I can’t help but feel like explaining a band like the Church to an American teenager of today is slightly impossible. In an era where even the most suburban teen can go to the mall and purchase rebellion at Hot Topic in nicely categorized packages, a scenario like the mid-‘80s seems like anarchy (an idea that would have been laughable at the time). How do you even begin to describe how a little-known “college” band from Australia could dress like vicars with mullets, debut a song relying on acoustic twelve-string guitar and a bagpipe solo, and appeal equally to goth, alternative, pop, and rock fans, and not only make it onto MTV, but also crack the Top 40 (peaking at number 24)? Yet such is the strange history of “Under the Milky Way”, the single bona fide hit for the Church to ever gain anything like general historical relevance.
But perhaps that’s just the tunnel vision of age setting in. I falsely see a golden age in a time when John Hughes was dividing us into social groups as easily as corporations do today. The punk / modern / college / whatever scene was certainly commercialized, and if bands like the Church are marginalized by today’s music industry, the indie scene of today is probably no less desperate than the indie scene of yesteryear. Just because I can’t think of a corollary does not mean that one doesn’t exist, and if the Church is (unfairly) relegated to “one-hit wonder” status, perhaps it’s just that they were in the right place at the right time, hitting it big in a year that also saw the commercial success of Erasure, INXS, and, of all things, a Siouxsie and the Banshees song. It’s probably a misplaced nostalgia brought on by the fact that I’m more likely to hear “Under the Milky Way” on retro ‘80s radio and on VH1 specials than in any kind of contemporary context.
Of course, the real victim of all this misperception is the Church, a band that has been laboring for over two decades, and turning out music that is almost always consistently good, though perhaps not groundbreaking. In fact, if it weren’t for “Under the Milky Way”, the Church would probably be struggling to overcome the “one-hit” specter of an earlier single, “The Unguarded Moment”—the first song to gain some attention for the band, and which originated from their debut album, Of Skins and Heart, in 1981, re-released in the US as The Church in 1982. Between the two hit singles you have the critically acclaimed albums Remote Luxury and Heyday, and following “Under the Milky Way” you’ve got the 1990 album, Gold Afternoon Fix, which had minor success with “Metropolis” and “You’re Still Beautiful”. Add to that a string of solo releases by guitarist Marty Willson-Piper. Still, American audiences would be hard pressed to have kept up with the Church following Priest = Aura, despite the fact that the band continued to labor until the end of the millennium and onto into the 21st century, remaining a successful entity in their native Australia.
In light of Forget Yourself, the latest project from the Church, this minute history lesson would mean little, except for the fact that if you have been following the band the whole time, you might find the sonic shift a bit surprising. And if you haven’t been attending the Church religiously, you’ll miss how Forget Yourself is something of an evolution from the tight, controlled vibe of the band’s past. If the true definition of a cult band is one that survives on fans who will buy anything that a band releases, then there’s enough good and different music on Forget Yourself that the disc might help the Church rise above cult status.
All bad puns aside, and resisting the urge to use Scientology as a metaphor, at first listen Forget Yourself is something of a surprise. When the Church tried to slightly update their sound with 1999’s After Everything Now This, some critics found the distinction lacking, noting that the band seemed unwilling to let go of the formula of their initial success in favor of something new. Forget Yourself seeks to correct this, as the band’s neo-psychedelic edge bursts through stronger than ever, producing an album that might as well be space rock and sounds little to nothing like “Under the Milky Way” or even “You’re Still Beautiful”.
Much of this can be attributed to the distinctly different way that Forget Yourself was recorded. Producer (and also drummer for the band) Tim Powles brought Steve Kilbey and company together and basically just started recording live jams. The rough, live feel of the tracks comes across beautifully in the recording, and after years of winning over fans with truly rocking live shows, the Church have finally managed to capture that sound on disc. The result is a fuzzy, thick aural soup that stands in marked contrast to their previous body of work. This alone makes Forget Yourself worth noticing, and the album’s title might as well be a mantra for the band as they finally let go a bit.
The change is immediately apparent in the opening track, “Sealine”. While you can hear the framework for what might have been a low, breathy pop tune on any other Church album, what you get are the rough-edges and the dense, heavy bassline that weighs the track down. Willson-Piper’s lead guitar licks are drenched in distortion, and meander overtop the track in a distant, much more psych-rock way than the band’s previous efforts. Of course, Kilbey’s languorous tenor is still the focal point that it’s always been. The trajectory goes even further on the appropriately titled “Song in Space”, which really gives Forget Yourself a space rock element. While not exactly drifting off entirely, the guitar melodies soar high above the vocals and wall of bass and cymbals that make up the body of the song, and once more the rougher production values give the song a veneer of retro authenticity. Whereas their older material is similar to that of the Psychedelic Furs or Echo and the Bunnymen, “Song in Space” makes the argument for the Church as followers of Pink Floyd, particularly as the track breaks down into thick wall of sound distortion and ethereal vocals.
The rumbling low end and fuzzed guitars of “The Theatre and Its Double” and the polyphonic harmonies of “Telepath” continue this vein, almost as if the Church has decided to reinvent itself as a lo-fi Radiohead fronted by Syd Barrett, or, if that’s a little too experimental, at least a revisitation to the Jesus and Mary Chain. But hints of the old Church bleed through the rock of “See Your Lights” even as the track sounds meatier and heavier than anything they recorded in the ‘80s. Similarly with “Lay Low”—musically, it’s gritty track, nearly industrial goth rock, and highly contemporary in feel, but lyrically it’s not too terrible a drift from the darker elements of Heyday or Gold Afternoon Fix. The Church have had ominous qualities in the past, but here they’re foregrounded so much in both music and delivery that you’d hardly recognize the band as the same.
However, not everything is a major leap away from the past, and this saves Forget Yourself from sounding like a desperate renunciation of the Church’s established career. “Maya”, “Don’t You Fall” (particularly in the harmonies), “Reversal”, and “Summer” will all feel essentially familiar to long-time fans. But the fact that they’re mixed in with muscular tracks like “Nothing Seeker” will give listeners a reason to pause and reconsider what they thought they knew about the Church. While Kilbey’s low, serpentine voice sounds as great as ever, Forget Yourself seems to have given guitarists Willson-Piper and Peter Koppes some fresh breathing room, and if they haven’t exactly scrapped the old Church in favor of a new one, they’ve at least redesigned it with a greater sense of play.
Perhaps Forget Yourself doesn’t conspire to fit into any of the ready-made market categories of today, but one of the freedoms of cult status is that the Church has long been making music for themselves and their die-hard fans. Having already drummed up a good deal of support at home (including selling out the Sydney Opera House), the final months of 2003 and the beginning of 2004 will see the Church taking their show to the international stage. In some ways it’s probably better that the band won’t be faced too much with the burden of being “that ‘Under the Mily Way’ band”, for pop memories are short, but for the longtime fans, Forget Yourself will come as a refreshingly new look at some old friends.