Magician Among The Spirits

May 2nd 1996

The latest Church album, Magician Among The Spirits is now available in the US. Since I haven't heard it recently, I'm presenting some first opinions on the new album. Matthew and Monica Green and myself were given the chance to hear the album at manager Bruce Butler's home.

About The Album
Steve, Marty and Tim recorded seventeen songs starting in October '95, and Peter Koppes also contributed to five tracks. The title comes from a chapter in a book about Harry Houdini. This is the first album since Heyday that hasn't been handled by Arista and several small, but interesting changes have come with this new freedom.

Behind The Scenes
Bruce told me that this record was the first they've made where they truly had creative freedom. Forget what you read about the Arista albums being "we did what we wanted to do", because the pressure of the record companies played a big role in guiding the band where the label wanted them to be - the band were just putting a brave face on things. When you're dragged onstage, you draw the card that the magician wants you to choose. This album also invites people to get information about the band through sources other than the record label, since those companies are quite strict about restricting the available information about a band to that which they release. These sources include the Seance mailing list and (*fanfare !*) Shadow Cabinet !

The band also stand to do much better financially from this album, even if it is only bought by the fifty or sixty thousand fans (you know who you are !) who will buy anything they record. This isn't surprising considering the kind of stuff that record companies can force artists to do....check this out.....

The video for Two Places At Once was shot in Mexico (I bet you couldn't tell) at the record company's insistence, and at a cost of $150 000. This was done despite the fact that the band wanted to film it in Australia (which is where they were at the time), and half of it was shot in a bedroom and the other half was a generic landscape shot. And guess who paid for it.....yep, the band did ! Can you believe that ?! If your boss told you to spend a big chunk of your money on something you didn't want to do in the first place, then you'd have all sorts of legal protection, but not if you're a musician.

16th June 1996
When I met Bruce again recently he described the situation re: distribution/advances/costs etc. This album has been funded in a very different way. I can't recall the details but the band get paid up front, the record company are smiling and so are the distributors. When I asked why everyone doesn't follow the same example he said that you could only do it with a band like The Church, who have a solid reputation and Will Definitely Sell !

About The Cover

The face is that of Harry Houdini, who is also the figure on the left. On the right is one of the boxes he used to escape from. The cover is black and white except for an "aged silvery" border around the picture.

How Does It Sound ?
Here's where I envy real music journalists who can actually describe music :-) The closest I can come is that it's like Sometime Anywhere but with more effects. I hope no-one takes offense at that...I know that a lot of words carry emotional baggage with them. The guitar work receives a lot of attention, as you'd expect, and the songs are mostly quite long, which gives all the songs plenty of time to develop and be explored. Effects are used very well throughout the album, resulting in a great texture and huge variety of sounds to be appreciated. Steve likes the sound of the violin, so Linda Neil (who played on Sometime Anywhere) recorded a lot of violin parts, which you'll hear throughout the album. As a whole it was quite engrossing and I can't wait to get it home !

This song is a basically list of names - people who Steve Kilbey considers to be ridiculous. I wondered if this meant he disliked them, but Bruce told me that wasn't the right interpretation. They are people that Steve sees as eccentric/strange/bizarre in some way. The list includes musicians, actors, politicians and entertainers, including Harry Houdini. Houdini apparently debunked mystics, spiritualists and psychics, but spent a lot of time trying to find a "real psychic" would could put him in contact with his dead mother !

It was quite long - perhaps a little too long, but the version we heard wasn't the final edit. A "moody effects" section has will probably be dropped for the final version, but will probably resurface in a later release. And it's going to be fun trying to find out who all these people are ! Look for a list here on Shadow Cabinet.

Steve remixed this song after returning from overseas because he felt that it, being the first single from the album, should have a more "commercial" sound. It seems to have worked because it is being played by 3JJJ and 3MMM, which probably hasn't played a Church track since Metropolis.

Comedown was originally written with/for Melbourne singer Margot Smith and both have recorded the song. I can't get the bass line from the chorus out of my mind !

WOW ! This is so damned cool - my favourite track of all. For those who saw Steve and Marty performing this song live, this song will definitely evoke memories. This rendition captures all the quiet tension of those performances and enhances it in just the right places with bass rumbles, violin, and timpani and cymbal rolls. I'm told this is quite a faithful cover of the original, which I have not heard.

The first of the three instrumental tracks on the album, this track actually started as a kind of joke. It's basically a repeated bass line with each guitarist taking a lengthy solo (2 points if you can guess who plays each solo....Matt and I got it wrong !). Steve was originally going to use a brief snippet of this track somewhere on the album (like the start of No Explanation) but ended up keeping the whole song and adding a "huge instrumental" sound to it. He wasn't sure if it was wise to call it "Grandiose" because this would be saying "Please shoot me down in flames" but as Bruce pointed out, the original title of "The Revelation" wouldn't have helped much either :-) !

"Another song obsessed with crossdressers" says Bruce. This follows on from a lot of the material on the Fake album, but I had to tell Bruce that this song did nothing for me at all. He said yes, it is a "mid-pace" kind of song, but when he played it to some American record company execs they all loved it ! So maybe you have to American to get into this song...on the other hand, I only heard it once and I'm sure many Church fans will know that songs tend to "grow on you" instead of providing an instant appeal.

It Could Be Anyone
This grabbed all of us right from the start. A strange "accordion on acid" sound stopped us talking (we started halfway through Ladyboy) and led us into this cool song. It sounded like a cross between the vocals from "Out Of Touch" and the bass and drums from "Macabre Tavern". Bruce told us that this song was very different from its initial inception, which was twice as fast and had different lyrics. Steve had decided to change the lyrics, but the new words didn't work with the original tempo, so it was slowed down drastically. Steve purposely used heavy effects on his voice so it is very difficult to understand, which would promote many different interpretations. But since Stephen Cummings has also recorded it for his new album, we can get them off there :-) (Though they are a hybrid of Steve's original and revised lyrics).

Further Adventures Of The Time Being
One of Marty's two songs on this album, it's a very "70's prog rock" kind of piece (Bruce's words). It tells a story of a lost race/mists of time/ancient power sort of feel, reminding me of Bowie's Supermen (right name ?). Bruce pointed out a rhyme that was a bit strained, which I'll paraphrase here. "They thought the Earth was flat / So they sailed off the edge into a vat." We decided that a thread on Seance should start which would be dedicated to making a better second line for that couplet !

The song itself is not reminiscent of the original The Time Being from the Sometime Anywhere album, which surprised me. "Why does the title suggest that it's a sequel to that song ?" I asked, but Bruce only shrugged.

Romany Caravan
Another instrumental track, based this time on Marty's interest in gypsies. Erm....I guess it can't be that notable because I can't remember a single thing about it ! Sorry Marty :(

Magician Among The Spirits
An astonishing fourteen minutes in length this song invites careful listening in a quiet, darkened room. A repeated bass line runs through almost the entire song and it reminded Matt of early Pink Floyd. I was surprised that there was almost no change in melody or "feel" throughout the entire song - a very brave move ? I asked Bruce if the band had ever mentioned being worried that it was too long, too repititive ? Nope. Never a word - this is exactly what they want it to sound like - isn't that cool ?

The title of the song, and album, comes from a chapter in a book about Harry Houdini (as mentioned in Welcome) called The Life and Many Deaths of Harry Houdini.

A live recording of an instrumental piece. It opens with Steve playing the piano, miked up so that you hear a lot of the mechanical, percussive noises a piano makes while being played. Apparently Simon Polinski likes noises :-) Marty plays acoustic guitar and airy female vocals fill out the background. It reminded me of something that might have been found on Steve's Earthed album.

Potential B-Sides

When Bruce set up his DAT machine to play these we started chatting about other things so I didn't catch most of the lyrics. These impressions are therefore based mostly on the music.

Man la la.

Won't Let You Sleep
A song by Marty, this was almost included on the album. I'm afraid nothing really comes to mind about this one.

Sudden Adult Death Syndrome. This was going to be an album track right up until mastering day when Steve decided to take it off the album. I really liked this one - it had complexity and character and it's their first choice for a b-side.

White Star Line
Bruce told us that this was generally agreed to be the second least favourite of the seventeen recorded tracks. (The least favourite was, I believe, the one that Simon Polinski refused to mix because he hated it !) All I remember is thinking the word "naive" best described one particular bass part - but that's getting really picky. It's not a bad song, but again, there's nothing spectacular about it. Actually, perhaps this is the song that uses the "Sheep Effect"'s like that part of the chorus in Bowie's Scary Monsters where his voice cuts in and out very sounded like a sheep making a "baaaaa" sound. Or maybe it was in another song - I hope you get to hear it :-)

Why Don't You Love Me
This was an excellent song and is apparently the second choice for a b-side. We started talking again during this song, but we all noticed it when Steve sang "...and all because of some stupid lines from The Blurred Crusade". Huh ? Wind it back ! What's going on here, Bruce ?

This song is about a particular person, a person who has been bothering, hassling, even hounding Steve to the point of exhaustion. At a guess it's about a confused woman who thinks that a song from that album was written about her and we can only guess the things she's done to make Steve write a song about her.

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