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”Things move around
My guitar sometimes plays itself
They say it's static electricity but
Yesterday it took twenty dollars off the shelf.”
For years, fans of Australian Alternative-Rock band The Church fervently wished for -– and actively encouraged –- a live album (yours truly included), but lead singer/bassist/lyricist Steve Kilbey dismissed the notion, because he never really cared all that much for live recordings. In addition, he’s admitted to being slightly “insecure” about his own singing voice in a live setting (his singing style, alternately impassioned and detached, has often been described as “speak-sing”). Steve Kilbey: “I am not a good singer per se. I use subtlety and sensitivity and stuff like that, which doesn’t always come across live. I am definitely better in the studio than live.” But in later years something unusual has happened to Kilbey’s voice. Whereas most singers’ voices lose range and power with age, his voice has actually improved and, by his own admission, he’s become more skillful at using his singing voice to the best of its ability. Which may very well explain why The Church finally decided to release a full-blown live album in 2014. That and the fact that the band got the opportunity to perform live with a 67-piece orchestra at a venue as prestigious as the Sydney Opera House.
The 20-track A Psychedelic Symphony: Live At Sydney Opera House kicks off with a positively uplifting orchestral re-interpretation of the single Metropolis (off 1990’s Gold Afternoon Fix) that causes the audience to applaud and cheer enthusiastically with sheer excitement and anticipation. This shortened version of the original band recording is near-instrumental, as Kilbey only sings the opening lyric (“There’ll never be another quite like you”), which here brings the song to an end. The Church then launches straight into a sonically enhanced rendition of Sealine (from the unforgettable 2003 masterpiece Forget Yourself), replete with strings and woodwind instruments. Lost sounds more refined than ever, with its starry-eyed, yet eye-opening, lyrical message augmented by a tasteful string arrangement and a David Gilmour/Pink Floyd-esque guitar solo, and as always, Reptile -– also from 1988’s Starfish –- is a riveting showcase for the exhilarating guitar interplay between guitarists Marty Willson-Piper and Peter Koppes. A personal favorite, Grind is no less impressive in this live incarnation, which is quite reminiscent of the acoustic reworking on 2007’s El Momento Siguiente, albeit featuring sweeping strings -- but towards the end of the song, it suddenly transforms into the original version (off Gold Afternoon Fix) with a blistering electric guitar solo.
The unique 7-minute-long epic The Disillusionist (from 1992’s magnum opus Priest=Aura) sounds like no other song you’ve ever heard before –- intense, theatrical, uncompromising, fascinating, unsettling, and utterly brilliant. Interspersed among the psychedelic-tinged Alternative-Rock songs are two radio staples/Australian Pop hits, Almost With You (off 1982's The Blurred Crusade) and the stripped but string-soaked The Unguarded Moment, the latter of which is more reminiscent of the revamped version on 2004’s El Momento Descuidado than the original single (from the band’s debut album, 1982’s Of Skins And Heart), as well as the big U.S. hit single Under The Milky Way, whose synthetic bagpipe solo (a sound created using an E-Bow on a Fender Jazzmaster) is replaced by a soaring string sequence.
Also included are some of The Church’s most atmospheric and captivating ballads: the flute- and string-adorned instrumental Happy Hunting Ground (off 1986’s Heyday) was the band’s first real attempt at the more psychedelic, spaced-out sound (and less traditional song structure) that they would pursue and perfect in the 1990s and onwards; Two Places At Once, an unsung classic in The Church catalogue, never fails to bewitch. Originally recorded for 1994’s Sometime Anywhere, Steve Kilbey and Marty Willson-Piper trade vocals/verses and both join in on the towering chorus. Kilbey, who was in the throes of a serious heroin addiction at the time, has since then stated that he does not remember/know what many of the lyrics on that particular album were about, but as impenetrable as they are, they only add to the mystique and allure of this evocative song (”Things move around / My guitar sometimes plays itself / They say it's static electricity but / Yesterday it took twenty dollars off the shelf”); you wouldn’t think that Pangea could sound any lovelier than it did on 2009’s masterful Untitled #23, but here it does, its acoustic guitar motif brought further to the fore; the live performance of the deeply sad On Angel Street (about the end of a relationship) also outdoes the original studio recording (Untitled #23) with an extended, emotive, David Gilmour-inspired electric guitar solo.
Among the show’s most spirited performances are the Marty Willson-Piper-penned Spark, which really shines here, sounding more lush, vibrant and alive –- fully fledged -– than on Starfish; the fan favorite Myyrh (from Heyday) is an energetic, bass-driven Pop song permeated by spectacular, interweaving psychedelic electric guitar riffs, and the awe-inspiring 10-minute-long Tour de Force that is Tantalized (also off Heyday) ends the concert on an ecstatic, euphoric note. A Psychedelic Symphony is so mesmerizing that you’ll wish you'd been there in person. Fortunately, this concert is also available on DVD.