The Church: The Hypnogogue [Album Review]

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The Church
The Hypnogogue
Communicating Vessels [2023]

The Fire Note headphone approved

The stature and reputation of Australian indie/rock band The Church is such that with only one charting Top 40 hit to their name, “Under the Milky Way” from the band’s 1988 release Starfish, in 2015 and again in 2016 they shared a co-headlining tour bill with The Psychedelic Furs, the English band with numerous successful singles in the vein of “Heartbreak Beat,” “Heaven,” and “Pretty in Pink.” While relatively successful in their homeland down under from their 1981 debut on, the band’s North American commercial heyday (they actually named their 1985 release, Heyday,) followed that airplay success, before the 90’s were overcome by band’s out of Seattle. Still, they continued to record and tour through the decades, experiencing a bit of a creative rebirth with 2014’s release, Further/Deeper, which they followed in 2017 with Man Woman Life Death Infinity, a record some saw as a return to the “gothy, new wave psychedelia of their youth.” They were inspired no doubt by the fact that they’d spent much of ’16 on tour playing their 1982 beloved sophomore release, The Blurred Crusade in its entirety.

The Church’s sound apart from bassist Steve Kilbey’s deep, sonorous lead vocals was defined early on by the twin guitar attack of Marty Wilson-Piper who left the band in 2013, and Peter Koppes who left in ‘19. Australian guitarist Ian Haug, of the band Powderfinger, joined up in ’13 in time infuse Further/Deeper with a fresh burst of inspiration. Jeffrey Cain, a multi-instrumentalist from the Birmingham, Alabama-band Remy Zero, starting touring with the band in ’17, and become a full member in 2020, the same year Aussie guitarist Ashley Naylor, who’d toured in Paul Kelly’s band, turned The Church into a quintet, rounded out by long-time drummer Tim Powles, who has acted as producer on a number of the band’s albums.

Already with 25 albums under their belt, what can Steve Kilbey & Company bring to their 26th album, while still honoring the time-honored sound Church fans have continued to tune in for? Well, according to the band’s webpage, The Hypnogogue, is a concept album purporting to tell a story set in 2054, that Kilbey describes as “a dystopian and broken down future,” where a down in their luck rock star goes in search of the album’s technology, which apparently is a machine that, he says, “pulls music straight out of (a person’s) dreams.” But before you panic, I had already listened to the album’s 13 lengthy musical compositions a dozen times before I learned it was based on some kind of futuristic pulp fiction musical fairy tale, and I had no idea any of that was going on below the surface. What I heard was a great guitar album, framing some of The Church’s best sounding rock songs in decades, and turns out knowing the story line, while not adding to my listening experience, hasn’t managed to ruin it either.

The Church has often been described as a post-punk, psychedelic band, but in the Pink Floyd vein rather than the Grateful Dead, with their lush guitar sound leaning toward an expansive cinematic vibe. You get a taste of the pristine guitar tones of Haug at the beginning of “Aerodrome,” and the ring out and chime throughout the track. Meanwhile, “No Other You” feels like a standard rock ballad with classic guitar fills and soloing throughout, and which lush dense choruses, but that guitar tone is golden from start to finish. I assume the character in the drama is having a wet dream, but again, I’m not letting that ruin the moment. And those tracks are on the album’s second half, there’s plenty going on in the first half worthy of our appreciation.

The record opens with the dense, trance-like vibe of “Ascendance,” propelled by a potent drum track by Powles, the guitars echoing a soaring atmospheric presence. “C’est La Vie,” the album’s first single which follows, tapping that classic Church dream-pop vibe with one of the faster grooves on this stately collection, the end of the song dissolving into some lovely acoustic picking. “Albert Ross,” near the middle of the collection, has a rich, acoustic pop flavor, not too dissimilar to the band’s biggest hit. Kilbey’s lower range is used wisely, with higher harmonies of the other singers providing an airy feel to the melodies. “I Think I Knew” is more classic Church pop/rock with art-rock and prog-rock tendencies, where the guitars ringing out, all a jangle; it’s exactly why you seek out this fine Aussie guitar band in the first place.

The recording’s second single is the title track, a serious rock drama that seems to provide a turning point in the somewhat stunted sci-fi narrative, but as I said earlier the music stands up quite apart from the storyline, so it need not be an obstacle. You can hear piano and other keyboards working around the edges here and there, but “The Thorn” is built on a bouncing synth line, but again the drama moves to the fore in the dramatic vocal dialogue. There’s a bit of an Eastern tonality at work in “Succulent,” and a bit of a Floyd vibe in the mix of experimental sounds, as the record starts building toward its conclusion. “Antarctica” has more of those phased out guitars, coming together with the rhythm section to build until it completely comes undone, only to rebuild to the tune of the bold guitar sounds of Haug and Naylor, while Powles’ drums skitter around the beat. The finale begins as a piano ballad with the hero singing “I’m sorry” right at the start, but by the time there’s “tears upon the pillow,” the guitar is building up toward the song’s closing climax, coming in just a bit more subdued than you might expect, but still pleasantly enough.

Coming in at 65 minutes, the band’s recording company (which happens to be run by Jeffrey Cain, started out of his home in Birmingham, Ala.) is releasing it as a gatefold, double album on black vinyl, as well as CD and digital album. What do you call it when a band, albeit a relatively new configuration of players, seems to get a second, hell, a fifth wind some 40 years into their recording career? The Hypnogogue manages to provide all the necessary bells and whistles that longtime fans will come expecting to hear, while being novel enough to attract guitar fans who’ve yet to get a taste for this Australian delight.

“C’est La Vie” / “No Other You” / “Aerodrome”

Echo & The Bunnymen / Pink Floyd / The Choir

Man Woman Life Death Infinity (2017) / Further/Deeper (2015)

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Brian Q. Newcomb

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