Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Wizards of Oz: The Church - Further/Deeper

The very first fleet of British convicts sent to Australia to populate the first penal colonies took around 250 days to sail there. Today, a modern cruise liner will take just 25 days, though the overwhelming majority of Europeans travelling Down Under will fly there in just under 24 hours.

I mention this largely irrelevant travel-related trivia for no other reason than to point out that it has taken a whole seven months for Further/Deeper, the 21st album proper from The Church, one of Oceania's most loved, but most inconsistently recognised bands, to reach European shores.

At least, though, in the months since its October 17 release in Australia, appetites have been well and truly whetted by the positive reviews garnered by the album in its homeland and in the United States (where it was released as "recently" as February).

If you are not familiar with The Church, you probably weren't alive or paying much attention to music in the late 1980s. Because if you had been, you would have been drawn like moths to the proverbial flame by the band's shimmering indie rock - a combination of ethereal guitars, singer/bassist Steve Kilbey's sonorous baritone and a stream of wonderfully melifluous music.

Formed in Australia in the early 80s, The Church emerged during a purple patch for Southern Cross bands - think the Divinyls, Icehouse, The Anyones, Split Enz/Crowded House, INXS and Midnight Oil - each showing bold individualism while still managing to draw influence from the post-punk and post-rock movements. The Church shared much with other purveyors of New Wave janglynes: Kilbey's vocals were frequently compared with Ian McCulloch and Talk Talk's Mark Hollis, while the heavily delayed and chorused guitars of Peter Koppes and Marty Willson-Piper fitted the period's production values with perfection.

© Simon Poulter 2015
An Arista Records original freebie
But it was, arguably, The Church's fifth album - 1988's Starfish - that built their following globally, largely thanks to the singles Under The Milky Way (which found it's way into a 1989 episode of Miami Vice and eventually onto the Donnie Darko soundtrack) and Reptile, both still firm crowd-pleasers live.

Starfish was my lasting introduction, thanks to a generous Arista Records press office who included it in a bundle of review albums that also featured an awful gospel LP by Aretha Franklin (sorry, HRH QoS) and the debut of Taylor Dane. Yes, me neither. Perhaps, then, it was the intention of Arista's PR people to package Starfish with some genuine dross. It certainly stood out.

28 years on, incredibly, and The Church have been through plenty. The 60-year-old, Welwyn Garden City-born Kilbey, in particular. He has, he told the Sydney Morning Herald last October, been through an "...insular, confused, sulky stage, which preceded my arrogant and blasé stage, which gave way to my junkie phase [a ten-year heroin addiction], which in turn begat my eccentric uncle phase – the one I'm currently in."

That appears to manifest itself as an enthusiasm for Mother Nature's more interesting herbs (the effects of which were in plentiful evidence last week at The Church's gig in Paris, witnessed by WWDBD?). But despite that, or in spite of that, Kilbey's creativity has not dimmed.

He is, after all, a musician who can claim to have penned and registered over 750 songs. Nor has the band suffered the long term effects of personnel ups and downs, the most recent of which being Willson-Piper moving on, to Stockholm apparently, to be replaced by Ian Haug, a onetime teenage Church fan, now promoted to lead guitarist.

© Simon Poulter 2015
Framed by their latest line-up, Further/Deeper delivers, quite simply, unlimited magic. Kilbey's voice may have lost some rigidity, but in doing so, it has taken on a more haunting, Syd Barrett/See Emily Play quality, also being mixed further back and blended into layers of guitar from Haug and Peter Koppes.

For that, a hats-off must go to the collective band production effort. It feels like a band collaborating, no one person trying to outshine the other, and the overall effect being that every member acts like a musical instrument in their own right. And, yet, it sounds so reassuringly familiar, like an album by The Church should.

Many often confuse this with a absence of invention and hoary old jokes about Status Quo's lack of chords. But sometimes you want a band to sound like it should always sound. The Church is such a band. And, in that, Further/Deeper is unmistakably a Church album, and all the better for it.

Though it may sound comfortingly familiar, this album is far from predictable. It opens with Vanishing Man, a track as quizzical as its title suggests. It carries an immediate sense of foreboding,  borne of guitars that grind and glisten in equal measure, and confirmed by Kilbey's demonic introductory line: "Sinister bastard, your casket groans from sins". The second track, Delirious demonstrates this further, bringing together chord changes reminiscent of Radiohead's Street Spirit (Fade Out) with a chorus that comes somewhere between manic and choppy-pop at its best.

Perhaps the thing fans of The Church - including this one - like so much is a non-conformism that doesn't resort to contrarianism. Take Pride Before A Fall, an intransigently slower piece that somehow reminded me of John Lennon's #9 Dream for its ethereality. Released as a single, and competing with all the Auto-Tune crap clogging up radio stations, I can't imagine it fared that well, but, frankly, that's not what you will buy and listen to Church music for.

No, you listen for the dark vaudeville of Toy Head ("When you take off your head/But the darkness prevails/And they loosen the screws/But that remedy fails), the sunshine-infused Laurel Canyon and the pristine combination of melody and melodic guitar on Old Coast Road.

Indeed, there is a great deal of expanse, space and top-down, open road freedom on Further/Deeper, coming from improvised band wigouts, but also through lyrical references to exploration and something few Aussies can avoid in their culture, the sea.

That manifests itself most strongly on the album's undisputed highlight, Miami, which is the final track of the regular release. Running at almost eight and a half minutes, it is epic and cinematic, descriptions that, perhaps, Kilbey & Co might baulk at, but should acknowledge and take pride in.

Closing tracks (even if followed by a slew of extras...) should be like this - distinct and journeyed. When I first started listening to albums, when they were originally 12 inches in diameter and made of black, two-sided vinyl, I always believed that an album's last song would be a curtain-lowering finale. By its end, you should have reached emotional elevation and closure, and the certain knowledge that it would be your lot until they went into the studio again. Or maybe didn't.

Here I think of The Who's Won't Get Fooled Again on Who's Next, or Telegraph Road, which opened Dire Straits' Love Over Gold - and should have ended it. All of which is a long-winded way of charging hats aloft for Miami, which traverses regret and reform, references Humphrey Bogart, Janet Leigh and the long-defunct airline BOAC, and through its breadth and depth, does for a city (one I've only recently come to enjoy) what Michael Mann does with his celluloid cityscapes (watch Manhunter, Heat, Collateral and both the TV and film versions of Miami Vice. Look how Mann shoots Miami and LA). It's something only he can. Thus The Church's Miami sounds like something only they can. A story told through their signature weave of voice, guitar and vibe.

I've never been to Australia. It's on the list, of course (though any country boasting the world's ten deadliest of anything does lose some points for appeal). But there's something about the country's uninhabited enormity that appeals to me. I've stood in and on the edge of the great American deserts knowing that, once you've traversed their arid expanse, you'll eventually come across another outcrop of high-rise skyscrapers and fast food chains.

Australia - and, in fact, Australians themselves - has always represented an unbroken horizon, an extreme of distance, a vastness, an expanse, a wilderness that excites, inspires and strikes fear all at the same time. And that's The Church right there.

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