With over 30 years of recording and touring already behind them, the Church have persevered through lineup changes, label changes, and many years of relatively disappointing sales following their worldwide breakout hit, the mystically brilliant “Under the Milky Way Tonight”, from their 1988 Starfish album. Thirty years can make even the hardiest bands fall apart, or, at the very least, break up for a number of years until it’s time to reunite for an “oldies” reunion. And though “Under The Milky Way Tonight”, their one and only U.S. top 40 hit, was 24 years ago, the Church has soldiered on, building a cottage industry from their 23 studio albums (based on Australian issues of original studio recordings, including EPs), live albums, DVDs, and other merchandise (Church refrigerator magnets?) and sustaining it all through consistent touring, and recording new material, separated by a few solo projects and occasional time apart.
For this, over 30 years of recording and touring, they are a rarity in the world of professional music. Other than a drummer replacement very early on and in 1994, and Koppes’ temporary departure, the Church’s lineup has also remained relatively stable, with Peter Koppes and Marty Wilson-Piper on guitars and backing vocals and Steve Kilbey on bass and lead vocals.
Formed in Sydney, Australia in 1980, the Church have been through plenty of career ups and downs, but today they seem to be as unified as a band as ever, taking full advantage of the digital age, and even forming their own label, Unorthodox Records. They are also in the midst of a release of remastered versions of their first eight studio albums, and are planning a triumphant 30th Anniversary show in April at the Lyric Opera House in Sydney. (Who knew without the Church, there may have been no Smiths?)
Their current tour follows the recent pattern we’ve seen of bands playing entire “classic” albums all the way through, and the Church have gone all out on this tour, playing their most recent album, Untitled #23, the brilliantly experimental Priest=Aura, and the iconic Starfish in their entirety (in reverse chronological order), much as the Cure performed their classic “Trilogy” sets in 2003. The Church also added a guest keyboardist/multi-instrumentalist for this tour, “whose hopes and aspirations I will not speak to”, said Kilbey as he introduced the band. This helped to fill out the sound, as well as providing the needed instrumentation to play through three complete albums from their catalog – over three hours of music.
Unfortunately, after listening to Untitled #23, and then hearing it live, compared directly against Priest=Aura and Starfish, Untitled #23 sounded slower, drawn out and discordant. However, after the 15-minute intermission between the first and second sets, there was an entirely different feeling of creative energy emanating from the stage. What followed was brilliant and captivating, and much more inspirational. What preceded was disappointing, though still interesting from a musicianship perspective.
While some of the Church’s albums from their prolific career have longer songs and more experimental music, Untitled #23 sounded as if each musician was playing their part separately from the other musicians and was more focused on experimental and meandering guitar, keyboard and bass work, than on presenting cohesive songs. This is fine, in and of itself, and there were a few redeeming moments, however, the second and third sets featured more potent and powerful songs, as opposed to what felt like a collection of people playing their instruments at the same time.
After the success of Starfish, the Church felt constrained by the label’s pressure to have “hits” as well as dealing with label-picked producers controlling their sound. After the relatively lackluster sales of Gold Afternoon Fix, which the Church unfortunately dismissed as “hashed together” and “lousy”, they started working from a base of much lower expectations. In many ways, this allowed them to have more freedom with their music and allowed for more experimental, expansive and longer pieces, but these soundscapes sometimes lacked the cohesion of their earlier work. This came through loud and clear live, as the more the Church worked their way backwards through their catalog, the more coherent, and musically accessible side of the Church’s earlier work came through, in sharp contrast to the extended-jam, non-song feel of Untitled #23.
To put it more succinctly, the second and third sets ROCKED. The songs were tight, the band picked up the pace and each song seemed to be building towards a greater climax. Priest=Aura featured extensive and elaborate guitar work, and ferocious interplay between Wilson-Piper and Koppes. Songs like “Ripple” and “Feel” were brilliant and sounded fresh again. “The Disillusionist” still felt timely, speaking to current world events, just as it spoke to events going on during the Iraq War almost 20 years ago. As Peter Koppes described it in a recent interview, “‘Priest = Aura’…is the artistic high point, the overlooked, monumental masterpiece of the band,” and it felt like it this night.
And, to top it all off, hearing them play “Under The Milky Way” “Spark” and “Reptile” from Starfish was breathtaking as well, and they just seemed to pour out more energy the longer they played. “Hotel Womb”, somewhat appropriately, closed out the brilliant set and the extraordinary evening.
In this, their 30th Anniversary year, the Church are still showing why they belong in the pantheon of the greatest alternative rock bands ever.
Check out the Church’s live KEXP performance from February 8th for yourself here: http://goo.gl/sPCFc
Musichord Rating: 8.5/10