|Of Skins And Heart
|Gold Afternoon Fix
|Under The Milky Way - Best of The Church
FEATURED: Saturday, September 23rd, 2000
Best known for the shimmering "Under the Milky Way," their lone Top 40 hit, the Australian band the Church combined the jangling guitar-pop of '60s icons like the Byrds with the opaque wordplay of frontman Steve Kilbey to create a lush, melancholy brand of neo-psychedelia rich in texture and melody.
THE CHURCH began life in 1980 as a three piece consisting of drummer Nick Ward, guitarist Peter Koppes, together with singer and bass player Steve Kilbey. The early days were inauspicious with a handful of low key shows in their adopted hometown of Sydney. Shortly afterwards, the embryonic CHURCH were joined by Marty Willson-Piper (from England) on guitar and recorded a 4-track demo tape which landed them a publishing deal with ATV/Northem Songs and, in turn, a record deal with EMI Australia. Marty's playing added an extra depth to the band's sound.
The band recorded their first album Of Skins and Heart in late 1980 and the finished tapes were mixed by esteemed producer Bob Clearmountain. The album was preceded by the single "She Never Said" which failed to ignite but their next single "The Unguarded Moment" reached the top 20 of the Australian singles chart and gained the band national exposure. This single, released in March 1981, was praised at the time for its fresh approach, jangly guitar motifs and surreal lyrics. Eventually it became something of a milestone around the band's neck, as it was the song most identifiable with them for many years. It made its live 'farewell' on the 1988 Tours.
The success of the single brought much attention upon the debut album. Of Skins and Heart showed great promise, but suffered from a slight rawness and inconsistency. Of the songs themselves, "Bel Air" and the epic "Is This Where You Live?" are still staple fixtures on the band's live set to this day.
Prior to the album's release, drummer Nick Ward was replaced by teenage drummer Richard Ploog. Ploog possessed a strong, yet graceful, playing style and was more in touch with THE CHURCH spirit. This next line-up was to remain intact for eight years.
The band's next album, The Blurred Crusade (produced by Bob Clearmountain) came out in March 1982 and was critically acclaimed as a classic; defining the new guitar sound and possessing a polish and balance not even hinted at on the debut. Bob Clearmountain's immaculate production values enhanced the dynamics and subtleties of the band's music and highlighted, in particular, the diamond-hard yet elegant interaction of the guitars. The Blurred Crusade established the band as a potential major force and, with overseas interest increasing, THE CHURCH made its first journey to Britain and Europe.
After successful overseas tours, THE CHURCH returned to Australia to release a 5-track 12" EP, Sing Songs. They followed this with their third album Seance released in May 1983. The album featured the stark image of an ashen-faced woman on the cover which reflected the overall gothic and otherworldly feel of the set, hindered slightly by the harsh production work of Nick Launay. In retrospect Seance is one of the band's most uncharacteristic yet challenging works and is a minor classic in its own right. It also contained several excellent songs in "Fly," "It's No Reason," "Electric Lash," and "Now I Wonder Why" containing the dreamy melody and ethereal guitar lines which became a CHURCH trademark.
Seance was released in Europe (by Carrere) and charted well on the British alternate listings. Back home in Australia, the crusade was slowing down somewhat with the album not doing as well as the first two and the band not getting the rapturous attention previously heaped upon them.
1984 was a relatively quiet year for THE CHURCH. They toured irregularly but managed to release two 5-track mini albums Remote Luxury and Persia. The two mini-albums were issued as one album over-seas called Remote Luxury. It contained some strong songs, notably "Shadow Cabinet," "Constant in Opal" and "Into My Hands." The American release (on Warner Bros) was THE CHURCH's first release in the USA since their debut album in 1982 and, as a result of interest generated there, the band undertook its first Stateside Tour. They played two memorable shows at The Ritz in New York and The Palace in Los Angeles to ecstatic crowds and rave reviews.
1985 was a period of re-evaluation and rest. The second half of the year was spent writing and recording new material. The difference this time was the whole process was a group effort, rather than Kilbey doing most of the writing and the band recording his songs. The fruits of this new approach yielded Heyday in 1986. Expectations were high and the album did not disappoint. It proved to be a remarkable achievement and instantly won well deserved critical favor. All the loose pieces had been drawn together with considerable clarity, and producer Peter Walsh was an important catalyst in extracting the best from the band.
The album's haunting, fragrant nature gave it immediate appeal, with new subtleties revealing themselves with each listen. Taken as a whole, the album possessed a consistency and depth that easily made It the best CHURCH album to date. Yet in some ways Walsh's lush, layered production values gave the album too much gloss and, if anything, it lacked a definite edge. It does, however, contain the band's most elegant and seductive songs in "Myrrh," "Tristesse," "Columbus," "Disenchanted" and the hard rocker "Tantalised" (a live favorite to this day).
In 1987 EMI Australia released a double compilation of CHURCH b-sides and album tracks entitled Hindsight. With track selection and sleeve notes by Kilbey, this was a fitting tribute and a must for any CHURCH completist.
Despite Heyday's excellence, it did not shift enough units for EMI or Warner Bros (despite making the lower reaches of the US Billboard charts) and the band found themselves without a deal. Undeterred and still riding the buzz from Heyday, they eventually secured a world-wide deal with Arista Records and with Mushroom Records for Australia. The next effort, Starfish, was the breakthrough album.
The band spent several months in Los Angeles studios with seasoned session muso Waddy Wachtel and Greg Ladanyi at the controls. Going on to sell over a million copies in the US alone, Starfish was notable for its plain cover (just four black and white photos on a white sleeve). This stripped-back approach was true of the music too. Mostly recorded fairly live, the twin guitars and Kilbey's voice shone through and it hit much harder than Heyday did. The songs were really strong and tightly focused, and many are live stalwarts to this day: "Destination...... North South East West...... Hotel Womb," "Reptile," and the sublime single "Under the Milky Way" which was a US top 30 hit and helped bring the album to the attention of a wider audience. THE CHURCH spent a hectic year touring the world twice and playing to sell out audiences. They were riding the crest of a wave and expectations were high that the next album would be the really big one.
Former label Carrere released a compilation Conception in 1988, in futile attempt to cash in on the band's success. This was a collection of tracks from THE CHURCH's first two albums and one from their Sing Songs EP.
Things with the next album didn't quite work out as well as was planned. Gold Afternoon Fix, released in 1990, was again recorded with Waddy Wachtel in Los Angeles but the fruits of the partnership which bore Starfish had turned a little sour. Internal band tensions during the recording led to drummer Richard Ploog's departure. Generally, the production wasn't as solid as on Starfish and the use of a drum machine on some tracks didn't help. The material had some really strong moments ("Pharaoh," "Grind") and one can only image what the album would have been like if the band's choice of Led Zeppelin's John Paul Jones as producer had eventuated.
The band toured the album throughout Australia, Europe, Japan and the US during 1990 with Patti Smith's drummer Jay Dee Daugherty filling the vacancy. The band rocked harder than ever live with Jay Dee locking down the beat, contrasting with former drummer Richard Ploog's somewhat looser style.
Having failed to deliver the "sucker punch," despite achieving their highest ever Australian chart placing with the single "Metropolis," the band retreated to Sydney for a period of reflection and re-assessment.
A worthy collection of rarities and out-takes from the period 1986-1990 was releases in Australia in 1991 entitled A Quick Smoke At Spots.
In 1992 they re-emerged with arguably their finest work, the obliquely-titled Priest=Aura. Recorded at their second home, 301 Studios in Sydney, Australia, the band were back on familiar musical ground. Rife with ringing feedback and shimmering guitars, the album is rich in texture. An elegant wide-screen album full of majestic swoops and sighs, coupled with not-so-quiet storms which added a glint of savagery, bringing moments of drama and beauty to the stately songs. Those who had worried that the band's dreamy vision had disappeared after Gold Afternoon Fix were totally re-assured by songs such as "Aura," "Mistress," "Old Flame," and "Ripple." A CHURCH classic in every sense.
Arista didn't really get behind the album despite its achieving respectable sales. Prior to the Australian tour, Peter Koppes announced that he would be quitting the band once the tour finished.
Just when everyone thought Peter's departure would mean the demise of THE CHURCH, Steve and Marty confounded critics and fans alike by releasing 1994's Sometime Anywhere. This was indeed a labor of love. Marty and Steve spent months in Steve's Karmic Hit studio in Sydney, experimenting with sounds and rhythms. Now down to two members, they were free of the role-playing which went with the four-piece band structure. They were free to play what they wanted, when they wanted. Sometime Anywhere, as the name suggests, is a free-spirited album. It contains tracks that are instantly recognizable as THE CHURCH and others that suggest a new dimension or direction to their music. "Day of the Dead" picks up where "Priest=Aura" left off in a hypnotic, brooding sense but others like "Angelica." "Eastern" and "Two Places at Once" take you to another place altogether. Initial copies of Sometime Anywhere came with a bonus CD, Somewhere Else, which contained a further six excellent tracks of differing moods. THE CHURCH may not do anything like Sometime Anywhere again but this "great big Persian rug of an album" (as one UK music critic put it) ranks up there with their best.
Also in 1994, a good compilation of the most well-known tracks from THE CHURCH back catalogue was released by Raven in Australia: Almost Yesterday 1981-1990.
Steve and Marty undertook acoustic tours of Europe, Australia, and the USA during 1995 at the same time as Arista chose not to pick up their option on the band and they found themselves without a deal. Undeterred, they entered Steve's studio at the end of 1995 and began recording a new album. Steve and Peter had made contact again and Peter was invited down to the studio to guest on a few tracks. These were productive sessions with about 16 finished tracks completed. It was decided to release an album on their own label, Deep Karma, via Mushroom Exports in Australia. The resulting album Magician Among the Spirits came out in 1996 and, although containing some strong material (the title track, "Comedown, "Ladyboy," "It Could Be Anyone," "Romany Caravan"), it didn't really hang together as well as their previous efforts which was due, in part, to the sequencing of the tracks. Additionally, the track "Comedown" was released as an EP with four extra tracks not on the album. These tracks were as good as, if not better than, many of the tracks on Magician and, had they been included, would have made it a stronger album. The US distributor went bankrupt shortly after the album's release and ensured that it was virtually stillborn. A proposed re-release on their new label in the future including the extra tracks is most welcome.
1997 saw THE CHURCH re-united with Peter Koppes and they undertook a short, highly successful tour of Australia. Whether the Gods were looking down on them during the recording sessions or not, Hologram of Baal could be their finest album yet. From the opener "Anaesthesia" through to the closer "Glow Worm," this is THE CHURCH at their best. Great melodies, Peter and Marty's best playing ever, Steve's best singing and all underpinned by Tim Powles' tight drum-work. Highlights are the classic-CHURCH sounding "Ricochet," the beautiful "Tranquility" and the dreamy single "Louisiana."
With a new record deal and enthusiasm a-plenty, this may just be the great CHURCH album to signal another successful period for the band. Throughout their career, THE CHURCH have remained one of rock's most innovative and enigmatic outfits, justifying praises from the press including "Best Guitar on earth," "Sonic perfection," arid "Sounds that caress the senses."
A fantastic and unique band.......... listen and enjoy..........