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"Once I thought
I could fly
Just because a bird I caught...
But it came to naught."
If patience is a virtue, as they say, then Irish musician Frank Kearns (guitarist, songwriter) deserves a medal of honor. As far back as 1986, Kearns and his band Cactus World News were touring the U.S. at the same time as Kilbey’s The Church, and that’s when the two of them had their first encounter after a double bill performance. Kearns was standing beside his band’s tour bus and staring up at a very clear, bright Milky Way in the starry night sky, when Kilbey (vocals, bass, keyboards) walked up beside him and asked: “Hey, ever wonder what we are all here for?” In light of everything that lay ahead, it was almost as if the stars had aligned, like a predestined, poignant, and foreshadowing meeting between two soulmates: In 1988, The Church scored their first (and only) international hit single with the very title Under The Milky Way, and, in 1998 — after having met again at an acoustic Church gig in London — Kilbey and Kearns began writing songs for what was to become Speed Of The Stars.
Frustratingly, these early recording sessions in Dublin, Ireland, were marred by Kilbey’s failing health (due to years of substance abuse, primarily heroin addiction); he was so sick and weak that he couldn’t get out of bed and had to take two weeks off, while Kearns looked after him and drove him to Narcotics Anonymous. It was an unsustainable situation, and, in the end, they decided to “hit the pause button” for a while, so Kilbey could concentrate on quitting
his addiction cold turkey and staying clean — which, much to his credit, he managed to do. All of eleven years later, Frank Kearns visited The Church, as the band were recording Untitled #23 in Sydney and ended up playing guitars on Deadman’s Hand, On Angel Street, and Operetta. That’s how they became reacquainted and rekindled their friendship. Then, in 2012, Kearns emailed Kilbey the old tapes that they had been working on in 1998. Excited by the high quality of those early recordings, they began writing songs together again, on and off, whenever their individual schedules made it possible. In 2016, they finally finished recording the album Speed Of The Stars.
Speed Of The Stars is a sensuous, aesthetically alluring album in the sense that it piques all of one’s senses: The common denominator of these evocative songs, whether they be summery or autumnal, is a sense of warmth, melancholia, yearning, old memories, nostalgia, and contemplation, bringing to mind mental images of hazy, sepia-tinted photographs, sunrays reflecting on water's shimmering surface, sunlight shining through the tree tops, a gentle breeze, and the scent of freshly-cut grass.
Kilbey and Kearns both consider Speed Of The Stars to be a career high — or among the absolute best work they’ve ever done — and several of the songs here are most certainly strong contenders. Not least the wondrous Heliotropic, an entrancing beauty of a song moving along at its own languid pace, wistful and pensive, its transcendent elegance further refined by Kilbey’s quietly reflective, lightly processed lead vocal, understated cymbal hits, and Kearns’ impossibly, impeccably tasteful eBow and Fender Jaguar guitar sounds. The accompanying video (see below) is poetry in motion and perfectly captures the luminous soundscape: Tranquil meadows, withered dandelion flowers, lens flares, late summer atmosphere, and the blissful ignorance of childhood innocence.
The pent-up intensity and underlying drama (punctuated by punchy drums) that pervades Back Wherever brings to mind the 1998 Church album Hologram Of Baal. It was written and recorded a few days before Kilbey/Kearns’ final session in Sydney, Australia, on a hot, humid evening, so they opened the window to the recording studio, and, as they were recording the track, the loud sound of a cicada made its way into the microphone (as can be heard throughout the whole song).
The instantly likeable Autumn Daze was the first song that Kilbey/Kearns wrote together after the long hiatus. It was recorded in Kilbey’s home studio in Bondi Beach, Sydney. A sparkling and surging Bluesy guitar motif, bended eBow notes, and lovely David Crosby-esque harmonies adorn Autumn Daze that made Kearns name it the “Crosby, Kearns & Kilbey” song (as a “tribute” to Crosby, Stills & Nash, naturally).
Nepenthe, a trippy track that originates from the early recording sessions in 1998, would have fit right in with the other songs on The Church’s 1992 masterpiece/magnum opus Priest=Aura, with its airy musical arrangement, spacey ambience, a bouncy and elastic drumbeat, and lush 12-string electric guitar. Nepenthe is the name of an anti-depressant mentioned in ancient Greek literature and Greek mythology, which originally hailed from Egypt: An interesting piece of information considering that the cover of Priest=Aura depicts an Egyptian pyramid and because Nepenthe sounds very much like an outtake from that very same album.
In keeping with Steve Kilbey’s intriguing propensity for/fascination with contradictionary lyrics — light and darkness, inner conflict — Frank Kearns’ guitar intro to When You Think Of Falling combines both coldly metallic and warmly chiming guitar sounds before fading out on a wave of reverb-laden guitar noise. The complex struggle between fear and fearlessness, the tug of war between heart and mind, ecstatic highs and depressive lows, success and failure, seems to be the subject matter here, and, in Greek mythology, this age-old dilemma is depicted in both literature and paintings: The mythological figure Icarus wore wings that his father constructed from feathers and wax. Icarus' father warned him of flying too low or too high, but Icarus ignored his father's instructions not to fly too close to the sun causing the wax in his wings to melt, whereupon he fell into the sea.
As the song title and ambiguous, enigmatic lyrics suggest, the dramatic The Archeologist digs down into history, the passage of time, and the journey that is life, its trials and tribulations (“Some come broken / Some come in pain / Some come unwoken / Some come in vain”); the insignificance of most people’s existence in the larger scheme of things (“The lonely babble of the rabble…”), and how little imprint we leave before the impending, inevitable end that nothing or nobody can save us from (“The arrival of your rival at the gate / The trumpets of Cavalry arriving much too late”). Halfway through, Frank Kearns plays a violin bow to achieve a raspy, tense sound like Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page did on Dazed And Confused. For this reviewer, The Archeologist is a highlight on a par with Heliotropic.
Speed Of The Stars is yet another impressive Steve Kilbey side project that ranks right up there with his Jeffrey Cain collaboration Isidore and Kilbey/Kennedy’s Inside We Are The Same. Any fan of either one of these two musicians should add Speed Of The Stars to his/her record collection, that’s how mesmerizing and memorable this album is.