The Church were definitely a breath of fresh air when they arrived on
the heavily synth-dominated rock scene of the '80s, way back when
North America was having its first love affair with all things Aussie
(remember Men At Work? Midnight Oil? Paul Hogan? "Ripper"?). With 1985's
excellent Heyday, especially, they made their mark, with the
neo-Byrdsy pop-rock interplay of guitarists Marty Willson-Piper and Peter
Koppes and the equal parts Bowie- and phatty-influenced vocals and lyrics of
Steven Kilbey revitalizing the notion of guitar rock and meshing nicely
with the neo-psychedelic "Paisley Underground" scene then happening in the
States. This formula finally peaked with 1988's commercial breakthrough,
Starfish, which yielded the band's biggest "hits," "Under The Milky
Way" and "Destination."
Subsequent commercial pressures to produce a follow-up, along with
various bandmembers' drug enthusiasms, eventually took their toll on the
Church, however, and after 1992's ambient Priest = Aura, they faded
away from the mainstream rock scene in a cloud of pot and opium smoke,
losing key-component Koppes in the bargain. The good news here is that the
Church have now taken Koppes -- never on the best of personal terms with his
partner in six-string crime -- back into the fold, making Hologram of
Baal a sort of reunion album (drummer Richard Ploog, however, who left
after 1990's Gold Afternoon Fix, remains AWOL).
As such ventures go, then, Hologram of Baal (and what was Kilbey
smoking when he came up with that title?) isn't half-bad. While
Koppes and Willson-Piper may indeed hate each other's guts, they still work
beautifully, weaving chiming, at times ethereal, at other times doomy
guitar lines together like Aussie dream-weavers, proving they belong up
there with Thin Lizzy's Brian Robertson and Scott Gorham in the
underpopulated annals of rock's twin lead-guitar greats. Brit transplant
Kilbey, meanwhile, never the most specific of lyricists, infuses the
album with his usual fuzzy dystopian/utopian thematics, lamenting a world
of useless toil run by "The Big Machine" and lauding one Maria, who escapes
its clutches in "Tranquility." The latter two songs and "Louisiana"
highlight the pastoral elegance of the Priest = Aura version of the
Church, a sound evoking wide-open spaces and hot, hazy afternoons spent
dreaming idly on the beach, traversing inner space.
The Church also try to hearken back to their "Milky Way" golden
commercial era here on the mid-paced numbers "Anaesthesia" and "Ricochet,"
which lead off the album, with Kilbey lyrically detailing his confessed
intensive personal drug-research of the last few years, and while these
tunes don't quite hit the bull's eye the band is obviously striving
for, they do become lodged in the subconscious with repeated listenings.
Overall, as fine as the ambient soundscapes the Church conjure are,
listener can't help but wish they would crank the energy back up to
Heyday levels (see "Columbus" for reference) -- as they do here on "No
Certainty Attached" -- a little more often. Perhaps the answer to such a
wish is to be found in "Anaesthesia": "So many things need fixing
everywhere/ Anaesthesia tells me to slow down a little more/ Why not
sleep a little more?" Kilbey sings drowsily.
Hey, the man just wants to relax, and who are we to argue? Sweet
dreams, Mr. Kilbey.