There is no discography as consistent, as expansive, or as exploratory as that of The Church.
This is in no way meant to be a controversial statement. It isn’t a provocation. It’s just a simple fact. 34 albums deep, 867 songs wide, spanning over 30 years, from the propulsive, hooky rock of the early ’80s to the dreamy, dark-star-chasing middle streak to the several dozen victory lap classics of the ’00s on through to last year’s best (and most overlooked) album, man woman life death infinity. The Magus Steven Kilbey and his paisley band of shamanic swindlers have been dreamweaving a lush, searching tapestry in the furthest corner of your house. You may not be aware of it, but it’s there, and one day you just may walk through the wrong door and into their twilight world of infinite possibility.
Real Church freaks (of which there are many) could wage battle for centuries over which is the best Church album, but we’re going to just go ahead and say that it’s Priest = Aura. No, it doesn’t have “Under The Milky Way” on it, nor does it have “Reptile” or “Metropolis” or “Shadow Cabinet” or “Myrrh” or dozens of other stone cold Churched-out classics, but its lush sweep of romantic and disillusioned cryptic majesty is the best overall distillation of their powers ever set on one slab of vinyl. Sue us. Or wait, you can’t, because we have the best defense lawyer in the world, The Sage Mr. Steven Kilbey himself, who fully agrees with us.
So let’s just get right into the back alley of temptation and delights that is Priest = Aura.
First there’s that title. Just what exactly does “Priest = Aura” mean? Does it signify that no earthly priest can truly act as a conduit for the spirit world and that your true priest is the aura that surrounds you? Does it mean that you can never truly tap into the spiritual slipstream until you understand the energy you spark off and surround yourself with? Is Steve Kilbey a massive Judas Priest fan? Is it nonsense gibber jabber? Then there’s that cover. An obscure, ruinous Egyptian pyramid. Not one of the famous ones. A ghetto pyramid. An expanse of gritty-looking desert. A stray dog, destitute but alert, concentrating hard on something just off camera. It’s all so cryptic and weird, especially for a band fresh off two hit albums, two hit singles, a band that should be in the glittering prime of a major run for the stadiums. And yet already the record has an arid, parched vibe even before you’ve heard the thing.
Then there’s track one coming at you. It’s clear from the deep space synth line and burbling guitars that we are very far from the dreamy, mainstream-courting romanticism of “Under The Milky Way” and “Metropolis”. Something interesting is happening here, something still full of romance but far darker. This is a band, and a lyricist, who have clearly been through the wars in recent years, who have touched the holy grail of real success and, instead of becoming bewitched by it like contemporaries such as U2 or Echo & The Bunnymen, or enraged by it like Bauhaus, they’ve come back from the battles haunted and serene.
We all came back from the war
I wish somebody would tell me the score
We raked old Poseidon over the coals
Shook his shells, shaked his shoals
Where can a soldier fix himself a drink
Forget the noise, forget the stink
And the opium is running pretty low
‘Cause when the pain comes back, I don’t want to know
Already we have the main, gauzy themes of this record laid bare. Ancient warfare imagery. Allusions to exotic drugs. An opulence of delights that nurture and wound at the same time. And then there’s that chorus, which somehow manages to take the whole “Priest = Aura” mystery and muddy the waters even further.
An enemy always = an adorer
But priest = aura
It’s a hesitant, searching stutter of an album opener. It should have been a victory lap after a few years of international success as a band, but it’s clear from the very outset that Kilbey and Co. have chosen to follow a gilded path into empires unknown.
Then we’ve got “Ripple”. A long recognized Church classic, this thing rocks about as hard as they’ve ever rocked, swirling at several points into near metal territory. After the obtuse, rambling lyrics of “Aura”, it’s disorienting to hear Kilbey come at us with direct, reality-based romantic and financial complaints.
I lent you some collateral to buy new clothes
It went out the window and up your nose
And that’s the end of the honeymoon
Of course it can’t stay mired in lame, earthbound concerns for too long, this being The Church after all. Before you know it we’re knocked off balance with:
Now I don’t want to bring up a delicate matter
No I’d much rather bribe or flatter you
‘Cause flattery gets me everywhere
But you punctured my tires, you crossed all my wires
I brand your acolytes as a pack of liars
And the fire’s singing everywhere
Buckle like a wreck on the cold green sea
Like you were a ripple in my memory
Harsh, yes, but honest and haunted to the bone. All is clearly not well in the world of Steven Kilbey, and this is great news to his acolytes since we get immortal jumbles of Sony Publishing-copyrighted fever dream word tangles as the track charges to its uncharacteristically harsh zenith.
You’re so deluxe, you’re so divine
You’re so fifty light years ahead of your time
You’re a riddle, you’re a ripple
You’re the human sacrifice to the goddess of ice
Your hairdo is filled with diamonds and lice
Flattery really does get him everywhere.
The record then settles into an austere, deceptively calming stretch. This enjoyable slide begins with the lovely “Paradox” which is amongst the prettiest melodies they’ve ever come up, which is really saying a lot for The Church. Kilbey sounds resigned on this one, laid back in a cushy, gauzy pocket of chiming chords and acoustic strums and searching synth lines. He’s so relaxed that you may miss disillusioned lines such as, “I’ve got a nickname for you, I call you weakness” but that can be forgiven since this song is so stunning in its presentation. It’s as if the band is trying to shield the listener from the swirling darkness bubbling up through its ranks. It gets increasingly tough to hide, though, on the vaguely menacing “Lustre” (these song titles!) which looms like a large, decadent city all lit up on a desolate desert stretch. Subjects such as the band’s recent clash with fame (“Ride the bandwagon into the ditch”), the gentrification of their native Sydney (“Ride the ghost train now into the dark, Ride it right into the ground, Up through the suburbs, graveyards and parks, Going around and around”), and romantic disillusionment (If I never see you again, That will be way too soon, And if I ever get over this, I will be over the moon) rear their heads through the meticulously constructed surface. And then there’s this bit of textbook Priest = Aura lyricism:
Ride the rollercoaster for all that it’s worth
Live it all up to the hilt
If you can’t take it with you
Away from this earth
Might as well take it full tilt
Ride the old horse through goldrush town
If that’s the kind of company you keep
You’re getting very tired and you need to lie down
I’ll see you in your sleep
Let those lines wash over you after a few vape hits and you just may hit your revelation point. Kilbey spends much of this album making his case for the sage/shaman niche, and his arguments sound their most convincing and effortless on this lucid middle stretch. On “Swan Lake” we are back in reality-based confession mode with Kilbey lamenting his perceived failures as a father to his twin girls (they came out allright, no worries), which makes the hooky, blissed rush of “Feel” all the more surprising. Coming after such a string of stark confessions, the track sneaks up on you with its loping, carefree verse and a chorus that comes on like the first 79-degree day of spring. The Churchies hadn’t sounded this poppy and positive since Heydey, and the song’s placement here is ingenious, breaking up the drag of the atmosphere and preparing you for the album’s final long sprint.
“And another thing, that halo you wear on your head, I haven’t seen one of those for years,” Kilbey announces convincingly on the surprisingly desperate chorus of “Mistress”, another of the many songs on the record that makes you wonder just what spirits The Church had encountered during the preceding years of mid-chart glory. “All my songs are coming true,” he tells us, and in this context it doesn’t sound like such a good thing. “Kings” is back to Heyday country, back to the light, with Kilbey waxing mystic on swirls of ancient middle eastern imagery backed by a psyched-out, sun-blasted backing track. The double-stacked vocals on the chorus make the song, just the type of golden production touch that came naturally to The Church at the time, evoking long, hot days of wonder. “The Dome” is just flat out strange, visions of cryogenic domes and couples lost to barbarians, curses and ash, and one of the spaciest middle eights the band has ever laid down. Donald Trump’s fave church song, “Witch Hunt”, floats in for a mere minute-and-a-half of circus waltz swirl, leading the way toward one of the most stunning songs ever laid down on tape.
What can be said about “The Disillusionist” that hasn’t already been conveyed by the song itself? That it’s flat out bonkers? This can be deduced from just the opening fade-in. That it’s beautiful? This is also more than evident on just a cursory listen. That it’s messianic and messy and dystopian and dead serious and funny and damning and and reverent? That it’s possibly about Aleister Crowley? That it’s maybe about Steve Kilbey himself? The track is just so spellbindingly good that it’s nearly impossible to find a proper angle to write about it from. In a perfect world, The Church would be Led Fucking Zeppelin, and this would no doubt be their “Stairway”, and stadiums full of unwitting fans would raise their lighters to verses such as this:
He can turn wine into water
Mother against daughter
Juggles busy deadlines
Gets himself off headlines
Surrounded by his minions
Who never have opinions
Performing little tricks for you
Puts it in a fix for you
Smashes your watch with a hammer
Caresses you with camera
And says the magic words
That nobody’s ever heard
Now the slur is fading
It only makes you want him more
It only makes you fawn him more
Alas, it is not a perfect world as our disillusioned prophets in The Church make abundantly clear in the closing moments of this sermon. It’s hard to shake the feeling that these guys have seen some haunting things behind the fickle curtain of hit songs and MTV rotation, yet they never flex direct angst or preach to their listeners in definitives. It’s all highly personal but universally adaptable. This record plays out like a troubled letter to their cult of listeners.
And no song is more troubled in The Church catalog than “Chaos”. Note that this is not “chaos” in the punk sense. There is no rock n roll abandon to be found here. The “chaos” of the always mystical Church is that of ancient Egypt, one of Steve Kilbey’s go-to subjects, where all was a struggle between order and chaos and disorder itself was represented by a disfigured God named Set. Of course this all ties back to the pyramid on the cover, and for those who have been along for the ride since Track One you can’t help but feel you’ve reached the album’s far-flung bookend. The track is indeed chaotic, featuring freakout guitar and a freeform whammy bar fade-out, but it’s also tightly wound and controlled, tense, indicating The Church isn’t letting loose here at all. They’re expressing the swirling void in a calculated, pinpoint fashion. Kilbey describes it best on the bridge: “Adrenaline is not my mistress, But she always knows just where I’ve been.”
It’s the perfect closing track on an obtuse, engaging, difficult, and dark record. You may not be able to relate to what The Church is trying to tell you, but you must tip your hat to them that they’ve said it well. You worry for them, but not too much, because the rut they seem to have found themselves in sure sounds enticing. And this may be the key to the longevity and artistic success of this band. Lots of artists express complex feelings and dark imagery, but very few express it so eloquently and make it sound so damn enchanting. A real Church fan doesn’t just listen to their records on Spotify, they want to get taken up in their lush slipstream and never come down again.
Have you ever noticed how nobody ever brings up other bands when reviewing The Church? For example, I’ve written over 2,000 words here and haven’t mentioned one other artist. This is because there’s no band that sounds like them. No other catalog soars as consistently as theirs. And in the case of Priest = Aura, no other album has ever come close to the opaque majesty on display in every groove. The Church aren’t just in their own lane on this record. They own a whole highway lined with emerald lampposts, speeding in a ghost car with a smacked-out saint at their wheel.