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"White hippy Moses like an aphid in the roses
Universal inverse in inverted poses
Like a snort of amnesia, a ball up your noses
Not what the man in the street supposes."
Like his fellow band member, guitarist Marty willson-Piper, the enigmatic Steve Kilbey – lead vocalist, bass player and cryptic lyricist of the Australian Alternative Rock band The Church – released his most memorable solo album to date in 2008, and just 5 months prior to the band’s masterpiece Untitled # 23. Steve Kilbey is an eclectic record maker responsible for some fascinating and very diverse solo releases, of which Narcosis + More and Dabble are particularly noteworthy. Above these works ranks the complex and absolutely intoxicating Painkiller. Whereas Marty Willson-Piper’s own solo works generally tend to be more orthodox than the otherworldly music of The Church, Steve kilbey often uses the opportunity to unleash his abundance of creative energy and explore the more extravagant and eccentric sides of himself, which he may otherwise have to reign in, when submitted to the democracy of his band. That’s not to say that he focuses solely on experimental and challenging material, he also incorporates more accessible melodies, including a few songs that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on an album by The Church. In comparison, there are several atmospheric and aesthetic similarities between Painkiller and Kilbey’s spellbinding side project Isidore (with American musician Jeffrey Cain). There is, however, one big difference between these two releases. Even though The Church’s influence on Isidore is evident, Steve Kilbey only contributed vocals and lyrics, no music, whereas on Painkiller he also composed the songs and played electric guitar, bass and keyboards.
Just like any given album by The Church, Steve Kilbey’s Painkiller opens with a particularly stunning track. Listening to the euphoric and uplifting Outbound feels like being launched into outer space. Kilbey’s edgy and intense lead vocal, his energetically pounding bass, an insistent drumbeat (by Tim Powles, also of The Church), as well as all sorts of static, spacey and echoed sound effects (dubbed “radiotronics” in the liner notes) leave the listener in a state of breathless ecstasy. In true Kilbey fashion (he likes his pot), he seemingly rants against the critique and controversy surrounding mind-expanding drugs (“Like a real time being / It’s the shadow you’re seeing / It’s the aureole flying and fleeing / The central potential of colour keying / Why can’t you forget all this you and me-ing”). It’s one of the most powerful Steve Kilbey solo compositions ever, inspired and inspiring. With a running-time of 2:48, the straightforward Wolfe packs a punch within a short space of time and is by far the most “radio-friendly” song on Painkiller.
With soulful bass, shimmering guitars, mesmerizing vocals, and flute sounds (played on a mellotron), Celestial is a return to the ambient and otherworldly space rock of Outbound. But if the opening track was the escape anthem, the launch pad, the luminous and ethereal Celestial is a dreamy, blissful travel through outer space; like looking out the windows of a spaceship, at stars and distant planets. It’s a sublime and breathtaking song. As with The Church’s most intriguing music, the majority of Kilbey’s Painkiller is graced by lush, intricate soundscapes that are most likely to be fully appreciated by listeners with visual imagination and a need to connect on a deeper level. The alluring Crystalline Rush is another such song. Languid, low-key and understated, guitars gently chiming, it’s atmospheric and evocative, transporting the listener to a state of tranquility – very much like the track Tranquility off The Church’s Hologram Of Baal album (1998) – even if the lyric is quietly disconcerting (“I thought it would be so much warmer / When I laid down with you”).
Song For The Masking (presumably a pun on Song For The Asking off 2002’s After Everything Now This) is where Kilbey ventures even further out, bringing to mind the raw, uncompromising aesthetic of his 1990 record Remindlessness, only with production values that are somewhere between that album and the next one, the more polished Narcosis + More (1993). With ominous drums, heavy bass, spooky programmed keyboard sound effects and discordant electric guitar, it’s a dark, murky and unrelenting song that refuses to cater to commercial expectations. Even better is Spirit In Flame. Equally dark and mysterious, it starts off with a thumping, echoeing drumbeat, upon which a drum roll introduces acoustic guitars, Kilbey’s brooding, captivating vocal and his jaded worldview (“The game doesn’t care if you win or loose / The game doesn’t care if you’re bleeding or bruised”).
The riveting Oenone, Painkiller’s most up-tempo track, is built around a repetitive though engagingly energetic and irresistible guitar riff. But to this reviewer, the epic album closer Not What You Say is a personal favorite. Jangling guitars, icy synth chords and a haunting lead vocal mesh perfectly to create a whole, which is both blissed out and intense at one and the same time. Kilbey stops singing as soon as 1 minute and 35 seconds into the song, upon which there's a long, hypnotizing instrumental passage lasting approximately 4 minutes, where a few simple notes are repeated over and over, almost dropping the listener into a meditative state...before Kilbey's vocal sets in again and snaps you out of it; a transcendent and goose-bump inducing moment. Painkiller is one of Steve Kilbey’s strongest artistic statements, with or without The Church.