This article was posted to Seance by Greg Witt. He says.
I recently ordered and received the Spring '97 issue (#5) of the US music mag, POPsided (slogan: "Some of our best friends are three minutes long.") for a Church retrospective published therein. In case you're wondering, the only pictures included are reproductions of the MATS, Sometime Anywhere, Starfish, Gold Afternoon Fix, Hindsight, Of Skins And Heart, and Remote Luxury covers, grouped to form a cross.
As the lead singer of The Church, Steve Kilbey seems to front the band with an English laureate on his sleeve. As much poet as songwriter, Kilbey has often been accused of infusing his pop songs with obscurity, as his imaginative mind runs amok on the sonic soundscapes laid down by guitarists Marty Willson-Piper and Peter Koppes and drummer Richard Ploog (who replaced Nick Ward early on). True as this may be, The Church have consistently kept much of their music over the last fifteen-plus years firmly rooted in pop song structure. And who would have guessed back in 1981, when Of Skins And Heart debuted in Australia, that these guys would be responsible for what must be one of the most prolific musical outputs in history, that is when you include their solo records as well as various side projects (All About Eve, Ann Carlberger, Hex, Jack Frost, the Well, etc.). Grandiosity truly prevails, both in quantity and quality, when it comes to The Church.
The Formative Years
1981 through 1985 can be described as the years during which The Church not only burst upon the music scene but transfixed their growing legion of fans with a steady output of material which ultimately established the band as one to seek out on vinyl (and later CD, as is the focus of this feature). 1981's Of Skins And Heart represents the genesis of The Church, the odd title lifted from the opening track "For A Moment We're Strangers". What an introduction, Australian power pop heavily laden with guitars and a Kilbey vocal that sounded at home among his new wave contemporaries. Kilbey refined his style over the years, though that takes nothing away from the youthful exuberance he demonstrates on this record, particularly on the track "She Never Said". Perhaps the song that put The Church on the map was the single "The Unguarded Moment". Though raw in comparison to the band's later work, the song propelled the band into the spotlight with what would become trademark guitars and appealing harmonies.
The next two Church records are more complex from an arrangement standpoint as Kilbey continues to sprinkle a nebulous dust over his words. Enter The Blurred Crusade through the glorious "Almost With You", as it shimmers with purity and beauty while "When You Were Mine" rocks in a distinctly Oz-pop manner. Willson-Piper gets a shot at the lead vocal on "Field Of Mars". Pleasant is the best way to describe his voice which appears often throughout the band's catalog. Seance continues along the same path, as "Fly" opens with acoustic guitars while wistful strings add yet another element to the band's sound. The 'jingle-jangle' guitar interplay between Willson-Piper and Koppes adds rich textures without overpowering each other on distinctive songs such as "Disappear?", "One Day" and the single "Electric Lash". Though Seance is the better of the two, neither record quite lives up to the promise of its strongest cuts, a pattern which plagues the band to this day.
Remote Luxury is actually a compilation of an EP bearing the same name and the Persia EP. Recorded months apart, these shouldn't have been marketed as one product. "Constant In Opal", "Maybe These Boys" and "Violet Town" sound as new wave as ever, thanks to the overt use of keyboards in foreground of the mix. These songs really don't mesh well with the traditional blasts of psychedelic guitar that dominate the remainder of the album. "No Explanation" and "Shadow Cabinet" rank among the best songs in the band's repertoire and are the high points of the release. And since someone made the decision to issue to Remote Luxury and Persia EPs as an album, it wouldn't have hurt anything to include the classic Sing Songs EP. Another $ easily could have been added merely for the inclusion of this rare release.
Heyday closes out the early years of The Church. You could swear that Kilbey spent months in the Australian Outback, suffering from thirstful delusions of wordly exploration in times long since past. His stories are enshrouded by cryptic shadows (heaven to some, infuriating to others) on songs with titles such as "Tristesse", "Columbus" and "Myrrh". And if the sound wasn't grand enough before, horns are included on several tunes, most notably on the lavish single, "Tantalized". The deliberate transition away from straightforward guitar pop, culminating with Heyday, allowed the band to bridge the gap between fringe and mass appeal which would finally be realized with their next album, Starfish.
The Gods Smile on Those Under The Milky Way
Easily their most recognizable single, "Under The Milky Way" marked the beginning of a new era for The Church. The song is nothing short of remarkable. Kilbey's voice is more emotive than ever as Willson-Piper and Koppes demonstrate a graceful fluidity on guitar. They allow the song to maintain a cautious serenity despite its desire to rock off its foundation. As far as Starfish goes, nothing quite touches the magnificence of "under The Milky Way" (though "Hotel Womb" and "Antenna" come close). And once again, Kilbey coughs up the mike for a couple of tunes. Willson-Piper's "Spark" is a winner, his best lead performance to date, while Koppes seems to struggle with his lead on "A New Season". This and other minor slips here and there are not fatal flaws, though Starfish just misses living up to its lofty potential. Because of the band's newly found commercial acceptance, expectations were higher than ever for their next record.
"Metropolis" led the way as the first single from Gold Afternoon Fix, a track representative of the blending of the more interesting music styles The Church have used previously. "Pharoah" recalls Kilbey's penchant for historical drama, "Disappointment", "Laughing" and "Monday Morning" contain chiming guitars among relatively stripped-down arrangements. Willson-Piper sings lead on the underrated single, "Russian Autumn Heart". And Koppes improves immensely in the lead vocal department on "Transient" as his voice is placed in fromt of the mix, propped up by some engaging harmonies. So, is Gold Afternoon Fix the classic Church album everyone has been waiting for? It comes close, getting high marks for consistency, though at times the songs become trapped amid occasional indulgence and excess. Case in point, the last track, "Grind" is, well, a grind.
Most of Our Friends are Over Three Minutes Long
Up to this point, The Church were able to keep most of their material within the three to four minute range, allowing for an excursion here and there into the five minute and beyond void. With 1992's Priest=Aura, the band embarks upon a chapter in their career during which all time constraints are thrown out the window. Both the longest and shortest tracks appearing on a Church album to date are here ("Chaos" at 9:34 & "Witch Hunt" at 1:27). Kilbey seems to revel in the opportunity of being a master storyteller, his words dictating the length of the song, not vice-versa. The seven minute "Aura" opens the record as Kilbey gives a fascinating account of some unknown battle in the first person using the "=" from the album's title as a platform for multiple metaphors. Other standout tracks include the single "Ripple", "Feel" (should have been a hit), a rare instrumental "Film" and "The Disillusionist". One final note, Jay Dee Daugherty (of Patti Smith Group fame) replaces Richard Ploog on drums on this album. Though Priest=Aura didn't exactly set cash registers afire in the U.S., the band managed to squeeze another album from Arista before being axed by the label.
1994's Sometime Anywhere signaled yet another major change. The Church are now Kilbey, Willson-Piper and their hired guns, due to the departure of Koppes and Daugherty. With thirteen tracks clocking in at nearly seventy-seven minutes (only four of which are under five minutes), the new Church give their audience its money's worth. Kilbey shares more lead vocals with Willson-Piper, most interestingly on the unlikely single "Two Places At Once". Featuring alternating leads by both singers, their respective choruses have different words set to the same music which triumphantly come together near the end of the song. Though most of Sometime Anywhere works well, the fuzzy dissonance of "Lost My Touch", the techno-infused "Angelica" and the ethnic instrumental "Eastern" interfere with the record's promise. If you locate the limited edition two-disc version of Sometime Anywhere, add a $ to the rating
The second disc has seven additional tracks, six outtakes from Sometime Anywhere as well as "Drought," which was actually recorded in 1987. Four of the remaining six are also worthy additions to your Church collection while the final two cuts are forgettable.
Enter the present day, as The Church add drummer Tim Powles, welcome back Koppes as a guest star, and produce Magician Among The Spirits. Without a record deal to speak of, the band ventured forward on their own label, Deep Karma, Believe it or not, the record is not too hard to find here in the States and is priced reasonably (when compared to most imports). There are some very strong songs on this record. "Comedown" is actually the most perfect Church single since "Under The Milky Way". "The Further Adventures Of The Time Being" has an intriguing lyric by Willson-Piper, and, uncharacteristic of The Church, they include a rare cover song, Ritz, penned by Steve Harley. This live favorite finally found a home on this record. It is also notable that three of the album's ten tracks are instrumental. I guess that is understandable, considering the lyrical output of Kilbey over the last sixteen years or so. And it might as well be pointed out that the title track clocks in at over fourteen minutes! Long, even by Church standards, the song is actually an interesting listen.
To no one's surprise, there are several Church compilations out there. Unfortunately, none have been released here and can be hard to come by as imports. Hindsight is important, since it covers the band's work up to Heyday. This two disk compilation contains twelve album tracks as well as twelve b-side cuts, including "The Night Is Very Soft" from the Sing Songs EP. A Quick Smoke At Spots is a rarities collection which covers the period between 1986 and 1990. Though sometimes rough around the edges, there are many reasons to explore the sixteen tracks on this disc.
"That's the blues, man; that's the bigtime; that's the rebound; that's the comedown"-this lyric from "Comedown" seems to be autobiographical of the career of The Church. The band has always challenged their listeners as well as themselves. Through it is remarkable that they have been fairly consistent with respect to the overall quality of their albums, it seems that The Church never made that quintessential album everyone knows they had in them. Not many groups have come as close as they have so many times, which says a lot for the band's catalog. Longtime fans of the band should take comfort in the fact that the members are still working hard at their craft, both within the band and in numerous side projects, while neophytes should find the task of delving into The Church's history to be an enjoyable one, to say the least!
Of Skins And Heart $$$
The Blurred Crusade $$$
Remote Luxury $$$
Gold Afternoon Fix $$$$
A Quick Smoke At Spots $$$
Sometime Anywhere $$$
Magician Among The Spirits $$$$
(ratings are out of 5 $s)