A Crash Course In The Church: Disc #2 – “The Wilderness Years”

church_00sPromo(The Church, 1996-2013. Left to right: Peter Koppes, Tim Powles, Marty Willson-Piper, Steve Kilbey)

Picking up from where I left off in the first part of my Crash Course In The Church, this second disc finds The Church re-grouping. Recruiting drummer Jay Dee Daugherty (Patti Smith band), Kilbey, Koppes and Willson-Piper picked themselves up after the disappointments of the Gold Afternoon Fix period and returned to the studio to make what is now regarded by many fans as their best album, 1992’s Priest=Aura. However, whilst on the surface of things it might have appeared as though the band was in rude health, behind the scenes things weren’t so great…

[01]  Aura (from the album Priest=Aura, 1992)

The epic opening track from Priest=Aura (also the lyric that gave the album its name), Aura is both a fabulous showcase for the new look band – especially Willson-Piper, whose slowly unfolding closing solo is truly magnificent – and the setting for one of Kilbey’s most memorable lyrics, a mythological tale of soldiers returning from a war who had been captured by a seemingly primitive tribe. Revisiting again his much-loved theme of good vs evil, Kilbey delights in turning the listeners perception of the soldiers misadventures on its head. Daugherty adapts well to the band, and there’s a looser, jammed-out feeling to the track (and several others from this record) that shows the band’s increased willingness to write and experiment together – something that would become increasingly more important.

[02]  Ripple (from the album Priest=Aura, 1992)

Probably the most remembered single of the two taken from Priest=Aura, Ripple forms a retort to a siren, a fame vampire who takes advantage of the protagonist’s generosity and affections: “I leant you some collateral to buy new clothes / It went out the window and up your nose / And that’s the end of the honeymoon“, laments Kilbey as he disparages a “human sacrifice to the goddess of vice“. The band support this cautionary tale with brooding darkness, Koppes and Willson-Piper trading blows as the low-register harmony vocals of the chorus lend the whole a suffocating claustrophobia. It manages to be both memorable, with a naggingly infectious melody, and beautifully grim.

[03]  Loveblind (from the album Sometime Anywhere, 1994)

By 1994, The Church were essentially down to a duo of Kilbey and Willson-Piper, after Daugherty left for pastures new and Koppes tired of the conflict within the band, caused by growing interpersonal problems that had made the recording of Priest=Aura difficult for the quiet guitarist. For a time it looked as if there would not be another Church album. However, Kilbey’s restless muse and Willson-Piper’s dogged determination allowed the duo to record – with the help of some new friends and allies, including drummer and producer Tim Powles – a sprawling double album of lengthy, experimental songs. Discarding the band’s established sound to a large extent, the duo used drum machines and experimented with different instrumentation. Consequently, Sometime Anywhere has a rather different flavour, a dreamy, otherworldly feel.

Nowhere is this more evident than on Loveblind, a swirling cloud of psychedelia powered along by Willson-Piper’s restless acoustic guitar, Kilbey narrating a brilliantly conceived noir thriller over the top. The gumshoe protagonist goes in search of a man without a face to satisfy a lovelorn client, the outcome both unexpected and inevitable. Amazingly, this was pushed to radio as a single; even in edited form, this is not single material as any radio station would understand it, but it is nonetheless a beautiful song. It’s presented here in its full album version.

[04]  Two Places At Once (from the album Sometime Anywhere, 1994)

This is the other single plucked from Sometime Anywhere, and whilst it has a memorable chorus, even in edited form it seems a bizarre selection for a single release. What is is, though, is a brilliant song. One of my personal favourites from the 1990s Church, I would have selected this even if it hadn’t been a single. Kilbey’s lyric once again mythologises aspects of his touring life (the “Ellie” referred to in the lyric is a reference to Kilbey’s daughter Elektra), using the idea of past lives to paint highly emotive pictures; the overall effect is warmly nostalgic and bittersweet. The chorus is a thing of desperate beauty:

I’ve been waiting, seems like eternity
I’ve been waiting, waiting for you
I’m still waiting if you remember me
I’ll be waiting, waiting for you

Also touching in its own way is the way Kilbey and Willson-Piper take turns to sing the verses, a reminder that the two musicians essentially were the band at this point. Whilst Willson-Piper’s writing had long been a fixture in the band, Sometime Anywhere and its successor, Magician Among The Spirits, saw him much more involved, and both records benefit hugely from his invention and willingness to experiment.

[05]  Comedown (from the album Magician Among The Spirits, 1996)

Whilst Sometime Anywhere had had some modest success, by the time work on the follow-up got underway, things were on even shakier ground than they had been. Magician Among The Spirits was a struggle to make for numerous reasons: the band (now augmented by Tim Powles, formally installed on the drum stool, and the returning Peter Koppes, who appears on several tracks but not the whole album) were divided about the material, and financially the band were existing seemingly permanently on the edge of bankruptcy, a situation worsened when their US label went under owing them thousands of dollars – approximately 200,000 copies of the album disappeared without a trace, leaving the band to scrape together funds to make the album release themselves. It’s a bold, uncompromising but beautifully atmospheric record, perhaps best typified by the lengthy title track, which clocks in at nearly quarter of an hour in length.

Comedown was the track chosen as a lead single from the album, and frankly it was the obvious and logical choice. Effortlessly conjuring the same bristling energy and jangling guitar of the Church of yesteryear, it marries a fatalistic yet entirely self-aware lyric (the opening line is “You should decide what you want to believe in“, which seems to have been the band’s own mission statement at the time) with uplifting, memorable music that makes it probably the most radio friendly thing the band had delivered since Metropolis. It’s given an extra flourish by the addition of strings, provided by violinist Linda Neal.

[06]  Grandiose (from the album Magician Among The Spirits, 1996)

None more Floydian. From Kilbey’s opening descending bass note, to the showboating, openly Gilmour-esque guitar line and the massed wordless female backing vocal, this practically screams Pink Floyd. As with Comedown, and indeed several other tracks on Magician Among The Spirits, the violin of Linda Neal lends it a more elegaic feel. Some fans see the overt similarity to Floyd as a weakness, but this remains my favourite instrumental by the band, hence its inclusion here. The only song I might have been tempted to include in its place is the epic quarter-hour of the album’s title track, but I had to stop and remind myself at this point that I wasn’t creating a best of, but a compilation to give an overview of the band and that filling space with such a lengthy track was probably not the best way of doing that.

[07]  Anaesthesia (from the album Hologram Of Baal, 1998)

With Koppes now returned full-time, and Tim Powles settled comfortably into both the drum stool and the producer’s chair, the band regrouped after the creative and financial problems of Magician Among The Spirits and set about creating a record they felt better reflected their strengths as a unit. Hologram Of Baal was the result, although predictably Kilbey was damning it with faint praise in interviews within weeks of its release. The rejuvenated band were working their way towards an ideal, a mental picture of what they sounded like, and if they didn’t feel like they were quite there just yet, the fans were certainly very happy with their new music.

Anaesthesia is the opening track from the album, it’s radiotronic intro chiming out before a drum roll from Powles introduces the band. I doubt Kilbey has ever written quite so powerfully about his heroin addiction as he did here. “Behind the veil is a sea, yeah / Only entered into chemically“, he croons, opening a widescreen psychedelic ballad that I remember being completed floored by the first time I heard it. The woozy chorus (“Anaesthesia’s numbing / Anaesthesia’s coming to you“) is married beautifully to a wondrous pillow of the now fully-returned Koppes’ guitar-as-synthesiser effects washes, and the short but piercing Willson-Piper solo, on the verge of pure feedback as it slowly fades away, is a thing of tragic beauty.

[08]  Buffalo (from the album Hologram of Baal, 1998)

This, probably the most obvious single selection from the album (the band eventually plumped for the pretty period drama Louisiana), a short but wonderfully evocative ballad set in the titular city in New York state, USA. Just below the Canadian border, Buffalo and the rest of the Northern tip of New York state frequently enjoy some harsh winters, and one such winter is used as a backdrop here to one of Kilbey’s most affecting tales of isolation and longing. Kilbey pines for the lovely Christina (“Six lonely lifetimes since I’ve seen her / She takes you places your heart cannot go / During the winter up in Buffalo“) whilst out in the snow “the Snow Queen is kidnapping boys.” The song effortlessly captures the drifting snow and the comfortable warmth of his beloved’s hearth; the effect is beyond bittersweet.

[09]  The Porpoise Song (from the album A Box Of Birds, 1999)

By this time, The Church had yet to release any live material: a striking omission from the back catalogue of any band that had been around as long as they had. They had a full live album in the bag, but, unsatisfied with the recording and their performances, they binned it. Instead of the promised live album, they delivered to their label A Box Of Birds – an album of cover versions. Covers albums don’t have a great track record, rarely being anything more than indifferent, but I’m here to tell you that A Box Of Birds is the exception that proves the rule. It remains the best covers album I’ve ever heard, by quite some distance.

I’ve chosen two very different tracks from the album to demonstrate The Church’s versatility. This is a fairly straight reading of The Monkees original, although The Church version is re-tooled with the addition of more of Koppes’ now trademark guitar effects washes which lends the whole a sparkling psychedelic vibe, and a highly dramatic catch-and-release middle eight which lifts the whole thing up into the heavens – it’s almost beyond words. A classic though the original version is, this is the version I always hear in my head when the song is mentioned.

[10]  Cortez The Killer (from the album A Box Of Birds, 1999)

After the beauty of The Porpoise Song comes the heart of darkness that lurks on the threshold, that almost Lovecraftian cosmic horror that the band can summon so effectively. This is also a fairly straight reading of Neil Young & Crazy Horse’s original, but it’s so perfectly suited to The Church that you could easily be forgiven for thinking it was a Church original. Kilbey handles the lyric with a listless, tragic air that persists until, as the lyric draws to an end, he pours forth his despair at Montezuma’s demise, and the music falls into a deathly hush. It’s the calm before the storm: Koppes and Willson-Piper then go collectively insane, conjuring an immense thundercloud of feedback from their overdriven guitars. Crazy Horse’s original is formidable for much the same reasons as The Church’s cover, but in The Church’s hands the song becomes even more desolate and tragic. The 11-minute running time may initially appear self-indulgent, but the long slow build of the track is what makes the magic happen. It remains possibly the best cover version of any song I’ve ever heard.

[11]  Radiance (from the album After Everything Now This, 2002)

The follow-up to A Box Of Birds was originally due to surface in 2001, but a sudden creative explosion in the band was hamstrung as various band members found themselves in other projects at the same time. Consequently, After Everything Now This didn’t appear until 2002, a situation that everyone found somewhat frustrating. However, it proved to be well worth the wait. Indeed the band were totally inspired; they wrote so much material for the album that for some time it seemed likely to become a two-CD set – a modern double album. In the end, After Everything Now This became a single CD, with the remaining tracks held back for the follow-up, Parallel Universe.

Radiance tells the story of a group of children in a remote location who see a vision of the Virgin Mary. They return to town “sobbing and half-blind“, telling the townsfolk that “Our Lady has a message for mankind“. But all they can remember is “her blinding light“. Needless to say, word reaches the outside world, and it invades the tranquility of the town, everyone caught up in the hysteria of the story of the sighting of the Virgin Mary. But the outsiders want more evidence of the sighting, and when no-one is able to provide it, the hoopla comes to an abrupt end: “So the circus drifts away and the noise dies down / Life goes on as before all the people came.” The kicker? The children never say what the message was. It’s a beautifully crafted lyric, almost Marquez-like in its matter-of-fact way of dealing with human narcissism; the fact that it’s built on a shimmering, bass-led rolling riff that steadily grows in intensity is just the icing on the cake, really. The band never overdo it, providing a framework that makes the story come alive. The soaring celestial melodies towards the end will have you seeing visions yourself.

[12]  Night Friends (from the album After Everything Now This, 2002)

Initially I was tempted to include lead single Numbers from the album alongside Radiance, but I saw the chance to include something that reflects another facet of the band’s sound with Night Friends, a piano-led slow-mo ballad with Floydian guitar lines. A song of desolate beauty and almost gothic sense of longing, it talks of spirits and other planes of existence; of death and the dead who remain by our sides, watching us mourn and remember. Shot through with eerie radiotronics and a simply stunning vocal performance from Kilbey and the rest of the band, who join in for the wordless vocal outro, culminating in a brief couple of bars of a cappella vocal which to this day raises every hair on my neck. It’s a song of otherworldly beauty, and another personal Church favourite. The closing section of the lyric always makes me smile – it’s classic Kilbey:

Loving, we’ve been loving
But sometimes hate is better
You can’t keep out the killers with love, man
Hating, we’ve been hating
But only love can heal up the hate

So, as Disc 2 ends, The Church are in rather ruder health, creatively and to some degree commercially, than they had been for some years. After Everything Now This was to prove to be the record that brought them back from the wilderness; a string of great reviews for their latest record possibly helping them maintain a startling outpouring of creativity that would deliver a succession of great records. But I’m getting ahead of myself :-).

Next time: Disc #3 – “The Resurgence”

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9 Responses to A Crash Course In The Church: Disc #2 – “The Wilderness Years”

  1. Bruce says:

    thoroughly enjoying this dave, certainly a trip down memory lane of my youth – parties, beer, bbq’s, the church. i never realised, until i came over here, how little they were known outside of australasia. and, tbh, that’s all due to _the single_. really looking forward to the gig as the it’s been about 7 years since I saw Kilbey do an acoustic show in a lovely small venue, with tables to sit at, and candles for lighting 🙂 [me, try to wind a hippy up? never…]

    • HippyDave says:

      Haha, no, never! 😉 Are you coming to the London show, then? Excellent, we shall have to have a few brews before/after. I did toy with doing Brighton as well, but what with Gilmour, and possibly now Steven Wilson as well, this year is starting to become expensive! Glad you’re enjoying my little stroll down memory lane :).

  2. Great selections, though I favor the After Everything title track.

    • HippyDave says:

      Ah, I love that one, too. I was sorely tempted to include the acoustic version of that from “El Momento Siguiente” when it came to compiling Disc #3. As you’ll see, I ended up picking something else, but it was really close there for a while…

  3. Derek says:

    “Initially I was tempted to include lead single Numbers…” Quite right too ! That aside, can’t complain about the other selections 🙂

  4. Nlocnil says:

    I agree that AENT is really the turning point into the next phase of what the band becomes. The other albums listed have their moments, but track for track AENT is upper-tier Church.

    • HippyDave says:

      Much as I had loved “Magician…” and “Hologram…” (and “Box Of Birds”, for that matter), I was really taken aback at how fresh and revitalised “After Everything Now This” sounded when it was released. There were a few months in 2002 where I don’t actually remember playing much else :). I still grind my teeth at the memory of Q magazine’s review of the album – the word “drab” was used, and some sneery comments about their “dated” sound and Kilbey’s lyrics. I remember ritually burning that copy of the magazine after seeing the band play material from the album at Camden’s Underworld that year :).

  5. Pingback: A Crash Course In The Church: Disc #3 – “The Resurgence” | Tales From The Riverbank

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