
Hanging Out in Heaven
MWP tempers some of his inclinations to produce his best solo album. “Forget the Radio”, an ode to vinyl, is a hit song if I ever heard it (and name-dropping Robert Wyatt is pretty awesome). “Swan” is a rockin’ ballad with interestingly aggressive guitar sounds. And “Sanctuary” is a really beautiful song, possibly the best of his solo career. This album is definitely the place to start in Willson-Piper’s discography.
This is kind of an orphan. After the failure of All About Eve’s fabulous Ultraviolet album (stupid fans!), Willson-Piper convened with the bass player and drummer of that band to record this project, which contains some of his best songs. Unfortunately, the album sounds a bit unfinished from a production standpoint, kind of hollow. But there are some gems on here, such as the twelve-string ballad “Where the Rainstorm Ends” and the melodic rocker “Staring at the Sun” (another alternate universe hit). Not an album a passionate Church fan should miss.
Koppes, known for his fluid, unhurried guitar style and for generally being a hell of a tasteful player, has contributed some fine songs to Church albums and released some solo albums. Of which his first is the best.
Manchild and Myth
This Ryko album is Koppes getting it all out of his system. It’s twenty tracks long! Koppes is using those godawful drum machines too, but for some reason the murky production style (even the vocals are pretty buried) mixed with the sunny Byrdsy jingle jangle of the guitars makes for a very pleasant experience. I can almost listen to this like an ambient album in the background. But if you pay attention, the guitar sounds and playing are really very fine. Highlights: “These Three Things” and “Into the Bright Light“.