The Church
Photo: Hugh Stewart / Reybee

The Church’s ‘The Hypnogogue’ Is Stunning

Whether calming you with lush songs like “Aerodrome” and “The Coming Days” or tickling the edges of your mind with “Thorn”, the Church’s The Hypnogogue is stunning.

The Hypnogogue
The Church
Communicating Vessels
24 February 2023

“This could be better than you think.” Lineup changes are nothing new to the Church. The Australian mainstays are currently on their fourth drummer, Tim Powles, and guitarists Marty Willson-Piper and Peter Koppes have both quit the band at least twice apiece. But with both Willson-Piper and Koppes out of the picture, frontman Steve Kilbey has recruited a pool of fresh blood for the group’s personnel. Guitarist Ian Hague, formerly of Powderfinger, joined the Church about ten years ago and helped to create the two stellar albums Further/Deeper and Man Woman Life Death Infinity.

Jeffrey Cain, formerly of the band Remy Zero, has logged two Kilbey collaborations under the name Isidore and has been a touring member of the Church in the recent past. The most recent addition is Ashley Naylor of the band Even. This quintet began working on new material before the pandemic, and we all know what that did for everyone’s plans. So their album The Hypnogogue has been a long time coming.

After much recording, re-recording, setting aside time for side-projects, side-gigging, and general international travel (for a time, Cain couldn’t come to Australia due to COVID-related travel restrictions), the revamped Church are finally ready to unleash The Hypnogogue, probably one of the strangest releases to bear their name since the 1990s. It also sounds like a Church album through and through. If the Soft Machine were able to release an album with almost no original members just eight years after their debut, surely Kilbey can take his place as the Chris Squire of Space Rock and lead the charge known as the Church into the 2020s.

The Hypnogogue is the Church’s first concept album. But unlike a record like Tommy, it’s difficult to sort out the narrative on your own. You really need to have someone tell you what the story is. The Hypnogogue traces the life and career of a rock star 30 years from now who falls in love with a Korean scientist who developed a device called the Hypnogogue, an apparatus that pulls thoughts from one’s head and transforms them into music. “Excuse me, user; I’m wondering / Who on Earth imagined you?” Indeed.

There are also rumblings of how the Church have finally embraced their “prog” side with The Hypnogogue. No one is going to confuse any era of the Church for Selling England By the Pound, but there are progressive elements here that have never been part of their equation until now. Whether it’s the recent injection of fresh blood or something else, this new lineup of the Church is a breathtakingly perfect synthesis of song, sound, story, past, and future. So many of the band’s pre-existing hallmarks are stirred together – a dash of Seance here, a pinch of Starfish there. Yet The Hypnogogue is far and away its own creature, which truly needs time to grow and branch out within your brain. Once it does, you’ll probably forget all about Starfish.

The single “C’est La Vie” is an ideal example of this. By taking the shimmering guitars that propelled 1981 single “Tear It All Away” and casting them into whatever cauldron gave us 2006’s Uninvited, Like the Clouds, the classic Church sound is given a modern, edgier twist. In between singing “What if I told you?” and “What if I told you / It was true?,” Kilbey echoes himself in a warble that makes clear that once the Thin White Duke has his grip on you as a teenager, he’s not letting go that easily. If the woozy waltz of “The Disillusionist” from 1992’s Priest=Aura puts you into a trance, be prepared to undergo the procedure once again with the kaleidoscopic title track, one that proves to be a turning point in the album’s story. “Remember the music / Pulled out of your head / Tinkling piano / Into the cans / Insulating guitars / Retilian bass / The kick in your face / The snare in your heart.”

On the first encounter as an isolated single, “The Hypnogogue” sounds like a one-dimensional treadmill exercise, but each listen brings out something new. Within the album’s context, it sounds like a brand new song each time. Whenever Kilbey sings the refrain “Everyone must want something” on “Albert Ross”, it gets harder and harder to believe that a guitar team that is not Koppes and Willson-Piper is effortlessly conjuring the sunny gothic beauty of an English garden à la Remote Luxury

What’s new can be almost startling. Before where the Church would sculpt psychedelic jams into songs, they are now welding together bits and pieces into miniature suites such as on the pastoral chimes of “Antarctica” (a continent which serves as point A for our hero’s travels), the bottoming-out closer “Second Bridge”, and the deeply Floydian “Succulent” where Kilbey’s ghostly overdub announces “I am the voice in another room.”

“Ascende” is an atypical lead-off track for the Church, burying all its edge, punch, and hooks into a thick bed of music that always seems to be modulating up the scale. “Your ascension is assured / Your ascension your reward.” The album’s third single, “No Other You”, a love ode from the protagonist to the Korean scientist that was likely meant to sound a little clunky, is way more “All That Young Dudes” than any sugary love poem. Is it sarcasm, romantic ineptitude, or something else?

Would you even want to know if the answer was within your grasp? Or would you prefer to let the front of your mind sit in the dark while the rest of it absorbed The Hypnogogue? Fans of the Church have long been accustomed to letting the mystery be, whether it be the members’ personal lives or the motivations behind the songs. The internet has weakened these barriers over time, but the music of the Church is just too prodigious to be tainted by such things. Whether calming you with lush numbers like “Aerodrome” and “The Coming Days” or tickling the edges of your mind with “Thorn”, the result is another stunning record, no matter who’s pulling or plucking the strings.

RATING 9 / 10