Jul 7 2009 2:32pm

The Church: Rock Stars of the White Dwarf Kind

A little while ago, John Ottinger posted about music and science fiction.* Which was a nice little coincidence because there I was thinking about the band, The Church,  and how they’re entwined with science fiction and fantasy.  They’ve been going for almost thirty years and have just put out one of their greatest albums ever.

But stop, slow down, let’s go back to the beginning. If you’ve heard of The Church, it’s probably because of their big hit back in the day, 1988’s “Under the Milky Way.” If you’re in my generation, you remember that song when it came out, maybe from watching MTV’s 120 Minutes, back when they played music. But some of you whippersnappers might remember it more fondly from the Donnie Darko soundtrack, which brings us to our first evidence of the band’s SF connection.

Many people enjoyed the song and happily wrote The Church off as a one-hit wonder, one of the many casualties of the 80s, but the truth is, they never went away. They continued to put out great albums, some greater than others. But where other bands of the day broke up or faded away, The Church remained. They had their shakeups to be sure, but the lineup has stayed remarkably intact, the one major change being the addition of drummer Tim Powles in the late 90s.

But back to the SF connections, Steve Kilbey, the bassist and lead singer, is a self-professed fan of SF legends like Tolkien, Lewis and Peake, while also appreciating newer writers like Jeff VanderMeer and China Miéville. In fact, The Church wrote a soundtrack to the short film that accompanied the release of VanderMeer’s Shriek: An Afterword, a soundtrack now available for purchase as one of the band’s releases.

The SF influence can be heard in a number of the band’s songs. On Terra Nova Cain, Kilbey sings lines like “She put her foot down on the oscillation pedal/She was a transdimensional speeder” and “They brought me back after thousands of years/I hadn’t aged at all/We used to float around her weightless bedroom/That drove me right up the wall.” Certainly inspired by Bowie, Kilbey’s lyrics have that same ability to cross genres, where a space queen wielding a cosmic laser field can suddenly pop into any song. Lyrics reference the Minotaur, Baal, or the Snow Queen. Their albums are filled with titles like Space Needle, Telepath, Song in Space, Magician Among the Spirits, Lunar, The Dead Man’s Dream, Spark, Unified Field, and more.

Those same science fictional and fantastic themes carry through to the music. The soundscapes that Marty Willson-Piper and Paul Koppes, guitarists, create on top of the rhythms laid down by Kilbey and Powles are the sonic equivalent of worldbuilding. It’s not unusual for their songs to conjure up alien landscapes or wide vistas from different dimensions.

Their latest offering, Untitled #23, which might be, but probably isn’t their 23rd album (they have technically released more), is one of the best of their career. All of the songs are vibrant worlds, sometimes haunted, sometimes populated, aged and dreaming or newly formed and thrumming with energy. Listening to the album is an experience. The songs surround and invade at the same time, in the end creating a kind of equilibrium so that you feel like you’re floating—sometimes in lush, ethereal skies, sometimes in the vastness of space, and sometimes in dense, multicolored seas. It’s my favorite kind of music—imaginative and evocative—analogous to the best writing, it takes you into the world, but then leaves you to explore, or set off in new directions.

The Church is currently on tour through the US and I’m eagerly looking forward to seeing them on June 8. I’m sure some would view their appearances as a chance to catch a band long after its heyday. For me, it’s a chance to see a band that’s in its prime, a band with a lifecycle like a star—it’s passed through its immature stage and the through the bloated red giant phase to end up as a tight, bright white dwarf that will hopefully carry on for some time.

At the very least, I would endorse at least checking out their music for yourself. As with everything, it’s not for everyone. But if it does find some resonance, think about supporting the band. They are worth it.

Here’s your taste of the new album (with fan-made videos) :

* For the purposes of this post I am going to use science fiction or SF to refer to both science fiction AND fantasy.

Soon Lee
1. SoonLee
“Under the Milky Way”: one of few songs that feature a bagpipe solo. I'm a fan, but perhaps it's not to everyone's taste.

Another SFnal track is "Metropolis" from "Gold Afternoon Fix". But I agree that their music conjures up far away landscapes & has a SFnal/Fantastic quality. I wasn't aware that they had that much of a following outside Australasia.
Blue Tyson
2. BlueTyson
Actually, they did 'Under the Milky Way' at the Olympics Opening Ceremony.
Rajan Khanna
3. rajanyk
They tend to fall under the "cult" following category. The fans make up for their lack of numbers with devotion. They pretty much filled up The Fillmore (Irving Plaza) last night and the energy was great. I think the majority of people in the US probably do know them from the 90s and Starfish and Gold Afternoon Fix, but fans from all over have been following them for years now. Steve actually said at the show last night that they had fans from Peru come to NY to see them.
Craig Gidney
4. Craig Gidney
In the late 80s, Kilbey did a couple of albums with his then-girlfriend, guitarist Donette Thayer, under the name Hex. Hex definitely also had a strong fantasy-new weird-magic vibe, and they sounded like the Church fronted by a female singer.

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