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" I gotta go in another direction
I gotta God, his name is perfection
I gotta girl, she is my reflection
I gotta world of total connection."
In late 2013, the Australian Alternative Rock band’s lead singer, bassist and lyricist, Steve Kilbey, made a public statement that, regrettably, guitarist/founding member Marty Willson-Piper was ”unavailable” for the recording of the next Church album. That Kilbey intended to continue using the name The Church instigated some rather harsh outbursts from certain longtime fans, who insisted that without Marty Willson-Piper the band wasn’t really The Church.
However, what these disappointed fans seemed to forget (or purposely disregard out of sheer frustration?) was the fact that, when guitarist Peter Koppes left the band in the early ‘90s, the remaining members Steve Kilbey and Marty Willson-Piper still chose to credit the album Sometime Anywhere (1994) to The Church. As Kilbey pointed out: “The name ‘The Church’ is mine. I called it that two years before I even met Marty…”. Upon which he acknowledged the contributions of the other long-standing band members: “We have all built up a body of work under the name The Church. We will not cast that aside because one guy does not show up.” Declaring Marty Willson-Piper “unavailable” (he didn’t respond to anyone’s emails or phone calls), Steve Kilbey also announced that ex-Powderfinger guitarist Ian Haug (himself a longtime Church fan) had joined the recording sessions for the next Church album, which was to be titled Further/Deeper. While it’s always sad to see a founding band member leave, it also marked an interesting new chapter in the history of the band: What would Ian Haug contribute to the sound of The Church? Could he possibly live up to the contributions of Marty Willson-Piper?
At the time of the announcement The Church had already been in the studio, and Steve Kilbey’s excitement about the new material was palpable. Kilbey: “I am sitting here right now with 16 new incredible songs that we just wrote. It’s frustrating that it will be a while till you hear it. But The Church will ride on…The Church will prevail. And our new music is very, very fucking cool.” And that’s an understatement rather than an exaggeration. Imagining that any longtime, open-minded fan would not be completely enamored by Further/Deeper is unthinkable, that’s how impressive this album sounds in every aspect, whether it be the songwriting, arrangements, musicianship, and creativity. What’s more, Further/Deeper is drummer, percussionist, producer, engineer, and mixer Tim Powles’ most accomplished work yet: the meticulous, exemplary production sounds bigger, fuller, and punchier than it has in ages (since 1998’s Hologram Of Baal), adding a more rough edge and a raw power that brings out the best in each and every one of these exceptional songs.
At this point in The Church’s career, they have nothing whatsoever left to prove, but that’s not to say that they’re not going to do their damnedest to prove the doubters wrong and put their detractors to shame. In an interview, Kilbey said that “Ian Haug brought in an extraordinarily naive enthusiasm, which re-energized the band”, and this energy and electricity permeates Further/Deeper from start to finish. The ominous opening track, Vanishing Man, is the sound of The Church soldiering on in the face of adversity, into the future, into uncharted territory, powered by an electric storm of abrasive, distorted, reverb-drenched electric guitars. Proud, defiant and triumphant, it blows all negative preconceptions to smithereens, leaving all competition in its wake, and sets the stage for what’s to come. This state of euphoria continues with the downright ecstatic Delirious, which is amplified by an insistent drumbeat and a chaotic, spiraling whirlwind of ringing electric guitars; stirring and exhilarating, it literally leaves you breathless.
Pride Before A Fall (the first single) is a characteristically atmospheric and intricate Psychedelic ballad that testifies to the band’s admirable attention to detail: sonic textures, layers of sound, instrumental arrangements; it’s all there in the dreamlike, hypnotic verses and the surging chorus that washes over you like a wave. The dramatic and macabre Toy Head instantly grabs your attention and triggers the imagination, as Kilbey sings: “When you take off your head / But the darkness prevails / And they loosen the screws / But that remedy fails”. The nightmarish lyrics about “a monster being born”, “shadows increasing” and “horrors returning” are further intensified by the haunting music, most notably Ian Haug’s eerie, drone-like guitar passage.
Laurel Canyon has single written all over it; or rather, it’s undoubtedly The Church’s best shot at getting some radio airplay that might possibly attract new fans and boost the band’s album sales. As befits its title, the song sounds warm and summery, with its chiming acoustic and electric guitars, and its catchy, little hooks and charming sing-along chorus; at closer inspection, though, its sunny disposition is offset by its words of regret. A deeply gifted lyricist, Kilbey once again demonstrates that he has a way with wordplay and a penchant for contrasts and contradictions: “Less is more / Much more to confess”. This sparkling little gem brings to mind the “Pop” sensibilities of the band’s early/mid-‘80s songs, only more subtle and sophisticated. Listening to the equally melodic and sepia-tinted Old Coast Road is like looking at sunrays reflecting on water's shimmering surface; it fills you with those elusive feelings of warmth and tranquility.
The autumnal Love Philtre is lovely, positively irresistible. Almost an anomaly in the band’s catalogue, it’s unusually pretty and pensive for a Church song (as was Pangea), with its crystal clear keyboard/piano motif and wistful atmosphere. Halfway through, the track unexpectedly morphs into a slow, languid passage of gently strummed acoustic guitar and an ethereal, angelic female harmony; upon which it suddenly resumes its main melody. Likewise, the forceful and foreboding Globe Spinning is also unlike any other song The Church have ever recorded, albeit at the other end of the musical spectrum. Driven by throbbing bass, dynamic drums and seething synth lines, it oozes eccentricity and intensity.
Lightning White kicks off with thundering drums, the heaviest-sounding percussion heard on a Church album since 1988’s Starfish, but, fortunately, without the pitfalls of overblown ‘80s production values. They say lightening never strikes twice in the same place, but it does, repeatedly, throughout this song, that’s how electrifying and powerful it sounds. The bombastic and über-cool Let Us Go sounds unstoppable; as if every naysayer, who stands in its way, is doomed to be trampled underfoot by its mercilessly pounding drumbeat, assertive electric guitars, and ice-cold, sustained synth. An aura of weightlessness surrounds the gorgeously breezy and buoyant Volkano. Ambient, celestial synth, twinkling guitar sound effects and spacey, echo-laden vocals transport you to another place, arousing mental images of floating among stars in outer space, exploring a world of otherworldly wonders.
The majority of all Church albums open with a particularly noteworthy track and Further/Deeper is no exception. Yet, this time around the band actually saved the biggest and best song for last: the cinematic Miami. A nearly 9-minute long composition of epic proportions, it’s the aural equivalent of a widescreen movie. After the Hotel Womb-esque guitar intro, it settles into a mid-tempo mode only sporadically interrupted by the heartfelt crescendos. Infused with vigorous jingle-jangle/drone-like guitars, pulsating bass, and a soaring harmonica solo, this mesmerizing track is an instant Church classic.
Further/Deeper is The Church’s 25th album (including various EPs), and it’s simply awe-inspiring. Even though it defies all logic, the band sounds as vibrant, adventurous, courageous and vital as ever, regardless of line-up. Further/Deeper is so rich with sonic details that there’s more here than meets the ear on first listen; even several spins will barely scratch the surface of these lush, multi-layered soundscapes. If you are among the fans who lost faith in The Church due to Marty Willson-Piper’s absence, then listen. And then listen again. And then rejoice. Fall down on your knees at the altar of The Church to say a prayer of gratitude: they are still more than worthy of our worship. Over the years, The Church have attracted a cultish following, and most of us will continue to follow the band on their musical journey -– further, deeper.