Day Thirty-Eight: The Church – Untitled #23
8th Feb 2013
”Back when I wrote about Burning Airlines’ Identikit, I decided to be a smartypants and ask J. Robbins and Peter Moffett for opinions on where to go with that entry, and got different responses from each. It did, however, help to decide which release to go with that time. When I started planning ahead for my next polls (after the onslaught around artists starting with “B”) I saw that I had the Church in the running. I actually typed up that poll (Untitled #23 vs. Starfish) and then decided that, since he had actually passed along my previous writing about the Church (now and forever the most popular post on that blog, as a result!), I would ask Steve Kilbey for input here. After doing so, I started pondering asking Marty Willson-Piper, and maybe even Peter Koppes, just to get a well-rounded set of responses, if I could, but I was surprised to get a response from Mr. Kilbey almost immediately. Without any demands, he simply told me he’d prefer I write about Untitled #23, without question (as I had asked specifically if he had a preference). When that response came in, I thought about it. I realized that, most likely, he said this because, well, if there’s a Church album people know about–it’s Starfish. It seemed, then, like it would be the right thing in all senses to follow his wishes. I took down the poll (few if any even saw it), and marked Untitled #23 for writing today.
I’ve already written about how I stumbled into the Church (the link above will take you there, if you are curious), so I’ll go ahead and leave it at the most barebones note possible. The portion of it which relates to this very entry is as follows: while I knew their biggest single, I stumbled into some of their most recent work a decade ago by chance, and this was my most expansive introduction, and informed my understanding of how the band sounds almost more emphatically than even the song that was thoroughly ingrained in my head. It was a sound appropriate for my musical tastes at the time–I was deeply into post rock, and the sounds that lay within albums like After Everything Now This were not far off from that same sensibility.
Untitled #23, as a record, is a major variation on the album as it was released on CD. The three tracks I marked with an asterisk (*) above are not present on the CD version, and were released as the B-sides on the Pangaea EP. The order is also quite significantly shifted, with former closer “Operetta” moved to the end of Side Two, and “Space Saviour” shifted forward a full seven tracks–amongst other things. This does make for a bit of a change of pace, but the tracklisting’s overall changes, compared to just dropping the extra tracks at the end, work where they lay (or lie, I’m not too sure).
Steady, clear, patient drumming begins the album in “Cobalt Blue”, a gentle electronic noise fading in, before Steve Kilbey’s voice enters, guitars¹ shortly following and chord-based, one moving higher but holding with the other. “To go and mingle in my mind”, Kilbey sings, and his voice echoes and drifts upward, pulled back down as the bass enters. Acting as counter to the guitars and giving them a brighter feel, the bass expands the range of the song itself, filling out the lower end where it had been left clear for the opening. Each time Kilbey’s voice floats off into scattering reflections, there’s a sense of a soft light spreading across the track, though after one occurrence about halfway through it takes the guitars with it, and leaves a woodwind sound that is just a bit darker, shadows falling where we just saw light. A mumble of distant voices rises up under this as a solo manifests slowly; it’s not the kind that defies the work around it, or elevates its tone or feeling to another one, it expands on the existing mood, a mix of light and softened darkness. The drums walks the track out with four easy snare hits, two pauses, and four more. Despite the snare emphasis, it’s not a march, though, it’s a normal step, one that walks us gently into “Deadman’s Hand”.
Far more uptempo, but in no way suddenly upbeat, “Deadman’s Hand” is relentlessly catchy. The riff it comes in on is distorted, but the kind that eats at the edges of the sound, rather than explicitly defining it. It’s a dark, lower-pitched kind of riff, though it doesn’t have a downward motion to it: it’s more like the kind of sound that might once have stuck the band with the label “gothic” (which has happened), but is more, perhaps, Gothic, than it is “gothic rock”–the sense of wizened or aged darkness, rather than a simple implication of deliberately depressing material. Frank Kearns adds a 12-string ring over the top of this, one that adds to this sense, despite the tendency for 12-strings to often cheer things up. When Kilbey begins singing, it’s with his normal voice, but tempered with a clever production move that changes it in spite of itself: he’s singing gently, but with the lightest “echo” that gives it an extremely ethereal quality. That “echo” is other voices here, of course, doubtless those of Marty or Peter (or both), but so subdued as to sound like shadows of Kilbey’s own. It’s a weird feeling: the drumming is uptempo, but the overall sound manages to catch itself at either end, turning it into some kind of catchy pop/rock song filtered through a drain on the most energetic elements.
The last track in its original placement, “Pangaea” begins to introduce us to the sounds that permeate the rest of the album: the first moments are a blend of mixed sounds, including touches of harp from Patti Hood and scattered notes from multiple guitars. A 12-string and bass gently bring everything together as a light cymbal wash marks the actual change. Gently strumming 12-string, thumping bassline–the song is a wash of sound, accented by backing vocals that “Oooh” gently and prettily behind Steve’s voice, which has regained its usual edge: a certain sharpness to the baritone that is incredibly distinct, that enunciates clearly, yet with a sort of catch to this that is unbelievably appropriate for their music. It all feels like a spread of sound, warm and soft, with Kilbey’s sharpened voice cutting at it, as he sings, “You’ve got your hands/’Round my throat/You’ve got your voice/In my head”, a haunting response from the others adds, “No matter what”, his threats suddenly softened by the chorus: “Pangaea…” the edge dropped and the last syllable turned to a pretty little wave. The 12-string suddenly takes over, sliding expertly through a solo that runs counter to the staid cello of Sophie Glasson.
Moved from near the end of the album, “Anchorage” is langorous compared to the preceding tracks, but the wandering, subdued keys seem to pull it upward somewhat, small points of light dotting the sliding drums, the downed guitars that blend perfectly with the keys, the lower end balanced between the mournful draw of Glasson’s cello and the almost upbeat bassline. “Just the way the dead have felt/Nothing like the way my name is spelt/But I belt it out anyway” Steve sings, the serrations emphasized, defiant, as roaring distorted electrics build the track over huge drums and splash, the wave only a small one. Scattered electronic noises are left in its wake, as the track goes on, a guitar taking off on its own to make its point, not taking it past an extended lead. The lyrics are constructed as defiant and pained, but are mostly delivered in defiance, expressing the pain with more aggression than hurt. Harmonized briefly, it’s like others carrying Steve’s defiance up when it might falter. Alongside them, a blazing guitar and then another wave, this one much larger–but it backs away, too, and this time leaves a quite chorale, the sliding tick of hi-hat emphasized drumming and a hummingbird-heart bassline. If it weren’t so eloquently sung and performed, it would be like a monologue to the absent, spoken with the openness and pride of a drunk, but the awareness, the consistency make it, instead, heartfelt admission and confession.
“Happenstance” makes for a rather curious song: at first that clean and clear biting winter wind of Kilbey’s voice and steadily strummed 12-string, tom-heavy drums and sliding bass–but then the upward curve of a higher tone turns it to something almost sunny, as Kilbey intones “Happenstance…” with just a touch of variation in each channel to give a fuller dimension to the sound. Near a whisper, Willson-Piper breathily adds a voice almost like a memory to this interruption, before that shine of lazy sun fans across it again. The trading voices of Steve and Marty, and the shining final peak of sound gives the song a feeling of relaxation almost narrated by both the present and the past.
Clanging bells and a soft buzz call “Sunken Sun” into place, though the song itself is an expansion of the sound of “Happenstance”, warm and easy resignation created with a guitar that climbs up, curious, to land on a ringing chord that is warm but expansive. As a line ends and a drum beat sounds, an operatic keyboard voice holds over empty space, ringing, echoing guitar that strikes with a sustained bass note falls across it, until it all hushes and returns to the calmness of the opening. One of the most striking solos on the album meanders in near the end of the track, never showing off at all, just growing naturally from the space it is left, often holding notes for extended periods, rather than cramming as many in as possible. It’s a beautifully organic extension of the song’s tone. The song fades off with those echoing guitar chords, clear and bright, but balanced by their companion chord into a sort of pained recollection of happy memory.
The first track to appear on the vinyl and not on the CD, “LLC” was given lyrics (and vocals) by Peter Koppes (as opposed to the usual Kilbey). A fantastic oscillating 12-string melody is the anchor of the song as a whole, and runs through all but . Much cheerier than anything previous (allegedly the cause for keeping the track off the album originally), it shifts into a predictive bridge and then a more steady chorus, before returning to that delightful 12-string run. A subtle lead holds and blends behind it, only taking real control at the very end with a rapid, twisting outro.
Originally the album’s closer, “Operetta” oddly fits in the same way as closer for Side Two and thus half the album. Strong keys and gently waving guitar eases the song into place, a seemingly endless sustain and echo on the spaced guitar chords emphasize the feeling of ends, of the music filtering out into the expanses. Overlapped, harmonized vocals and deep, low keys mark the chorus, like all preceding sounds and voices coming together by design to tie things together. This is how the song ends, too, slowly losing each layer until it is left as just a bending bass and drums, fading to nothing.
“On Angel Street” manages the neat trick of continuing without a lost beat from a track that could have ended the album. A long-held bass note accentuates a series of repeated keyboard notes and a wandering guitar. When Steve’s voice is added to this, it’s the sound of a singer alone, the keys keeping a full musicality in place, but making apparent the ambient nature of the song. The sounds are almost like blinking lights or quiet warning sirens, a backing to the voice that doesn’t imply furthered sentience or emotional presence, even as their slow shift between notes creates the emotional sense of the song. Wavering and wailing guitar leads come and enter like ghosts–beautiful but transient. That this does not end up coming off like a novelty, or an interlude, or some other kind of “fluff” is some kind of amazing.
Previously the penultimate track, “Lunar” has shifted backward only slightly (unless one counts running time). A lone woodwind starts the track as vaguely pastoral, a huge wash of ringing cymbal and the slow, resonating guitar chords setting up the slightly backed-up voice of Steve, thumping drums hinting at what is to come when a bassline filled with energy and activity absent from the other instruments comes in, churning the low end and attempting to push life into the adjacent instruments in their slowed tempos. It’s ineffective and everything falls away to a an echo-laden voice from Steve, on beat instruments, and then it seems to gain life, only to leave nothing but the woodwinds alone in its wake again.
“Insanity” is the other track that let’s Kilbey’s voice rest, as Marty Willson-Piper takes over, confident guitars stepping in ahead of the rest of the band, though when he begins singing–”It’s just insanity,” the operative word is “just”: it has a shrug to it, as if to suggest that there’s nothing to be concerned about. It works upward with each line, releasing at the end of them. It’s cheerier, even as it does not move any more rapidly. This isn’t to say it’s actually cheerful, it’s just not as…Romantic (that capital “R” is intentional). Marty’s voice goes vaguely Dylan-like, as he suggests the possibility that maybe it doesn’t make sense to ascribe the ways of the world to a divine plan, that it’s easier to see it as all random, and anything else might be, well…²
Oh, the guitar that opens “Space Saviour”; it carries just the right tone and effects, the slight watered sound and firm pull of the strings making it viscerally appealing without requiring or exhibiting the kind of feeling that a blues-inflected kind might. The steady on-beat guitar chords form a simple backing as Steve sings with the kind of voice that feels like he’s pushing it with as much power as he can–not volume, mind you, just force. The thumping four beats on drum matched with gradually opening splash are the perfect crescendo of repetition for the repeated needs of Kilbey’s words: “And I’ve gotta get up/And I’ve gotta get on/And I’ve gotta get off/And I’ve gotta get out…” When they fall away, the opening riff returns, and the drums turn to the thump and hi-hat of anticipatory restraint, as Kilbey intones calmly, gradually building back to that huge and determined parallel repetition. The song finally splinters and spreads, before leaving itself, to a watery, circling guitar that plays alone for just a moment before being left to hang.
When I noted that “Lunar” was only briefly re-arranged but with a qualifier, “So Love May Find Us” was, in essence, the entirey of that qualification. “So Love May Find Us” has a 17:48 runtime, and…I’m not sure I could, in good faith, attempt to walk anyone through it. This is not the kind of lengthy track that’s arranged around droning repetition for atmosphere, nor constant builds toward huge moments (like “Atom Heart Mother” does), nor cobbled together songs. It’s too well designed to feel like a completely improvised jam, especially with those tasty guitars in the first few minutes, shot out only every few moments, strong and clear, and hinting at a future threat. The drumming is controlled and low at the start, jazzy and interesting, burning quietly with the promise of future expanse. Eventually it begins to rumble, a solo of immense and unusual nature placing itself like a flag at the first third, marking the moment at which Glasson’s cello and Michael Bridge’s violin take precedent. For a short time, the song is more ambient than anything else, the bass drawing Steve’s voice back in with keys, before the drums finally fulfill the promise laid out earlier–not huge and aggressive, just free-wheeling and free-ranging, hi-hat traded for ride, fills and rolls eventually morphing into the standing beat. The song seems to end, hovering on ride, slowing keys, choral backing–but the bass draws it back in, the ride increasing in power, but easing off as the song shifts into a continued downtempo phrasing, ending with an excellent drum pass and a final wavering, splintering fade off.
The Church are often plagued by that comment: “Wait, the one from the 80s?” and there’s really no quality justification for it. They’ve released music with some regularity since that time, even as they’ve wobbled around the centrepoints that are Marty and Steve, Koppes taking a brief hiatus in the 90s. Their work has been generally well-regarded in all this time, even outside the fanbase. Untitled #23 was hailed as a supreme work, and justifiably so. This album is stunningly beautiful. It carries sounds you could ascribe to sources like post rock, yet when you try to pin them down, you realize it’s only a faint reminder. Neither treading their own water, nor anyone else’s, they’ve evolved steadily over the years within the very wide boundaries of their own sound. Bands with long histories often suffer obnoxious repetition of commentary–I’ve seen members of Pere Ubu incensed that their new album is not so much reviewed badly, as reviewed poorly, always referencing thirty year old albums as if that’s the only touchstone for a professional review, despite consistent releases all the way through now. They complained, too, of “Wow, they can still rock…” comments, which are similarly useless.
I suppose I could estimate how old the members of the Church were in 2009, but it doesn’t really matter. It isn’t impressive that anyone can still play at any age, nor that they can play well. It isn’t impressive that a band just isn’t releasing dreck after nearly thirty years either. What is impressive is the strength of identity in an album released almost 29 years after their first single. There’s no sense of struggling to maintain an established sound, or of flailing wildly for an entirely new one. No sense of tired, uncomfortable, should-have-retired-but-just-won’t recycling or cashing in. If a new band had released this work out of nowhere, it would be stunning. If any other long established band had released this work after a long hiatus, or even after working steadily, it would be stunning. And so this is: it’s not the sound of finally realized maturity, or of experimentation finally succeeding at re-lighting torches, it’s the sound of honed quality.
There’s no easy word for the tone that pervades this album, even with the addition of Peter and Marty’s “happier” songs (“Insanity” and “LLC”), which actually fit quite well within the whole, perhaps because of the tempering of “So Love May Find Us”. It’s the sound of the Church: not “goth”, but wise, lean, artful, and clear, with enough darkness that a casual look might relegate them (again) to goth. The album art–Marty’s photos, and the design of his significant other, Tiare Helberg and Guppy Art’s Rachel Gutek–is brilliantly perfect. It’s the kind of design and image that you can get lost in alongside the music. It’s simple and clean, all deep rust and cross-hatched off-white, but a close looks shows you thick, peeling paint and cracked walls. The interior is more of the same: the way the off white left side jumps out from the dark red of the exterior, the way the thick, peeling pale red of the right moves against it–it’s nothing at all and everything at once, whatever you want, need, or feel it to be, because it doesn’t openly declare anything about the music contained. The nonchalant font, the ambiguous (or plain) title, the lack of uppercase on the exterior, it’s brilliant for preventing preconceived notions.
This isn’t an album to have a big happy dance party to, no. And, while you could take it as a possibly uneasy lullaby, it has so much energy despite the slower tempos that it remains engaging, and perhaps more engaging than much of music is. I found myself completely aware but closing my eyes throughout listening, a feeling almost like waking during a solo in “So Love May Find Us”, yet bewildered as I could recall everything I had heard up to that point in the piece, as if it has nearly hypnotized me. It’s too at ease with itself to feel overly contrived, yet too tight to feel lazy and random.
I could question the fact that this album has not made “the rounds” of the music community, but nothing is so simple as quality imbuing a work with legs. And that’s a truly unfortunate truth.
¹I am normally inclined to ascribe names to instruments, but they traded up enough on this album that I’m simply not going to bother, except where guests appear (who are specifically credit to instruments on tracks!)
²As I’m sometimes wary of misheard words, I decided to peruse lyrical transcriptions of “Insanity” and found someone who managed to completely ignore the clear moments that define these aspects: “And it’s full of holes, this Holy Bible” became “And it’s full of holes is your only rival”, and “unless it’s just a myth and” to “and let’s just admit that”. It almost looks like censoring, or willful refusal. For a moment, I thought I’d imagined things, but, no, that’s definitely what he’s singing. And, strangely–these are the only transcriptions I can find. I do sometimes wonder about people… ” – by R.C. Killian