“Patience is a virtue,” said PopMatters’s own Jayson Harsin when reviewing the Church’s Untitled 23. “[N]ewcomers might tire waiting for the group’s charms to percolate,” wrote a writer for Mojo when reviewing the 2002 Church album After Everything, Now This. Fans of this long-standing Australian rock band are already aware of how the Church’s best music rarely, if at all, jumps out at you on the first spin. Or the second or third. Even within the converted, this barrier can still appear from time to time, through no fault of the band’s.
But once a Church album cracks itself open to you, there’s nothing quite like it. There is still potent chatter over the internet for albums like the post-punk masterpiece The Blurred Crusade, the critical breakthrough Starfish and its spunky predecessor Heyday, and the dark, swirling psychedelia tucked deep within Priest = Aura. For the Church, these transcendent moments with their audience are the norm, not the exception. And the fact that an album as potent as Man Woman Life Death Infinity can pop up this late in a 36-year career in the music business is just cake, with icing, and being able to eat it.
At a glance, Man Woman Life Death Infinity is a succinct release. With ten tracks clocking in at 43 minutes, you would think they had trimmed away all that extra spaciness that puffed up releases like Sometime Anywhere and the vinyl edition of Further/Deeper. But such moments are still there. The Church have just become so skilled in incorporating them into their long-established sound that an album as concise as Man Woman Life Death Infinity still soars, no matter what the runtime.
All the more impressive is just how well former Powderfinger guitarist Ian Haug has settled into his new role. His arrival and subsequent work with the band haven’t compromised a thing. There are many moments in Man Woman Life Death Infinity that can arguably have come from multiple moments of the band’s history — “classic” Church moments if you will.
What exactly do I mean by that? I’ll do my best. The keyboard that starts the opening single “Another Century” should be enough to give you an “Aura” flashback. The miles-wide mid-tempo number “A Face in the Film” would be an easy fit for any of those moody late ’90s Church releases, while the nervous energy that thrusts “In Your Fog” along reminds listeners of the band’s early ’80s period when they were young and hungry to prove themselves. And the e-bow guitar solo that wraps up the spritely “I Don’t Know How I Don’t Know Why” surely has a cousin lurking somewhere in the band’s back catalog.
If you have followed the Church this far into their career, you know that they don’t set out to retread themselves. If any of it reminds you of Church past, that’s just a happy accident. They still reserve space for a few new tricks, no matter how subtle they sound on the first five listens. The album’s second single “Undersea” is one of those let’s-march-to-this-drummer-over-here moments where Tim Powles pulls out one of his nicely non-standard beats. “Fly makes the honey, man,” sings Steve Kilbey, in a vocal melody almost too simple to have eluded him for so many decades.
“Another Century” stitches together three lovely little pieces of song to make a something simultaneously unique and insistent. Guitarist Peter Koppes knits it altogether absurdly easily, despite the key changes. “Dark Waltz” doesn’t let us down gently at the end. Haug and Koppes strike out deep, cavernous clangs from their strings in three-four time while Kilbey delivers a spoken-word ramble that sounds like “Operetta’s” sinister twin: “And overhead the cameras idiot gaze just blinks and leers / And you apprehend that the weekend that just ended / Has been gone for years.” He’s borderline rambling while the backing vocals, possibly provided by Powles or Koppes, ominously repeat something that sounds like “When I wasn’t there.”
Not a moment of Man Woman Life Death Infinity is wasted. Sure, it takes a good two minutes for “Submarine” to get started, but no fan of psychedelia, Krautrock, post-punk, Gothic rock, or ambient would consider those two minutes “wasted”. To these fans, those two minutes of guitar noise as a key ingredient, just like the 12-string rolls of “Before the Deluge” or the ghostly reverb of “For King Knife”. It’s not easy proclaiming the latest release by a veteran band to be one of their best, especially when their long career is already speckled with many peaks. But damn it, I’m staking my claim here and saying that Man Woman Life Death Infinity deserves to go down as a 21st-century masterpiece, a bright beam of light amid a generic musical landscape, and truly one of the Church’s greatest releases.