Who plans on being a one-hit-wonder? Most artists and groups dream of having hits (plural) that stretch over many years and sustain long, fruitful careers. Of course, that dream does not come true for many of them. In the context of the millions of acts whose music receives wide distribution, a single hit song in an entire career is an incredible achievement. Yet it doesn’t always feel that way.
In 1988, alternative rock quartet the Church had a surprising hit with the effortlessly ethereal “Under the Milky Way“. The song crossed over from college radio to the mainstream and fueled the success of its attendant album, Starfish. As often happens, though, that success soon became a mixed blessing. Expectations were raised for a follow-up. Long-smoldering intra-band tensions began to flame up. Mind-altering substances helped ease the tension but led to problems of their own.
The Church made Starfish in Los Angeles with the help of SoCal hitmaker producers. Then, against the group’s wishes, the label brought in the same team for Gold Afternoon Fix (1990). That album wasn’t a disaster, but it failed to yield another crossover hit and generally fell short of expectations. Before they finished it, longtime drummer Richard Ploog left, driven away by stress and drugs. It seemed the Church were destined to crash and burn in the same manner as many other acts who rode the rollercoaster of the pre-internet recording industry. And they did, eventually. But before that happened, they managed something rather remarkable: The Church made the best record of their career, Priest=Aura.
Released on 10 March 1992, Priest=Aura was nothing if not an admission that the Church weren’t destined to be alternative rock superstars. The group recorded back in their native Australia, with Scottish producer Gavin MacKillop leading the boards and Patti Smith Group veteran Jay Dee Daugherty on drums. It’s a self-contained, all-enveloping marvel of mood and texture. Though it has plenty of melodic moments, it takes little interest in something so worldly as hit singles.
Aside from a burst of power chords in the middle of the sublime, otherwise tender ballad “Feel”—and the thundering coda to icy-sharp lead single “Ripple”—it has little interest in rock tropes. Instead, it settles into a dreamy, atmospheric third space between indie and progressive psychedelia. The interplay between guitarists Peter Koppes and Marty Willson-Piper, always enigmatic, turns into pure alchemy. Here, it’s clear that effects and tones are far more critical than volume and ego-satisfying riffage.
In the early 1990s, bands still realized the promotional value in getting their music played in record stores. Church singer/lyricist/bassist Steve Kilbey used Gold Afternoon Fix opener “Pharaoh” to offer a cynical yet honest admission about the album’s context: “Hi to all the people that are selling me / Here’s one straight from the factory.”
On Priest=Aura’s epic first track, “Aura”, Kilbey again lets the listener in on the band’s state of mind: “The opium’s running pretty low / ‘Cause when the pain comes back, I don’t want to know.” A late 20th-century rock album catalyzed by a substance as ancient as opium might seem highly improbable, yet that’s precisely what Priest=Aura is and, thrillingly, exactly what it sounds like. Half postmodern and half premodern, the LP inhabits its own singular world, one which the ensuing three decades of music history have hardly infringed upon.
Priest=Aura is a world populated by natives who “kill their enemies by loving them to death” and where the Disillusionist—a caddish celebrity who’s “famous from the waist down / But the top part of his body is a corpse”—stalks his prey backstage. It’s also where “Herod nods beneath the palms” and witches run from vigilante mobs, as well as a place where his demons haunt Kilbey. While his bandmates indulged in the liquid form of opium extract, Kilbey became a full-on heroin user.
Priest=Aura contains several thinly-veiled references to the drug’s effects on him. “Paradox”, for instance, may seem to be about a lover, but on closer listen, it reveals itself as an open and frank reflection on the nature of addiction. “You make me drift up and float / And fall like a stone / The more that I see you, the more that I miss you / The less that I care,” Kilbey sings. Likewise, the gentle, waltzing “Swan Lake” is a heartbreaking consideration of how that addiction has caused him to neglect his young twin daughters. Then, the aptly-titled “Chaos” finds him grappling with the net result, confessing: “None of this is what I wanted.”
From its title on down, Priest=Aura is unrepentantly pretentious, high-minded, and accountable to no one other than the people who made it. However, all this is earned by the excellent quality of the songwriting, arranging, performances, and production. Daugherty is crucial because his cascading fills work in tandem with Kilbey’s propulsive six-string bass to give the songs plenty of energy and momentum despite the heady material. From the opening minor-key synth pads of “Aura” to the final foreboding echo of the Cure-like instrumental closer, “Film”, the album casts a mesmerizing, unbroken spell.
More than on any previous Church album, it is Kilbey who holds it all together, conjuring images, spinning yarns, and generally beguiling the listener—and all in his smooth, limited yet strangely charismatic voice. At the time, critics seemed to focus on the couplets and images that didn’t land, but the evocative, sometimes sardonic moments more than make up for those. Kilbey had always been the Church’s leader. On Priest=Aura, he became the clear focal point.
Of course, when juxtaposed with his overall descent into heroin addiction, Kilbey’s creative ascendance only exacerbated the tensions within the Church. The commercial failure of Priest=Aura didn’t help, yet it was all but inevitable. Not only was the record bereft of a radio-friendly insertion point (even the single, “Ripple”, had to be edited down for college radio), but it also was at great odds with the prevailing trends in alternative music. Nirvana‘s Nevermind was less than six months old. Spiritual cousins like the Smashing Pumpkins‘ Mellon Collie & the Infinite Sadness and Spiritualized‘s Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space were still years away.
The Church never toured for Priest=Aura because Koppes and Daugherty left the band before a tour could happen. By 1996, Kilbey and Willson-Piper were on the verge of calling it quits, too. They didn’t, and the future brightened gradually, though not in the world-beating way they might have once imagined. Koppes returned, and a series of well-received albums helped cement the band’s modest but dedicated international fanbase. Kilbey finally kicked heroin in 2000, and a decade after that, the Church were inducted into the ARIA (Australian Recording Industry Association) Hall of Fame.
Still, the Church is forever synonymous with “Under the Milky Way” for most people. Hardly anyone plans on being a one-hit-wonder, but with Priest=Aura, the Church proved that there could be a rich life on the other side of it.