'Magician Among the Spirits'

(Deep Karma/White)

Guitar -January 1997
Author -Dwight Frye

(Transcribed for Shadow Cabinet by a.e. nelson)

Performance: Exploratory yet accessible
Hot Spots: "Comedown" "Grandiose" "It Could Be Anyone"
Bottom Line: A return to the eerie guitar surreality that has always been the band's trademark.

Just when everyone had written The Church off as a band that had quietly ridden off into its own sunset, the group has turned around to deliver one of the scariest, prettiest, most accessible albums of its long career. With 'Magician Among the Spirits,' The Church has set its overdubbed guitars to stun, the effects to bizarre, the vocals to melancholy, and the songs to...well, gorgeous.

As always, The Church relies on the dynamic dualism of singer/bassist Steve Kilbey and singer/guitarist Marty Willson-Piper to propel its uneasy yet formidable sonic legacy forward. Frequently caught between the droning post-jangly musings of alternative bands such as My Bloody Valentine, Curve, and Catherine Wheel, and the post-pop guitar sensibility of The Beatles, Byrds, and Bob Mould, The Church have always carved out a niche that is uniquely theirs. Unfortunately, it is a niche that is not as uniquely popular as it deserves to be. After the tepid response to 1992's brilliant 'Priest=Aura,' guitarist Peter Koppes left the band to tend to his solo career, leaving Kilbey and Willson-Piper alone to deliver 1994's fractured 'Sometime Anywhere.' That record was more of an exploratory partnership between the two Churchgoers than an actual Church album, and it seemed to signal the formal end of a band that was no stranger to lineup and label changes.

With Koppes' return to the fold here as guest guitarist on two tracks (Ed: Actually it was five) - along with the addition of Tim Powles on drums - 'Magician Among the Spirits' has a cohesive feel which seems to have evolved naturally from the multi-layered genius of "Hotel Womb" (from 'Starfish') and the haunting instrumental guitar noise of "Film" (from 'Priest'). This time, the band digs deeper into the instrumental realm than it ever has, conjuring up cinematic cuts such as "Grandiose," "Romany Caravan," and "Afterimage."

Indeed, almost half the album's total time is devoted to instrumental sections, with "It Could Be Anyone" notably veering from Middle Eastern/American Indian-style chanting to out-of-control feedback and guitar squawking.

From Willson-Piper's tortured pinch harmonics on the album opener, "Welcome," to the acoustic sparseness of "Afterimage," the band easily covers all of its jangly, distorted guitar bases without repeating itself or becoming cliched. Kilbey's voice is as chilling and detached as it has ever been, while his lyrics show an edge imparted by years and experience.

One can only hope that at this stage of The Church's career that listeners will give the band the serious attention it deserves. Few bands mix experimental guitar with accessible pop as well as The Church, and it is unlikely that many others ever will. Start here and work your way backwards.

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