HippyDave vs Music, Part #2

Back in the Spring of 1991, I was just settling into my second term at technical college. At the time, I was, first and foremost, into rock and metal. Rock and metal formed probably about 80% of all my listening, with the rest compromising film soundtracks, the odd pop group I liked, and electronic music. By the time the new decade rolled around, a lot of the bands I had especially liked were having a much harder time of it – and it would only get worse for the survivors of metal’s late 80s self-parodying excesses, as even the most popular of them started falling victim to the increased popularity of grunge and garage rock that really came into its own a few years later. Even as a dyed-in-the-wool metal fan, I was starting to feel that some of the bands I’d spent years listening to felt… not bad, but tired. If the musical climate was changing, I was ready for the change. I wanted to hear something new.

More than that, I wanted to escape. I wanted something more abstract and less obsessed with the machinations of the human race than a lot of rock music had become. A lot of rock and metal at this time just felt exhausted with human self-absorption: furrow-browed and obsessed with how awful we were being with each other, it seemed to me that a lot of bands had become obsessed with making grand political gestures and weren’t writing about people anymore so much as writing songs making statements that they felt they were expected to make. So much music felt so earnest, so worthy, so… dull.

Happily, after several years underground in the UK, the electronic music scene was really starting to rise to the challenge of presenting a genuinely revolutionary alternative. And I mean revolutionary in two senses of the word: revolutionary as in genuinely new, and revolutionary also in that a lot of what the electronic music scene was serving up was deliberately anti-establishment. For the first time in my living memory, here was what could honestly be termed a counter-culture movement, with a whole different worldview. Freed from the conventions of rock music, the electronic/dance music of the time was unabashedly progressive and intriguing. 40 minute single-track singles; EPs without track listings, or containing only suites of numbered parts, almost as if they were classical music; impromptu gigs/raves… these were all features of the scene which had been gathering momentum since the mid-80s and which now gatecrashed the mainstream in spectacular style.

Whilst a lot of the electronic/dance stuff that ended up in the charts was entertaining if not outright fun, much of it tended to be essentially pop music dressed in new clothing: stuff like C & C Music Factory, Snap! and the omnipresent 2 Unlimited from Holland typified this approach. They were generally big cheesy fun that I didn’t object to, but nothing that these kind of acts did really touched a chord with me. I wanted something that broke the rules, something that Just Did It’s Own Thing, not fussed if people actually went out in their droves and bought copies from Woolworths. Time passed, and I heard a lot of enjoyable but inessential things that weren’t quite what I was subconsciously looking for.

And then, unexpectedly, something dropped right in my lap. It was during an expedition to the best-loved of the independent record stores local to the technical college I was attending in Worcester, a place called Magpie Records (long since gone, unfortunately; I can see a pattern forming here given that Tempest Records that I talked about in #1 of this series has also now gone). A lot of my mates at technical college were also big music geeks – primarily metal (everyone knows that metalheads have an unerring sense of when other metalheads are nearby, sort of a metal radar. These particular birds of a feather always flocked together), but just music generally. So we spent an awful lot of time (and money) in Magpie. On this occasion, though, I popped into Magpie on my own on the way to the railway station. The place was about to close; it was Spring and the nights were drawing out, but the dim lights of Magpie barely illuminated the racks enough for me to flick through them. I had just started doing so, when suddenly a part of my brain shook itself awake and said, “Hey, Dave, like, what the hell is this they’re playing over the speakers in here?”

It wasn’t quite like anything else I’d heard before. It mixed together seeming random samples, sound effects and washes of synth with a steady electronic pulse that faded in and out of the mix, building with a steady intensity before fading doppler-like into the background. There were no vocals, just sampled speech and an occasional choral effect; there was no evident narrative or meaning. It was just… beautiful. It was about nothing and everything at the same time. It had no structure, it just ebbed and flowed without really seeming to ever develop a melody, and yet there was something immediately fascinating and memorable about it. I stood there for perhaps ten minutes, soaking it up, before I realised I wasn’t doing anything else – the racks had been forgotten – and that the guy behind the counter was watching me with amusement. So finally I had to ask, “What’s this you’re playing? It’s amazing.”

The answer was, “It’s A Huge Ever-growing Pulsating Brain That Rules From The Centre Of The Ultraworld by The Orb.”

They only had the one copy of the original 12″ left, and that had been ordered in for someone, so alas I couldn’t buy it. I was gutted. But, perhaps sensing my disappointment, Mr Magpie informed me with a grin that The Orb’s album was coming out in a fortnight, and that word had it that this track would be on it. I immediately knew that I would be buying it. Even if it turned out that the rest of the album didn’t live up to what I had heard, this track alone would be worth the investment.

It was a really long fortnight. Time stretches when you’re waiting for anything, and by the end of the second week, my impatience was manifesting itself in unusual ways. Forever cavalier about my time-keeping and coursework deadlines, I had thrown myself into my college work as a distraction and actually finished several assignments days early, which was unheard of. When release day finally rolled around, I got straight off the train in the morning and went straight into Magpie. The album, The Orb’s Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld, had arrived but hadn’t yet been unpacked. “Come back in an hour”, I was told. So I went to college, sat jiggling through my first lesson, then practically ran back to Magpie to buy the album. My mind was not on college for the rest of the day. I sat there marvelling at the track titles. As well as the Huge, Ever-Growing Pulsating Brain…, we had Spanish Castles In Space, Into The Fourth Dimension, the Back Side Of The Moon and Star 6, 7, 8 and 9. And, of course, Little Fluffy Clouds, a track that rapidly became omnipresent and another huge personal favourite.

I got home, and practically barricaded myself in my bedroom so as not to be interrupted whilst I listened to the album for the first time, both discs back to back (for Ultraworld is a classic double album in the fullest sense). It was like dropping acid (not that I had the faintest idea what that was like back in 1991). It was like a waking dream, a soundtrack without a film, except perhaps of the purely internal kind. It was, in short, a trip. For the first time I experienced some dance music that completely disregarded traditional song structure, constructed without any thought of track times or conventional musical ideas. It was around halfway through the second disc that I realised that I now loved dance music, and that – like rock – the stuff that cluttered up the charts was a tiny, tiny part of what was going on at any given time. And so it was that The Orb turned me on to dance music: a dizzyingly vast genre full of contrasts and musical invention that I just hadn’t been paying attention to.

Over the years, Ultraworld became a chill-out album of choice. It was what you threw on on Sunday morning after a particularly good party, or at three in the morning as the party lost its momentum and became introspective and relaxing. When I was home on my own, it was what I listened to over headphones at night as I lay in bed. And in all the years that followed, it never once lost its shine. I still play it regularly now – and every time I play it, I smile fondly as it reaches Huge Ever-growing Pulsating Brain… at the end of the album, and marvel afresh at this truly cosmic piece of semi-improvisation, a magnificent sound collage the equal of which I still have yet to hear, nearly 25 years later.

Thanks, guys :-).

Here’s the full-length version of the track that I first heard in Magpie Records that fateful evening. Bonus points if you can spot the Floyd sample ;-).

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HippyDave vs Music, Part #1

This week I was tagged by a friend in a meme that’s been doing the rounds on Facebook for a while now: “Post seven songs in seven days that made you fall in love with music”. This sort of thing can be interesting and fun to do, but rather than post it on Facebook and see it vanish into the ether – the web equivalent of pissing in the wind, if ever there was one – I thought I’d blog about my seven chosen songs here and post links back to Facebook. At least that way I’ll know where it is if I ever want to go back and find it again :-). I’m going to try and pick a few unusual songs, too: thanks to my retrospective piece for Echoes and Dust, every man and his dog have heard about how Kate Bush’s Wuthering Heights changed my life, so I’m going to pick some of the more obscure songs that introduced me to new types of music, or to some of the more obscure bands whose music had a powerful effect on me.

Anyway, here’s my first offering: Mr. Self Destruct by Nine Inch Nails, from their 1994 album The Downward Spiral. Back in ’94 I was only vaguely aware of Nine Inch Nails – I’d heard a song on the radio that I really rather liked: it was vaguely dancey but had the raw aggression and fuck-you attitude of the kind of metal I had been into, so in that sense it combined two elements I enjoyed and fused them into something quite new and intriguing. I came to realise that the song I’d heard was Head Like A Hole (from NIN’s debut album, Pretty Hate Machine), but that wasn’t until after I’d picked up on The Downward Spiral and really got into them.

Back in the early 90s, me and various of my mates used to love catching the train up to Birmingham and trawling through the various (very well-stocked) record shops – especially the independents, but also the huge local branch of HMV – picking up all kinds of stuff almost on a whim, blowing our pocket money and student grants on our drug of choice: music. It was on one of those trips that we wandered into one of the indie stores (the excellently named Tempest records, which sadly closed in 2010) and although they were playing interesting stuff upstairs, downstairs they were blasting out the newly arrived The Downward Spiral. I was descending the stairs into the basement just as the intro of Mr. Self Destruct, which was the opening track of the album, gave way to an explosion of guitars and clattering drums, and I was instantly smitten. So much so that I didn’t only leave the store with a copy of The Downward Spiral, but also with a copy of everything else that the store had under the NIN card in the CD rack: the Broken and Fixed EPs, and the band’s debut album Pretty Hate Machine, as well as a CD single of Head Like A Hole. I was absolutely delighted, upon getting my haul back home, that Head Like A Hole was the song I had vaguely remembered hearing before :-).

1994 was a tricky year for me. I had dropped out of technical college, despite finishing all of my computing qualification except the final programming project, and was actually on the dole for about eight months. My grandmother was also gravely ill and I found myself spending an increasing amount of time living with her and acting as her carer, as my mum was still working nights as a nurse and couldn’t be awake in the day to look after her. In short, I was having a fairly miserable time and was actively angry and upset a lot of the time: the stereotypical “angry young man”. The trip to Birmingham I’m referring to took place shortly after my grandmother passed away, and I freely admit to being a bit of a basket case at the time – but in that typically British way, where all the hurt and hopelessness went largely unexpressed and sat in my brain, affecting the way I viewed the world. My mates – old friends from school, and newer friends from technical college, were a great comfort to me at the time. As was my primary escape, music.

The Downward Spiral fascinated me, most likely because I felt I was on a ‘downward spiral’ of my own, where every perceived injustice, whether personal or general, ate away at me. I’m not one for self-pity, to be honest – I get angry with myself when I go full Eeyore, and tend to over-compensate by throwing myself into projects in an attempt to snap myself out of it – but 1994 was hard. Everything seemed to be a struggle, and music was my escape as it had rarely been before. I bought far more music than I could really afford, and probably went to more gigs that year than in all my previous years combined. Looking back, a lot of my favourite records that year were pretty dark – Marillion‘s Brave (the tale of an emotionally scarred young girl who had been sexually abused by her stepdad), Tori Amos‘ pretty but grimly defiant Under The Pink, Dream Theater‘s dark and turbulent Awake, and The Prodigy‘s viscerally angry Music For The Jilted Generation were the other albums I played the most that year. These were all healing records, though: it’s commonly held that listening to dark music allows you to exorcise your own demons, and I think that’s very true. These records all unburdened me of a particular kind of pent-up pressure that was building up in me, and consequently they all became records I was especially fond of (all of those are records I would cite as Desert Island Discs).

The Downward Spiral felt so personally applicable to how I was feeling, though, that it seemed written for me; it felt like my thoughts nailed down and expressed by someone with the musical talent I simply have never had. Putting emotions aside, I was also hugely impressed by the sound of the record: it’s not just a bellow of rage, there are periods of glacial calm, a surrender to the heads-down primal scream of the heavier tracks. Instrumentally, too, it’s a lot more complex and interesting than it is frequently given credit for. Trent Reznor (NIN mainman) apparently suffered with his own demons whilst making the album, and it really shows. Its power remains undimmed to this day, and I still love it, even though I think Trent did top it a few years later with 1999’s The Fragile, which to these ears is very much conceptually The Downward Spiral‘s natural sequel. That said, I doubt he could have written The Fragile without writing The Downward Spiral first.

My first hearing of Mr. Self Destruct stays with me, however much I came to love the rest of the album. Objectively it’s not the best or my favourite song from the album… but every time I hear the intro of Mr. Self Destruct, for a few seconds I am that unhappy, cynical 22 year old descending the stairs of Tempest in Birmingham, and I am blown away all over again.

I am the needle in your vein
and I control you
I am the high you can’t sustain
and I control you
I am the pusher I’m a whore
and I control you
I am the need you have for more
and I control you
I am the bullet in the gun
and I control you
I am the truth from which you run
and I control you
I am the silencing machine
and I control you
I am the end of all your dreams
and I control you
I take you where you want to go
I give you all you need to know
I drag you down I use you up
Mr. Self-destruct

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In Defence Of Enya

The way I listen to music relies heavily on the seasons. There are certain records which invariably evoke the sense of a particular time of year for me; so much so sometimes that I have real difficulty listening to them unless it’s at that time when the atmosphere of the record reflects what’s happening around me. Autumn is a time of year when that relationship between music and the changing season is especially strong, and over the years I’ve come to regard some albums as quintessential Autumn listening.

Enya is one of those artists whose mission in life seems to have been to create records that I can only listen to at particular times of the year. In her case, it’s almost exclusively autumn and winter. There’s just something about her approach to writing that evokes the sense of the change from the heat of the carefree summer to the falling leaves and cold winds of winter. I feel that change very strongly; the entropy of autumn and the drawing in of the evenings has always had a substantial impact on me. I find the last few months of the year – October through to New Year’s Day in particular, but right through to the onset of Spring if I’m honest – very spiritual. I can almost sense a sharp intake of breath from some of you reading this: “spiritual? Ooh err, sounds like he’s getting religion!” I can assure you that this is not the case, nor is it ever likely to be. I’m a long-established atheist (albeit with some sympathy for the world-view of pantheism) and cannot ever see that changing. When I talk of spirituality, I don’t mean the loaves-and-fishes, holy trinity variety. I’m talking about the natural cycle of birth, life and death.

The older I get, the more I find myself considering mortality. Not just mine, but everyone’s. I suppose that that’s perfectly understandable: at some point you realise that more days lie behind you than are likely to lie ahead. This feeling is inevitably reinforced by the number of loved ones and acquaintances whose deaths you have to face up to along the way, and the older you get, the more of those deaths accumulate. Naturally, a part – however small – of your mind starts considering mortality, and with it the life you’ve lived, and the things (often small) that you will miss experiencing.

Sobering stuff, right? But this is where Enya and her music scores. Enya’s music reflects this outlook on the cycle of life quite powerfully, I feel. Her background is in folk music, of course: for those who were unaware, she started her career playing and singing with family members in folk legends Clannad. Folk music is as riddled with unthinking, narrow-minded purists as almost any other genre of music you could name, however, and the principal group of critics of Enya’s music seem to be those who feel that her music is too far removed from the folk tradition; that in turning to synthesisers and a generally pretty introspective feel, she is making cynical, lacklustre ‘New Age’ music – the sort of stuff that people sneeringly associate with recordings of whalesong and self-help mantras; sleepy, chill-out muzak for yuppies and chintz-obsessed grandmothers. To say I feel this idea of Enya and her music is wide of the mark is the daddy of all understatements.

Enya’s music is inescapably romantic, it’s true. Any music that so heavily relies on strings – synthesised or otherwise – could hardly be otherwise, really. Her lyrics – usually penned for her by long-term collaborator Roma Ryan – are a veritable travelogue, too, namechecking destinations around the globe (and indeed beyond, with songs often looking into the heavens). That sense of restlessness, of exploration, anchors her music to reality, to the world around her and her listeners.

Here’s the kicker, though: Enya’s songs are invariably spiritual. And whilst Enya herself is religious – her Roman Catholicism has been cause for remark in the past and will undoubtedly be so again – I’m not talking about religious content here. I’m speaking of spirituality again in that sense of the cycle of life. Enya’s music is filled with meditations on mortality. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the travels she is often found singing about aren’t solely geographical; they are metaphorical, too. The journeys she sings about are those that move us through life, passing into death. I expect you can already see how I’m going to connect the dots here, but that’s the essence of why I find Enya’s music so evocative and often so moving. Her songs talk about love, loss, and of life lived well.

Another complaint often lodged at Enya’s door is that so much of her music sounds the same. This accusation is harder to argue, purely because there is a grain of truth in it. Most of her music is as much space between notes as notes themselves, and much of it is paced as slow-motion balladry. However, I would argue that Enya’s instantly identifiable approach to writing and arrangement, and the subject matter of her songs, ensures that her records always sound like Enya albums. Enya is not a musician that is ever going to wake up one morning and decide to “go metal” or make that jazz fusion album. Her focus is always going to be her extraordinarily pure voice, and the music necessarily has to have room for that voice to be used in the way Enya feels it is best employed. Playing devil’s advocate for a moment, who are the critics to complain when the results of Enya’s stylistic choices have sold millions of copies of her albums? Enya’s music doesn’t do so well commercially because it follows a trend: quite the opposite, in fact. I myself tend to reserve a special appreciation for musicians who boldly shatter stylistic boundaries and mash-up elements of their musical sound to produce the unexpected; I have a particular love for musicians who please themselves first and who decide not to limit their sonic palette. At the same time, though, I don’t think it’s artistic cowardice on the part of musicians like Enya to explore a more limited musical style if it plays to their strengths: as I always remark when people tackle me about what I look for first and foremost when it comes to music, an adventurous spirit is laudable but always comes second to genuine emotion.

And that, again, to me, is where Enya scores. Obviously we all approach music differently, and have differing tastes, but I can never help feeling that Enya’s critics – certainly those who accuse her of producing slick, soulless muzak – have never bothered to listen to the content of her records, only the gentle croon of her voice, the choral accompaniments she favours and the wash of keyboards. The effect can certainly be hypnotic, but there is so much more there to be heard, and felt, than the casual listener will ever hear, especially if they’ve already decided they want to dislike what she does.

I’m sitting here listening to her new album, Dark Sky Island, for the second time as I write this (obviously the first time was more of a full immersion scenario, as it usual for me with most of the music I listen to). I can hear the scornful cries of Enya’s usual critics already. “It sounds just like every record she’s ever made! She’s singing in a made-up language!” (That’s the Loxian language, by the way, created for Enya’s use by lyricist Roma Ryan.) Better yet: “it’s music for people who don’t like music!” Someone posted that in the comments section of an article about the album several days ago, prior to the album’s actual release, which just shows how toxic the internet allows people to be sometimes. Yes, stylistically Dark Sky Island plays to Enya’s strengths: that beautiful crystalline voice retains all its ability to send chills up and down the spine; yes, it’s frequently deployed in great choral washes; yes, there are a lot of synthesisers. In many ways, then, business as usual.

“So why buy and listen to a record you’ve already heard?” I can hear people asking. It’s a futile question, really. However familiar the clothes may be, and however typical the themes of the songs are, these are new songs, saying different things. It’s a bit like saying that Suzanne Vega’s songs are basically the same because many of them are similar in the way they’re presented: that’s a style, not to be confused with the actual content. I, like so many others, keep listening to Enya’s new music because the themes – and her evident acceptance of the nature of mortality – strikes a deep chord. Echoes In Rain, the lead ‘single’ from the album, is just the latest in a line of songs that address the difficulties of grappling with these ideas in a way that lodges in your mind and, in its reassuring way, tells you that it’s only natural to think about such things. When Enya sings of the “long journey home“, that “night comes again“, and that “here comes another new day“, there’s a whole heap of subtext going on that’s nothing to do with the diurnal cycle.

So let the armchair critics scoff. I love Enya’s music: ever since I first heard (as must be the case with so many others) Orinoco Flow back in 1988, although I confess I was always a bigger fan of On Your Shore and the truly wonderful Evening Falls which still has the power to reduce me to a puddle. A couple of listens to Dark Sky Island has only served to rekindle that affection; proof that Enya’s music remains as timeless, its themes as universal, as ever. For me, whatever Enya’s own faith may be, her music can perhaps best be summed up as modern secular hymns, affecting paens to nature, to the wonders of our world and the vast glittering emptiness beyond it, providing solace and hope in our persistent humanity. There’s a reason why her song Only Time struck such a powerful chord in the wake of 9/11: it captured how we all felt in the aftermath. That song is not unique in that sense; it’s merely an example of just how powerfully Enya can capture that sense of our temporary existence and remind us that our mortality is not something to be feared or to inspire dread; it drives us all, whether we realise it or not.

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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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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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A Crash Course In The Church: Disc #1 – “The Glory Days”


(The Church, 1980-1990. Left to right: Marty Willson-Piper, Richard Ploog, Peter Koppes, Steve Kilbey)

As outlined in my previous entry, here is the track listing for the first disc of my three-disc compilation drawn from The Church’s back catalogue. The compilation as a whole is entitled A Crash Course In The Church, since essentially that’s what it is: a crash course to prepare the listener for the upcoming UK live dates that’s less time-consuming to play than the band’s entire recorded output. You’ll notice that I didn’t call it The Best Of The Church or suchlike – partly because I object to the words ‘The Best’ appearing on a compilation (since when has any compilation really featured the best that a band or musician has to offer? Never, in my view), but partly because I wanted to set it apart from a collection of my personal favourites. I do love each and every song here, but they are not all my favourite Church songs. Three discs would be altogether to small a space to fit all those songs in for starters; also I’m not arrogant enough to think that my own personal favourites are the songs that would most appeal to new listeners. There are a few personal favourites on the compilation that may seem like odd inclusions to some, but we’ll come to that in due course.

The subtitle of the compilation – The Glory Days – is meant to be self-deprecating on the part of the band. For me personally, this is probably my least-loved of the three discs that make up the compilation, for all that there are no songs here I don’t enjoy or in most cases adore. There’s nothing amiss with this material at all – I love it all, frankly; I just slightly prefer where The Church have ended up to where they started. That said, there’s a grain of truth in the subtitle: The Church were truly in the ascendance by the end of the 1980s, and the sizeable commercial success of the Starfish album and its associated singles seemed to be a launchpad to even greater things, commercially speaking. Alas, it was not to be: but then, everything happens for a reason, and the music that The Church made after Starfish is more than adequate compensation to these ears.

Without further ado, then…

[01]  The Unguarded Moment (from the album Of Skins And Heart, 1981)

It would have been almost unthinkable not to open this compilation with the band’s debut single. An outsider’s anthem, painting a picture of a man hiding his emotions behind a barrier put up to avoid the scorn of more superficial peers, this comes across as equal parts early Rush and The Byrds, it’s chiming guitars and rock breakdowns given a satisfying velocity by Kilbey’s thudding bass line. The band’s early success all happened in the shadow of this song, a fan favourite and a song that remained an albatross around their necks for some years – consequently they largely disowned it until it was rehabilitated for their acoustic album, El Momento Descuidado, in 2005.

[02]  Is This Where You Live (from the album Of Skins And Heart, 1981)

One of two songs that only made an appearance on this compilation because they were being played by the band on their recent US tour. Initially I was more tempted to include Bel-Air, which remains a big personal favourite, but the more I thought about it, the more sense the inclusion of this near eight-minute behemoth made. For one thing, it demonstrates plainly that The Church always had progressive rock tendencies (never mind the length, check out the time changes!); for another, lyrically it’s an early example of Kilbey’s gift for taking personal experiences and self-mythologising them into a form that has universal appeal. As the 80s boom felt across the developed world took hold, Kilbey’s lingering looks at a world becoming submerged in the material struck a chord with many.

[03]  In This Room (from the Sing-Songs EP, 1982)

The Sing-Songs EP doesn’t often get mentioned, but for me it’s where The Church sound really gelled. The first album possessed a wiry New Wave energy, but only flirted with the rock crunch and anthemic choruses that were to typify some of their most successful work. Listening to this song now, it’s easy to see the seeds of the Starfish album taking root. Guitarists Koppes and Willson-Piper set up a spare framework for Kilbey’s typically self-lacerating lyric about the dissolution of a relationship that wasn’t. There are some great lines in this one, too, which have endeared it to me for a long time. “There are no windows in this room / Which we’ve been sitting in all our lives“. Ouch!

[04]  When You Were Mine (from the album The Blurred Crusade, 1982)

By the time of The Blurred Crusade, The Church had played a large number of live shows and had really honed their new material, as demonstrated by the lengthy intro to this little classic, which begins almost standing still before steadily into a breathless adrenaline rush. When Willson-Piper’s scratchy run down the fretboard breaks into the chiming central riff, it’s a glorious moment. One of the catchiest melodies the band have ever penned, supported by one of their finest riffs, this was always a fan favourite, and with good reason.

[05]  You Took (from the album The Blurred Crusade, 1982)

A much longer song, You Took also betrays its origin as a live favourite with another lengthy intro. What is ostensibly a song about being jilted possesses an almost mythic quality in Kilbey’s hands, and it’s breakdowns from thundering rock juggernaut to sparse, intense verses are another indication of the band’s increasing flirtations with progressive rock influences. Both guitarists excel here, but it’s Koppes’ truly outstanding solo turns that steal the show.

[06]  It’s No Reason (from the album Seance, 1983)

A wonderfully unsentimental but emotive song about the inevitable entropy and decay of the world and the people who inhabit it, It’s No Reason is wonderfully matter of fact about death and its place in human existence. It’s woozy synth strings and Kilbey’s truly outstanding lyric make for an unusual personal favourite from one of the band’s more controversial records – the bizarre production feels distinctly lo-fi after the lush dramatics of The Blurred Crusade. The fact is, the New Romantic movement had really gathered steam by this point, so someone somewhere probably thought that this was how rock bands should sound. They were wrong, and it’s really only because some of the material was so strong that it survives its dated treatment.

[07]  Electric Lash (from the album Seance, 1983)

The Seance album is largely mid-paced and downbeat, so this jangly little treat probably stands out as much by dint of its being light relief as for any other reason. Ignore the horrible treated drum sound and relax into the gorgeously Byrdsian guitars and Kilbey’s pretty daydreaming lyric. The closing round (with Willson-Piper singing backup) is one last perfect flourish.

[08]  Remote Luxury (from the Remote Luxury EP, 1984)

An early instrumental track by the band, that really showcases the two guitarists, particularly Willson-Piper, whose lead playing is unmistakable. Rather than being showily virtuosic, it takes a relaxed, warmly ambient feel that generates a wonderful atmosphere. I did wonder about including one of the other (sung) tracks from the EP, but I realised early on that although the band had made many instrumentals, not many of them were going to feature on the compilation and I wanted to ensure that that side of their output was represented. That, and yeah, OK, it’s a personal favourite as well. You got me.

[09]  Shadow Cabinet (from the Persia EP, 1984)

Constant In Opal seems to be the acknowledged classic from the Persia EP, but I wanted to showcase a phenomenon which was by now becoming increasingly regular: that of the band writing as a unit. Previously many of the songs were written by Kilbey alone, and it was only after some friction within the band that it was agreed that the other musicians, all of whom were writers, would get more input. Again, the seeds of Starfish are writ large here: the central riff foreshadowing the cyclical, chiming feel of Reptile, and Kilbey’s wonderfully vivid lyric floating over the top of a extraordinarily memorable melody, underpinned by some of drummer Richard Ploog’s most muscular playing.

[10]  Myrrh (from the album Heyday, 1985)

Heyday returned the band to the general feel of The Blurred Crusade: guitar-heavy and veering away from the synthy sound they’d experimented with on Seance. This, the opening track, is a fine example of The Church in their pomp, possessed of seemingly unstoppable momentum, leavened with some fun pinched harmonics and another superb Kilbey lyric that foreshadows some of the problems that greater success was to prove to have for Kilbey and the band: “Oh my Lord I trust your intentions / But money strangles our love.

[11]  Tantalized (from the album Heyday, 1985)

A still explosive live favourite introduced by a thundering blur-handed extended intro from Willson-Piper and one of Kilbey’s most thunderous basslines, this technicolour marvel introduces another element to the band’s sound, as brass (in this case trumpets) adds a fanfare to the triumphal verses. The arms aloft sing-along choruses remain naggingly memorable, but Kilbey’s lyric details a man hiding from his friends, continually absorbed in his own pursuit of an escape, and in hindsight the seeds of Kilbey’s own problems with drugs were clear to see, as his protagonist reveals that “I gave money to ghosts, I insulted my hosts / I could never get off the stuff that spellbound me.

[12]  Under The Milky Way (from the album Starfish, 1988)

The Church’s Stairway To Heaven, this very nearly didn’t even make the album – and yet it marked their commercial high-water point; a late 80s favourite that remains fresh in the minds of everyone who came into contact with it, it manages to sum up the isolation but also the hope of growing older in a time when we were becoming increasingly aware of our place in the universe. The bagpipe solo is an unusual touch in such an anthemic song, but perhaps one of the things that enabled it to stick in people’s memory so powerfully.

[13]  Reptile (from the album Starfish, 1988)

A truly venomous kiss-and-tell, this song casts an unnamed woman as the titular villain. It’s far too specific in its accusations to be misogynistic, but Kilbey’s imperiously dismissive lyric still chills to this day. Instrumentally it’s a thing of endless invention: from the rattlesnake-like shaking of a tambourine to the guitarists’ truly wonderful interplay that really shows off Willson-Piper at his string-bending best. Rather than winding down or building to a climax and stopping, the song steadily builds in speed and intensity, and we’re treated to a long slow fade as Koppes and Willson-Piper do their best to outdo each other, as Kilbey’s bassline thunders towards the horizon. Still every bit as thrilling as when it was released, Reptile remains a live favourite for the band and fans alike.

[14]  Metropolis (from the album Gold Afternoon Fix, 1990)

The lead single from the follow-up to Starfish, Metropolis is actually the first Church song I ever heard, late one evening in 1990. A few days later, I owned both the Metropolis single (oddly enough re-titled Megalopolis) and Gold Afternoon Fix, and my own love affair with the band began. It’s warm, jangling charm and endearingly Dali-esque lyrics brought a smile to my face and still do, but even at their most wide-eyed and entertaining, there’s still the chill of lengthening shadows in the lyric, as Kilbey refers to the apocalypse and wonders aloud “What’s it all leading to?

[15]  Grind (from the album Gold Afternoon Fix, 1990)

A truly chilling and downbeat end to Gold Afternoon Fix, this song remains one of my personal Church favourites – when I sat down to compile this collection, it was one of the first titles I wrote down. With less than a mere decade to go until the start of a new century, Kilbey’s lyric of hopelessness in the face of an uncaring world and an even more indifferent universe (the “disgraceful sky flecked with a nightmare of stars“) sees us all painted as marionettes in the hands of callous manipulators, obsessed with minutaie and consumed by our own vanity and short-sightedness. His grimly compelling words are given the perfect vehicle by the band who deliver a progressive rock masterpiece, complete with sudden silences, a piano interlude and one of Willson-Piper’s most intense recorded solos. Kilbey’s horrified cynicism resonates still:

Long distance century buzzes and fades
I hope the deaf can lead the blind
Lift me up into those whirring blades
I’ve got to grind, grind it out
You got to grind, grind it out
We’ve got to grind, grind it out

And so the first disc of this compilation closes with pre-millennial tension: and the fracturing of the line-up that made the albums up to that point, as drummer Richard Ploog left the band. Although Gold Afternoon Fix wasn’t a commercial disaster, the band were disappointed in it, themselves, and their label for looking for something that could repeat the unexpected success of Starfish. Kilbey’s own problems with drugs were getting the better of him, and generally there was a sense of disappointment in the Church camp. The 90s would be one hell of a roller coaster ride for the band.

Next time: Disc #2 – “The Wilderness Years”

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Joining The Congregation

church_photo(The Church 2015, left to right: Ian Haug, Steve Kilbey, Tim Powles, Peter Koppes)

I’ve been a fan of Australian-based rock band The Church for some 25 years now, yet somehow it never fails to amaze me how few people have ever really heard their music, or are even really aware of their existence. You’d think that a band of their longevity, with a career that already spans some 35 years, that more people would know of them and their music, but the halcyon days when their surprise hit single Under The Milky Way was receiving regular airplay have sadly long since passed. Today The Church continue to make exceptional records, but whilst their music is voraciously devoured by The Church faithful, they’ve been operating far outside the mainstream for some time now. Undeservedly so, in my view – I remain convinced that if more people were aware of the band, and actually got to hear some of their music, then they would sell many more copies of their albums. Consequently I was delighted to be able to review their latest, Further/Deeper, for Echoes and Dust a short time ago. Everything fans can do to raise awareness is valuable, and it doesn’t hurt that Further/Deeper is a truly outstanding record even by the band’s own reliable standard – it certainly made it easy for me to wax enthusiastic about it.

In the wake of the review, and my frantic ravings about Further/Deeper in various other places, real and virtual, I have had conversations with people who were blissfully unaware of the band’s existence. “What are they like, then?” They’re a rock band. “What sort of rock? Like metal?” No, more kind of… and that’s when I usually had to stop, because I couldn’t quite think how to end the sentence. The Church’s Steve Kilbey describes the band as “space rock”, which conjures images of bands like Hawkwind and Ozric Tentacles – and whilst there are elements of The Church’s sound that are also part of the make-up of those bands, The Church remain distinct, almost uncategorisable. You couldn’t describe a songs as punchy and visceral as When You Were Mine or as warmly ambient as Invisible as space rock, really. There are a great many different elements to The Church’s output, which is one of the things that endears them to me so much.

Then there’s the matter of where new listeners should start. “OK, what should I listen to first?” It’s tricky: the band have been around for over thirty years, and have been pretty prolific in that time. The smart money is probably on what has often been my stock answer: “start with Starfish, and see what you think.” However, that’s not always the best answer. I often have a good idea of what might appeal to friends and acquaintances, and it’s not always the ‘safe’ or obvious option: asking them to start with Starfish, however great I think it is, or it is perceived to be by the media, might put them off enjoying other records by the band I’m sure they’d enjoy. For every friend I have that would enjoy Starfish, I have one that would likely prefer the prog rock tendencies of Magician Among The Spirits, the fuzzy, grungy psychedelia of Forget Yourself, or the paisley-powered 80s New Wave of The Blurred Crusade. None of these records are representative of the band’s total output; in their way, they’re all outliers on a musical graph.

So I’ve been convinced for a while now that the only way to really get to grips with a discography as broad and varied as The Church’s is to create a compilation: something that takes in the whole of their catalogue in order to give an overview. But I’ve never had the nerve to try, largely because I would get a few tracks in and think, “Well, how can song x not be on here? Or song y?”, and quickly realise that I was creating a 12-disc boxed set that would intimidate all but the most determined listener.

However, when tickets for the band’s long-awaited return to UK shores went on sale last week, events conspired to make me think about it a bit more seriously. The Church’s UK dates are often concentrated in and around London, as the band find it financially hard to justify visits as it is and are keen to maximise ticket sales. This causes all kinds of problems, since getting to and from the capital, and existing within it for a space of time, can be prohibitively expensive. It’s The Church, though, so not going along wasn’t really an option – after all, it’s been nearly a decade since I last saw the band in action. So I laid plans to stay with a friend in London for a few days, based around my expedition to see The Church. I offered to get him a ticket – and almost inevitably, the response basically boiled down to “Sure, sounds good. What are they like?”

So I have now put together my compilation. Is it the “best” of the band’s output? No – it can’t hope to be, too much has been omitted. The Church are also one of those bands who excel at creating cohesive albums that are little journeys all of their own, so extracting tracks from them can be problematic. It is, however, fairly representative (at least I think so). So, for all those who are curious about this great band whose praises I am always singing, but who have been alarmed at the size of their back catalogue, in my next blog entry (since this is already getting long!) I shall post the track list of this three-disc extravaganza, and include my thoughts on what I’ve included and why.

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