[Jefito’s Note: Another week, another brilliantly guest-blogged Idiot’s Guide! This one’s brought to you by John Bergstrom, certified FOJ (that’s Friend of Jefitoblog to you, mister) and writer for PopMatters. It was John’s stroke of genius to write about the Church, a perfect Guide band in that they’ve been around forever, released lots of albums, and most people haven’t listened to a lot of the group’s music. If you’re like me and hadn’t heard a Church song since 1994, you’ll find this educational at the very least. Enjoy! Thanks, John! — J]

For 99.87 percent of people who listen to popular music, the Church are a One-Hit Wonder, synonymous with their signature tune, 1988’s “Under the Milky Way.” This status has been perpetuated by the song’s appearance on almost every compilation from the time period, not to mention its inclusion in the Donnie Darko soundtrack.

The dreamy, textured sound of “Milky Way” and its parent Starfish album, combined with singer Steve Kilbey’s often opaque lyrics and album titles like Priest = Aura, have left many casual listeners with the impression that the Church are pretentious, one-note space cadets/weirdos. And, while that’s certainly part of the picture, the Australian act has been producing consistently adventurous, atmospheric, yet eminently listenable music at an anachronistically rapid rate for a quarter century now.

They’re an excellent, hard-hitting live act. They’re an anomaly in that they have two excellent guitarists, Peter Koppes and Marty Willson-Piper, neither of whom plays lead. And, as this Guide will show, at heart, they’re all about musicianship and songwriting:just like “normal” rock bands.

Of Skins and Heart (1981)
purchase this album (Amazon)

When the Church emerged from the Australian Scene in 1981, they were pretty normal-sounding. Wearing their Beatles/Bowie/Petty influences on their sleeves, they scored a massive Australian hit with the epic “The Unguarded Moment” (download) Their first single, “She Never Said,” is a cold, rather generic piece of new wave, but there’s a muscle to most of these songs, including the glammy “Chrome Injury” (download) that will surprise those who know only the band’s later work. The widescreen, Pink Floyd-indebted “Is This Where You Live” is the clearest nod to the more ambitious work ahead.

Steve Kilbey sounds a little too much like a flat Bowie at times, but the album is still satisfying, intelligent rock from the period. Subsequent re-issues include some nifty bonus tracks, too.

The Blurred Crusade (1982)
purchase this album (Amazon)

A year later, the Church had already shed one drummer, replacing Nick Ward with 18-year-old Richard Ploog. The Blurred Crusade retains some of the straightforward pop/rock of the debut, especially in the perfectly-chiming “Almost With You” (download). But most everything else is heavier on atmosphere, with synths and dripping-wet production creeping in. ’80s maestro Bob Clearmountain gets a co-production credit, but apparently he and the band were never in the same room, the record company handing the masters over later.

The more polished effect works well on most of the album, including the confidently danceable “When You Were Mine,” and “You Took” (download), a sort of sequel to “Is This Where You Live,” but half-songs like “Don’t Look Back” suggest the band were possibly already being stretched a bit thin. Still, The Blurred Crusade is a more engaging — if less consistent — listen than the debut.

Séance (1983)
purchase this album (Amazon)

Séance is a bit of a shock. Produced by Nick Launay (The Birthday Party, Kate Bush), except for the excellent pure-pop of single “Electric Lash,” it forgoes rock almost altogether, bringing its airy, almost subliminal atmospherics to the fore. The gorgeous, drum-free “Fly” sets the stage perfectly, and it’s clear that this is a somewhat different kind of Church album.

The songs are longer, the arrangements more spacious, the guitars are less rockin’. Melodies do emerge, though, and often they’re quite pretty, as on “It’s No Reason” and “Disappear” (download). The less-obvious approach makes Séance a dark horse in the catalog, but in hindsight it’s clear they had matured.

A couple major flaws do keep it from being a true “lost classic”: “Travel by Thought” (download) is an embarrassing overreach, and for some reason on many tracks Launay replaced Ploog with one of the most awful, infamous electronic drum sounds ever recorded. Since when is a muffled machine gun preferable to a good ol’ snare?!?

Remote Luxury (1984)
purchase this album (Amazon)

Since this was the heart of the ’80s and the Church were a “college rock” band, it was only a matter of time before they went synth-pop, and Remote Luxury is where it happened. Actually a compilation of two EPs that were stuck together by the band’s new American label, Warner Bros., the album suffers from dated, synth-heavy production and soft songwriting. Interchangeable singles “Shadow Cabinet” (download) and “Constant in Opal” (hee hee!) pulse along nicely, and “A Month of Sundays” (download) is one of the band’s best songs to date– too bad the production sells it short.

Heyday (1986)
purchase this album (Amazon)

AfterRemote Luxury played to the synth-dominated trend of the time and failed to break the band in America, the Church made an important realization: they were a rock band. Accordingly, Heyday comes out charging and doesn’t let up.

Producer Peter Walsh (Peter Gabriel, Simple Minds) does away with the synths, cranks up the guitar, and lets Willson-Piper and Koppes make tracks over the band’s strongest set of songs yet. From the magical “Myrrh” to the Edge-on-speed adrenaline rush that is “Tantalized” (download), the Church sound liberated and unashamed to be writing hooky pop songs. “Already Yesterday” (download) even puts a choir to good use.

Ironically, the straightforward rock helped ensure that Heyday wasn’t a hit. Also, songs about Columbus and the perils of Western society weren’t exactly FM radio fodder. One of the best-kept secrets of the ’80s, Heyday should’ve given the band its first real taste of American success. Instead it got them dropped by Warners.

Starfish (1988)
purchase this album (Amazon)

The Church - Starfish

Oh, well: Success was right around the corner, anyhow.

Arista signed the band and game them a push, but not before subjecting them to the good ‘ol LA production treatment. Shacking up an Australian modern rock outfit with a production team most notable for its work with Jackson Browne and Warren Zevon must’ve sounded like a good idea to someone. Actually, the result takes both the rock and atmospheric elements of the Church’s sound and distills them into a neat, radio-friendly package. Crucially, the songs themselves are uniformly strong, focusing on LA as a dream/nightmare.

“Under the Milky Way” remains the signature Church song for good reason, but “Hotel Womb” (download) shows more of the band’s depth. Koppes gets in the strong “A New Season” (download) as well. The downside is that the album sounds too clean; indeed, the band have since noted that they can hear Ploog’s hesitancy for fear of hitting a “wrong” cymbal or tom. As with most things involving LA and big money, the album turned out to be both a blessing and a curse. But it did put the band on the map, saving them from premature extinction.

Gold Afternoon Fix (1990)
purchase this album (Amazon)

You can’t blame Arista for thinking lightning would strike twice — it’s what big record companies do. However, the crash-and-burn that resulted from re-teaming the band with the Starfish gang was more inevitable than another big hit.

The songs aren’t as strong, and therefore buckle under the antiseptic production. “Metropolis” (download) is a catchy, psychedelic ditty, but it’s clear from the start that it’s far from “Under the Milky Way II.” The pressure got to Ploog, and he quit after going AWOL on the sessions. Kilbey has since disowned GAF, but that’s too harsh. It has a quiet, understated beauty and hides Willson-Piper’s best song to date, the exuberant “Russian Autumn Heart” (download).

Priest = Aura (1992)
purchase this album (Amazon)

The Church - Priest = Aura

Gold Afternoon Fix didn’t live up to unrealistic expectations. The follow-up is essentially the band’s “Fuck You” to Arista.

Priest = Aura is the Church on their own terms: Self-indulgent, expansive, and by their own admission high on opium. In short, it’s regarded by most longtime fans (not to mention the band themselves) as their best album. Others, though, may find the languid arrangements and Kilbey’s sardonic storytelling off-putting or even boring at first. Give it time, though, and this turns out to be a gorgeous, sweeping, engaging listen.

The title track (download) alone is as far-out and plangent an epic as the band have ever recorded. “Feel” (download) is an affecting song about deja-vu that gets away with some indie-dance touches, while “Ripple” even managed a respectable college-radio showing. The band made a couple crucial decisions personnel-wise: Producer Gavin Mackillop (Shriekback, Toad the Wet Sprocket) delivers the band’s most fully-realized, beautiful-sounding album. Ex- Patti Smith Band Jay Dee Daughtery takes over for Ploog, giving the rhythms power and intricacy.

Not many albums can be recommended for their drumming alone, but this is one of them. And that’s just one of Priest = Aura’s many strengths.

Sometime Anywhere (1994)
purchase this album (Amazon)

The Church - Sometime Anywhere

Then it all fell apart.

Daughtery quit. Frustrated by his lack of creative input, Koppes quit, too. Yet the Church still had one more album to give Arista, so Kilbey and Willson-Piper did a wise thing: They threw caution to the wind and let their whims carry them.

The result is the most eclectic “Church” album ever. From Eastern touches, to electronica, to story-song duets like “Two Places at Once,” they succeed more often than not. Kilbey nearly gets away with rapping on “Lost My Touch” while “My Little Problem” addresses his drug problems with his strongest vocal yet. In a last-ditch attempt at radio play, Arista forced the inclusion of “Authority” and “Businesswoman” (download) Of course, neither came within a mile of radio, but the latter especially is a witty throwback to the Rickenbacker-heavy years. Sometime Anywhere is hardly essential, but also far from the embarrassment some have made it out to be.

Magician Among the Spirits (1996)
purchase this album (Amazon)

The Church - Magician Among the Spirits and Some

MATS was the album Sometime Anywhere should’ve been. Which is to say it’s a disjointed mess by a “band” that clearly sounds like it’s been thrown for a loop.

Koppes is back in a “guest star” capacity, and Tim Powles injects fresh artistry into the drums, but this is still the classic “ideas that never became songs” album. A cover of Cockney Rebel’s “Ritz” goes on forever, and “The Further Adventures of the Time Being” (download) reveals that Willson-Piper had indeed watched This is Spïnal Tap too many times. The namedropping “Welcome,” one of the stronger songs, invited strange comparisons to the Beloved’s early ’90s near-hit “Hello.”

The one truly arresting moment is, of all things, a solo Kilbey piano piece. “Afterimage” (download) is crushingly melancholy. Acknowledging their mistake, the band replaced the original MATS with a stronger, re-tooled version called Magician Among the Spirits and Then Some in 1999. File under: Transitional.

Hologram of Baal (1998)
purchase this album (Amazon)

The Church - Hologram of Baal

The unfortunately-titled Hologram of Baal was the start of a creative (and, to some extent, commercial) renaissance for the Church. Koppes was back in full capacity, Powles took over vision control and production, and for the first time since Priest = Aura, the Church sound like a band. The overall sound is too murky, and several songs are still not up to par, but tracks like “Anaesthesia” (download) refresh the band’s sound, while “Glow-Worm” is a beautiful ode to Kilbey’s daughter and “Another Earth” (download) gets back to rockin’.

A Box of Birds (1999)
purchase this album (Amazon)

The Church - A Box of Birds

Hologram of Baal suggested that the Church still had some loosening up to do, which A Box of Birds takes care of. It’s the rare covers album that stands up on its own terms.

“All the Young Dudes” and “Cortez the Killer” get the widescreen Church treatment, but most all the other choices are esoteric: Ultravox, Alex Harvey, Kevin Ayers. The Monkees’ “Porpoise Song” (download) sounds like it was made for the Church, and Kilbey delivers one of the best ad-libs in rock history when he breaks into Eddy Grant’s “Electric Avenue” at the end of the Beatles’ “It’s All too Much” (download). It’s fun; it’s loose; it’s good, as is the take on Hawkwind’s “Silver Machine.”

A Box of Birds is the catharsis that the band needed, but it’s hardly a toss-off.

After Everything Now This (2002)
purchase this album (Amazon)

The Church - After Everything Now This

Not many bands hit a creative peak two decades and a dozen albums into their careers, but that’s exactly what the Church did with After Everything Now This.

Sometimes these latter-day Church albums get accused of sounding same-y, but that’s just a band doing what it does best. Accusing the Church of making atmospheric, cerebral pop-rock is like accusing Public Enemy of rapping: it’s beside the point. Anyway, After Everything is so lush, so fully-realized, that it’s hardly redundant.

Kilbey does some of his best storytelling on “Radiance” (download) and the haunting “Invisible,” while “Numbers” is an intense rollercoaster ride that encapsulates post-9/11 tension without actually referencing it. “After Everything” (download) is Kilbey coming clean and connecting on a very human level. Song for song, this is the best Church album since Priest = Aura:or maybe better.

Parallel Universe (2002)
purchase this album (Amazon)

The Church - Parallel Universe

The freedom of being a self-sufficient band with an indie label and a reliable cult following allows the Church to release collections like Parallel Universe, for better and worse. This hodgepodge of “alternate outcomes” (read: electronica-infused remixes) and outtakes from the After Everything Now This sessions is underwhelming and feels unnecessary after that strong album.

While remixes such as “Radiant 1934″ (download) aren’t embarrassing, they only detract from the originals’ power. The half-dozen outtakes are mostly reminders of how much detritus a band as prolific as this can gather. “Twin Stars” (download) has a nifty, if derivative, riff, but if anyone’s going to accuse the Church of self-indulgence, Universe is Exhibit A.

Forget Yourself (2003)
purchase this album (Amazon)

The Church - Forget Yourself

Forget Yourself came out of freeform jam sessions, and you can tell. Though it retains a lot of atmosphere, it’s the heaviest, rawest Church album to date. That makes it as much of an artistic “departure” as the band has made, which resulted in positive reviews from critics who had dismissed the last few albums as the work of a band resting on its established sound.

The songs aren’t quite as strong as After Everything’s and the album is overlong, but the band sounds fully engaged and invested in the music — no small feat for a 22-year-old act. The opening psychedelic bombast of “Song in Space” (download) sets the stage, but songs like “Maya” and “June” are traditionally dreamy and pretty. And, with its layers and layers of guitars, Kilbey’s strangely engaging word-strings; and blissful, harmony-rich chorus; “Telepath” (download) might just take the baton from “Under the Milky Way” as the quintessential Church song.

El Momento Descuidado (2004)
purchase this album (Amazon)

Recorded as part of Australian label Liberation Blue’s esteemed Acoustic Series, El Momento Descuidado (rough translation: “The Unguarded Moment”) gave the Church an ideal and timely opportunity to come to terms with its back catalog.

The thoughtfully-arranged renderings of “Unguarded Moment,” “Almost With You,” “:Milky Way” (download) and “Metropolis” show that the band have forgiven these songs for the ups, downs and “One Hit Wonder” status they’ve earned the band among the general public. As timeless melodies, these songs hold up very well. But that’s not all: You also get to hear these excellent musicians in a down-to-earth context they rarely visit on their studio albums.

And, not content to rest on the classics, the band add some highlights from the last couple albums as well as a handful of brand new tunes led by the gorgeously happy/sad “0408″ (download). In Australia, Momento re-established the Church as something of a national treasure, making it an unlikely seminal album that even non-fans can love.

Uninvited, Like the Clouds (2006)
purchase this album (Amazon)

Momento obviously had an effect on the band, as this is the first Church album in a long time that unabashedly acknowledges the first half-decade of their existence. Fully half the album jangles in 12-string fashion, although those jangles are couched in subtler arrangements. This, combined with Powles’ wonderfully clear production, has already invoked the hoary “Best album since:” phrase among many fans and critics.

The funny thing is that Uninvited is the weirdest, most truly psychedelic album the band have ever recorded, equal parts dream and nightmare. Many fans will christen the chilling “Block” (download) as an epic Kilbey-free-association masterpiece, but casual listeners and skeptics may just as well hear pretentious wankery. All comers, though, should appreciate the easygoing confidence and good tune behind “Overview” (download) Willson-Piper and Koppes put on one of their best shows ever, and it sounds like someone’s been listening to their old Echo & the Bunnymen records. So, while the songwriting (not to mention Kilbey himself at times) sounds a bit shaky, Uninvited suggests a hell of a lot more than an old band going through the motions.

As if the Church’s catalog wasn’t enough, the members’ combined solo projects and offshoots warrant an Idiot’s Guide of their own. Not included in this guide is are the Australia-only instrumental Church “jam” albums Jammed (2004) and Back With Two Beasts (2005). Kilbey, Willson-Piper, and Koppes have extensive solo discogs, and side projects include Jack Frost (Kilbey’s collaboration with the late Go-Between Grant McLennan), Refo:mation, Tyg, Hex, Gilt Trip, and Isidore.

About the Author

Jeff Giles

Jeff Giles is the founder and editor-in-chief of Popdose and Dadnabbit, as well as an entertainment writer whose work can be seen at Rotten Tomatoes and a number of other sites. Hey, why not follow him at Twitter while you're at it?

View All Articles