A Crash Course In The Church: Disc #3 – “The Resurgence”

thechurch_promo2015(The Church, 2013 – now. Left to right: Tim Powles, Peter Koppes, Steve Kilbey, Ian Haug)

And so we come to the third and final disc of my Crash Course In The Church compilation. After the band’s creative and critical renaissance at the end of disc 2, it probably won’t be a surprise to hear just how relentlessly creative the band continued to be, and how well their albums were received, by fans and critics alike. I’m sure we all have many bands who we regard as some of the best-kept secrets in the music industry; The Church are definitely one of mine. The frustrating thing for Church fans is that the band are an open secret – it’s not like the press aren’t fond of them these days, but as many great and largely independent bands have found to their cost, it doesn’t matter how well your records are received: if you don’t have a sizable promotional budget, then there are a lot of otherwise receptive listeners out there who will very likely never hear you. It’s been said that the internet has been a great leveller, where labels aren’t especially important as anyone can pop along to a band’s website or YouTube channel to hear their music. This may be true, but with a growing number of bands in existence, the marketplace is so thronged that only those able to shout the loudest don’t get lost in the noise. Perhaps one day the band will receive the kind of attention that they deserve, so that they sell enough records that they will no longer have to rely on outside help (they’ve been fortunate to have the assistance of well-to-do benefactors several times since the mid 90s, another indication of the lengths to which those who love the band’s music will go to to ensure it reaches other ears) to reach out to the willing ears that they and I know are out there, searching for a band like this. One can only hope.

Anyway, I digress. Onwards we go :).

[01]  Sealine (from the album Forget Yourself, 2003)

Having elected not to actually include anything from the band’s Parallel Universe (an intriguing double album, comprised of one disc of Powles remixes of some of the After Everything Now This material, and another disc comprising the tracks that were completed but left off After Everything Now This after the decision was made to reduce it to a single album), we move straight on to 2003’s Forget Yourself. Where After Everything Now This was atmospheric and elegiac, Forget Yourself is the sound of a band captured live in the studio, with their amps up to 11: gritty, disconcerting and largely free of overdubs, it’s perhaps the album that comes closest to capturing the band’s live sound. Nowhere is this back-to-basics garage band feel more evident than in the album’s opener, Sealine: kicking off with a simmering cloud of feedback before a swaggering drumbeat crashes in and launches the song forward, the track lurching along with slanted eyes and a defiant, fuck-you attitude. Try and resist singing along to that anthemic chorus though. I dare you :).

[02]  June (from the album Forget Yourself, 2003)

That’s not to say that Forget Yourself was entirely comprised of balls-out rock, though; tracks like Maya (so great that I named our cat after it – I nearly used Maya instead of this track, but decided that June was slightly more immediately memorable, musically speaking), and the gently unfurling Summer showcased the band in reflective, emotive mode.  June is a ballad as only The Church can conjure one: simultaneously joyful and introspective: “From the west / Lights go out / It’s such a lonely thing to see“, laments Kilbey, sounding as if he knows only too well that the oncoming darkness (and loneliness) is inevitable.

[03]  All I Know (from the album El Momento Descuidado, 2005)

By way of total contrast to the dark, harder-edged psychedelia of Forget Yourself, The Church’s next project was a stripped-down acoustic record. For the most part, El Momento Descuidado is comprised of acoustic versions – many of them radically re-arranged or re-imagined – of the band’s previous material (the album takes its title from a Spanish translation of their debut single The Unguarded Moment, which listeners may remember from Disc 1 and which appears on El Momento Descuidado in a rather different form), although it also includes some new songs arranged for the format. Acoustic album can sometimes be dull, self-consciously worthy efforts, but – much as A Box Of Birds confounded my expectations by being the best covers album I’d ever heard – El Momento Descuidado (and its successor, of which more in a moment) is, hands down, the best acoustic album produced by a rock band that I’ve ever heard.

All I Know is one of those new songs and is possibly the most bare bones arrangement the band have ever attempted, comprising a cyclical one-note piano motif, some sparing acoustic guitar and (memorably) some harmonica underneath Kilbey’s understated vocal. The concept of past lives is re-used once more in a song that almost feels like a survivor anthem, as if Kilbey is astonished to still be standing stage front with his band behind him: “Just like you I am a wanderer / Wandering, wondering / Outrunning all my previous lives… / That’s all I know.

[04]  Pure Chance – Acoustic Version (from the album El Momento Siguiente, 2006)

El Momento Descuidado was a deserved but unexpected success, and there was label interest for a second volume of acoustic recordings. The band had enjoyed the process of re-imagining old songs and writing new songs in the format that this was not a chore – and so El Momento Siguiente (“the next moment”) was born.

Originally I was going to include another original track from this album, but it occurred to me that this was a chance to demonstrate how the band had reworked their own material for the project as well. What, then, to include? A song I’d already put on the sampler? But then, wouldn’t that be cheating? So ultimately I’ve settled on this, a subtle re-working of one of my favourite Church songs of recent years that I had already decided not to include in its original form, as I’d already selected two songs from its host album, Uninvited, Like The CloudsPure Chance is another example of Kilbey mythologising his own life, a blissful reverie on love and regret that routinely reduces me to jelly. The female vocal here is provided by Willson-Piper’s better half, singer/songwriter (and for a period, The Church’s Manager – that’s rock’n’roll, ladies and gentlemen!) Tiare Helberg.

[05]  Block (from the album Uninvited, Like The Clouds, 2006)

I may well be alone on this one, but Uninvited, Like The Clouds is my favourite album by The Church. This made picking two tracks from it extremely difficult – or at least it made picking a second track from it difficult, because Block was one of the half a dozen or so tracks that I wrote down as essential when I first sketched out the track listing. If there was a single song that contained the very essence of this band, I think this could well be the one. Musically it’s got a little of everything; a mini epic, it takes in drifting soundscapes, a thumping good riff and a tremendous Willson-Piper solo at the close. Lyrically, it’s one of Kilbey’s best ever for me: a stream of consciousness lyric, endlessly quotable and containing some of his most dizzying wordplay.

I was down in the city on a miracle street
I flailed like a swimmer through the summer heat
I was waiting for a friend that I needed to meet
And I’s hopin’ she was bringin’ with her something sweet
And I’s hopin’ for an open little opening
And I suffer for a groovy little happening
But it’s all going wrong just like I sing in that song
The song I wrote about you that they put on TV
The TV that I gave you ’cause you wanted to see
But all you saw were spaces where the people used to be
A hundred bastard voids with their pull on me
In the valley of death you’ll be breathless and free

And that’s just the first verse. Seriously, I think that if anyone listening to this compilation isn’t sold by the end of this track, they should probably just admit they don’t have the genetic material to ever grok this band, give up and leave them for the rest of us to glory in :).

[06]  Never Before (from the album Uninvited, Like The Clouds, 2006)

Picking the second track from this album was a lot harder. Until I realised that I was roughly 5/6ths of the way through my compilation but had utterly failed to include an important but much-neglected part of the band. I had realised that I hadn’t actually featured any tracks featuring lead vocals from Peter Koppes. I had included a couple of songs (with another to come, as you’ll hear shortly) with Marty Willson-Piper singing lead, but I hadn’t featured anything with Koppes singing lead – despite the fact that he had done so on several of the albums since and including Starfish.

Which decided me on my second track from Uninvited, Like The Clouds: the Koppes penned and sung Never Before. This one’s definitely got a Floydian edge to it, especially once the predominantly instrumental mid-section crashes in; underpinned with strings and Powles’ intense, thundering drums, it’s one of the most dramatic moments on an album already rammed full of drama. It builds to a crushing whirpool of sound before suddenly evaporating, leaving you hanging suspended in space. Koppes, like his bandmates, is a reliably great writer, but if I had to pick his finest hour, this would be it – even without one of Koppes’ great solos, this is pure magic.

[07]  Happenstance (from the album Untitled #23, 2009)

Untitled #23 found the band in rude health, and recharged after a short period of relative downtime. In many ways it feels like the end of a chapter, much as Priest=Aura did back in 1992; it consolidates a lot of the things that make this band so precious to their fans, and yet is wholly uncompromising in that it unfurls in a dreamy haze, bereft of wiry rockers and opting for a ominous, hazy beauty in the place of catchy riffs. That didn’t stop the band issuing no less than three EPs featuring songs from the album, though (each filled with another 20+ minutes of new material from the same sessions: clearly their creative muse was alive and well). Its deep, textural atmospherics won it many plaudits in the press, and there’s a certain symmetry to be enjoyed in the fact that in 2009 and 2010, the band played the album in full, alongside full performances of their acknowledged classics, Starfish and Priest=Aura. Sitting together in a set in this way, the kinship of the albums is more immediately apparent.

Happenstance is one of The Church’s great unconventional love songs, a haunting and vaguely sinister paen to a nameless muse, with Kilbey and Willson-Piper taking turns at the mic. The verses paint evocative pictures of desire against a world consumed with entropy:

When the honeyed days of love return
And the king is drunk upon his throne
City’s empty and the crystal burnt
I should take some space
Be with you some place

The eerie, uneasy verses are leavened by a woozy, langourous chorus that is an instant earworm. It remains one of my favourites from what is an exceptional album.

[08]  Operetta (from the album Untitled #23, 2009)

Operetta is the closing song on Untitled #23, and it’s a wonderfully bittersweet farewell, Floydian in its reassuring talk of the inevitable truth that all things must pass (“Life is short / So don’t be long / Use your free will / Or get trapped in a song“), and personalising the idea that we don’t leave this life as long as we are remembered – and what better way to do that than in a song? (The opening lines read “A song about you / You’re in a song / Are you good or evil? / Or just right or wrong?“). It also reinforces the feeling of closure the album possesses by mythologising the band’s own journey, including this little chestnut that clearly remarks on the band’s heyday (pun intended – as you may remember, some of the songs from the Heyday album featured brass):

Music plays
Space between the notes full of haze
Piano, drums and trumpets
Just like the old days

The general aura of blissful surrender inherent in the balmy, summery music, belied by the triumphal brass underpinning the middle eight, make this incredibly cathartic – for me, anyway. Life is short, The Church say, and it may all mean nothing; but isn’t the universe wonderful?

Amen, guys. Amen.

[09]  Vanishing Man (from the album Further/Deeper, 2014)

Which brings us right up to date, and the band’s latest album, Further/Deeper. As it happens, it seems that Untitled #23 was the end of one chapter: Willson-Piper does not feature on Further/Deeper at all. His reasons are his own, as he has not gone on the record to discuss his departure and despite contacting him on various occasions, they have not heard from him. It may be that he feels the band had reached a natural end; it may be that he just feels he’s taken his journey with the band as far as it can go; it may also be related to a contretemps about the band’s US label Second Motion, who Kilbey was (publically) convinced had stiffed the band in the aftermath of the Untitled #23 project. Whatever the reasons for Willson-Piper’s self-imposed exile, he leaves behind him a legacy of work with The Church that is second to none.

Willson-Piper’s absence seemed unthinkable, and yet, in the shape of Powderfinger’s Ian Haug, there was a man willing to suffer the inevitable comparisons, and the band forged ahead. Typically, change and uncertainty focused The Church’s creative machinery, and the lengthy and diverse Further/Deeper has been very favourably received by fans and critics alike. Personally, I was prepared to be disappointed, whilst hoping for the best from the band’s first record without Willson-Piper’s involvement; I needn’t have worried. The review of the album I wrote for Echoes and Dust speaks for itself: it’s a stunning piece of work; it’s actually become one of my favourite Church records of the whole back catalogue.

Vanshing Man is the album’s opening track, and the band couldn’t have found a better way to reassure fans that all was well, and as it should be. A mid-tempo rocker with a naggingly catchy sing-along chorus, it contains one of Kilbey’s snarkiest lyrics of recent years as the titular vanishing man is insulted, ridiculed and pitied in turn: it’s opening line is “Sinister bastard / Your casket groans from sins“, and it really doesn’t let up from there. Who is the vanishing man? I’m not sure anyone other than Kilbey knows, and he may even be a gestalt created from several different people. For my part, I imagine him as an A&R man, a dying breed from a different age, doomed to extinction but revelling in his largely imagined power whilst he can. At the end of the day, though, on this opening track all ears are on new recruit Haug, and he turns in a great performance here – even his mid-song solo sounds remarkably in keeping with Willson-Piper’s recalcitrant genius in delivering the unexpected. Haug is a perfect fit; and so established fans relax and wonder what other miracles the new record may conjure.

[10]  Toy Head (from the album Further/Deeper, 2014)

I wanted to include more than two songs from the new album, since most if not all of it is likely to be played at the upcoming gig that inspired this compilation. I settled on picking out four tracks – any more would likely be greedy – and set about ensuring that they all had very different moods. Toy Head is the band at their darkest and most nightmarish. A surreal Kilbey lyric that appears to be about our own minds reliable ability to destroy our happiness and peace of mind for any number of reasons rides over the top of a track comprised of glacial unease and sudden dramatic peaks and troughs that finally spaghettifies over a spinning black hole vortex of reverb and is sucked away into the void.

When you take off your head
Then there’s the glow of the burn
All the shadows increase
All the horrors return

It’s one of the strangest and most unnerving songs they’ve ever recorded; further proof that this is a band that continues to laugh at convention.

[11]  Globe Spinning (from the album Further/Deeper, 2014)

More cosmic horror is available via this track, albeit in a more visceral sense: rather than the creeping tension of Toy Head, here the band go straight for the jugular, cruising along on a thrumming bass line and apocalyptic Powles drumming to deliver a hummable but baleful dance-influenced rocker that’s equal parts vintage Hawkwind and Floyd’s One Of These Days. Koppes’ clouds of guitar effects create an eerie atmosphere as the rhythm section accelerate us relentlessly towards the edge of the world, the general sensation being one of impending but unavoidable disaster. Lyrically, Kilbey feels the bleakness: “It’s almost never tomorrow / Time has left no footprint in these sands / No hint of passing in these lands / When there’s no light to follow.” Of course I can’t be sure, but I think there’s even a little band-related in-joke: I can’t help thinking that there’s a wry smile on Kilbey’s face as he sings “We’re spending more than we borrow.”  I’m sure there’s many a record label exec that would laugh bitterly upon hearing that :).

[12]  Miami (from the album Further/Deeper, 2014)

And then there’s Miami, a song that is already of great significance to the band and its recorded legacy. It was the first song written with Haug’s input, and the effortless way in which it unfolds from tentative beginning to a joyful, almost post-coital haze over nearly nine minutes is a testament to just how perfect a fit Haug was to the established Church dynamic. Over this fluid, filmic backdrop, Kilbey self-mythologises as only he can and the result is a sun-dappled delight, a song about love, loss and regret that manages to move and inspire in equal measure. It is, quite simply, one of my favourite Church songs – as are some of the other tracks on Further/Deeper. 33 years since their debut album was released, some 23 albums (or more, or less, depending how you count them – nothing is for sure in The Church’s world, even their discography) later, The Church resolutely fail to disappoint and continue to deliver soulful, inventive music. May their congregation never diminish.

[13]  Hounds Of Love (from the Coffee Hounds EP, 2009)

I suppose, with the chronological journey over, that you could call this a bonus track of sorts, but being a huge Kate Bush fan, I couldn’t resist including this. For yes, it is a cover of the Kate Bush song, carefully re-tooled but not so extensively that it’s not immediately recognisable. It’s a song dearly beloved to me in its original form, and when I saw that the band had covered it, I was instantly concerned that their version simple couldn’t be anything other than a disappointment. However, I should have had more faith. Whilst I’m not sure any cover of the song could go toe-to-toe with Bush’s epically beautiful original, The Church make a damn good fist of it, Powles’ drumming perfectly recalling the sturm und drang of the original whilst allowing Kilbey and the rest of the band the space to relax into it and make it their own. It felt like the perfect way to end this compilation: a song about being hunted by love, covered by a band who’ve been unflinching in their examination of the human experience, good and bad. On another level, how can anyone fail to be impressed by a band that can cover Kate flippin’ Bush and not come out of it looking like useless hacks? Maximum respect to The Church – one of the very best bands it’s ever been my great good fortune to happen across.

And there you have it. Three discs, 30-odd years, 20-odd albums, and one incredible band. If you’ve read and/or listened to the end and not fallen in love with them, then no-one can say that I haven’t given it my best shot. But if even one person reading this has discovered the joys of this superb band as a result, then my work here is done :).

Thanks for listening!

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