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The space between the notes
Full of haze."
Three decades into their career, the Australian Alternative Rock band The Church released one of their most accomplished works and experienced a small revival of sorts. In 2008 lead-singer, bassist and lyricist Steve Kilbey and guitarist Marty Willson-Piper released their best solo albums ever (Painkiller and Nightjar, respectively). The following year, with the release of Untitled #23, The Church garnered some of the best reviews of their career, and the majority of old and new fans were equally enthusiastic. An extraordinary achievement after 30 years and 20 consistently strong album releases, and a striking example of how liberating it is for artists such as The Church, when they’re not subjected to the commercial demands and restrictions of a major record company.
The Church are an incomparable and peerless band, but since their one international hit single Under The Milky Way in 1988, this underappreciated and hard-working group of musicians have struggled with diminishing album sales, and not because of a decline in the quality of their music. The four albums (plus two featuring acoustic reworkings of older songs) they released in the 12 years prior to Untitled #23 were all outstanding and among their most impressive, exciting and engaging works. So why Untitled #23? Why did this particular release bring a fair amount of attention to a band in much need of some buzz? Well, the reason could very well be the sharp focus, the cohesiveness and tightness of Untitled #23. Each track segues naturally into the next, and at only 10 tracks and 50 minutes, it’s a fairly short album by The Church’s standards. That’s not to say that Untitled #23 comes off as more calculated and intentionally commercial. As has been the case with the majority of their albums since the early '90's, the multiple layers and rich textures of their exquisite and mesmerizing recordings only reveal themselves through repeated listening, and Untitled #23 follows that tradition. Each track is painstakingly written, played, arranged and produced with an unrivaled attention to detail. The Church’s cinematic soundscapes master the art of implication to the same extent as Kilbey’s mystifying, intriguing lyrics do, while simultanously commanding the listener’s undivided attention and leaving it up to us to do the interpretation. Imagination, a sense of wonder, plays a big part in understanding and appreciating the depth of The Church’s music. As Steve Kilbey sings in the album’s last song: "Music plays, the space between the notes full of haze”.
Untitled #23 is emotionally complex, literally taking the listener on an emotional rollercoaster ride. First track Cobalt Blue opens with a solid, sustained drum tap, instantly creating a dramatic and ominous setting, further augmented by Steve Kilbey’s world-weary voice and dark lyrics, as he starts singing (“Desert wind in a telephone box…”). The sinister Deadman’s Hand is even darker, wrapped in a tight, claustrophobic production. Floating on a guitar motif, Kilbey’s almost whispered, ghostly lead vocal – which works as a veritable instrument in itself – adds tension and drama and effectively sets the menacing tone (“On our way to crush the revolution / Camp by a lake in the blackened lands”). The Church loosen up the intensity considerably with the melodic first single, the warm and summery acoustic number Pangea. Steve Kilbey’s lead vocal is heartfelt, and the words are unusually romantic and earnest (“I got my hand on my heart / I got my heart on my mind”), even if the love in question is suffocating (“You got your hand ‘round my throat / You got your voice in my head”). The lighter atmosphere continues with the dreamy and otherworldly Happenstance, similar in vibe to Paradox (off Priest = Aura). Kilbey-’s emotive, attention-grapping lead vocals, the mysterious lyrics, the interweaving electric and acoustic guitars, the dense layers of backing vocals, and an ebow solo by Peter Koppes, all add up to one of the most lush, atmospheric and ethereal tracks The Church have ever recorded –- simply a song of rare beauty. Peter Koppes: "Happenstance is even more romantic than Pangaea. It also features Baritone guitar but this time incorporates slide and my orchestral “harmoniser”-effect, which created the wind effect as well".
Then the atmosphere intensifies anew. The ferocious and abrasive Space Saviour seems to divide even longtime fans. Kilbey’s raw, gut-wrenching vocal and the somewhat monotonous tune results in a song that isn’t exactly ingratiating itself with listeners prone to instant gratification, but the patient listener will be rewarded; slowly but surely the song reveals its uncompromising charms. On Angel Street wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Steve Kilbey's side project Isidore. It’s a slow, sad and achingly beautiful track with very spare instrumentation. To visualize loneliness and abandonment, a keyboard emulates a hypnotic, throbbing alarm-clock sound that nobody is there to turn off. Subtle touches of melancholic guitar and subdued drums and percussion add further to the song’s overwhelming feelings of loss, loneliness, and resignation. The song’s stark minimalism enhances the effect of the weary vocal and the bittersweet lyrics (depicting the dissolution of a relationship), which once again prove Steve Kilbey to be one of the greatest, most accomplished lyricists (“You should change the message on your machine / So sad, so strange, baby, to hear my name…/ And the line it just goes dead / And the trail it just goes cold / I guess that story’s told, anyway”).
Sunken Sun brings back a lighter tone in the instrumental execution. But as is often the case with The Church, there’s two sides to every song. In keeping with Kilbey’s fascination with contradictions (sample: “I drowned in a river that had run dry”), the bright, shimmering guitars contrast starkly with the dark, surreal and creepy lyrics. Towards the end of the song there does seem to be some sort of acceptance and redemption, as Kilbey sings “I ripped up my return ticket / And hurled it into the sky…/ I knew then it was your turn to fly”. The raw Anchorage quickly became a fan favorite and rightly so. It’s an archetypical Church song: dark undertones, psychedelic guitars, Kilbey’s compelling vocals and his ambiguous lyrics, as well as his tasteful, meditative and understated bass playing. In the opening track Cobalt Blue Kilbey sings “And it’s nothing, nothing you could know…” -– an appropriately truthful forewarning considering that the only thing predictable about The Church is their ability to always keep things unpredictable and interesting. Lunar is yet another example of this. As the track is just about to end, a woodwind sound appears, only to fade out…and just as you think that now the song is over, it suddenly takes a completely unexpected turn and picks up again with an intense, breathtaking instrumental passage.
The album ends with Operetta (released as an EP with 3 unreleased songs from the same sessions), a melodic, mid-tempo ballad, possibly one of the band's least complicated and most accessible compositions ever. Midway through the song Kilbey sings “Piano, drums and trumpets / Just like the old days”, followed by a charming trumpet solo played through a mellotron, an old-fashioned type of keyboard made particularly famous by The Beatles and The Moody Blues. It’s an uplifting end to a dark album that digs deep. The Church continue to improve and evolve with age, as the consummate artists that they are. At the height of their creative powers, The Church exhibit impressively sophisticated musicianship –- sheer class –- and a complete mastery of their craft. Untitled #23 is a masterpiece.