The Church's musical style has changed remarkably during the years. Early songs were mostly simply structured. "She Never Said," the first single, featured a New-Wave-like staccato rhythm and Kilbey’s laconic Bowie-inspired "half-recitative" vocals. Short, guitar-based songs dominate the debut, Of Skins And Heart. Similar means are to be found in early XTC, Television, The Beatles or Echo & The Bunnymen. Unusual in their time were experiments with long songs in different sections ("Is This Where You Live," 1981). The prominent use of Willson-Piper’s electric 12-string Rickenbacker guitar brought up comparisons with The Byrds, however, there are few stylistic parallels.
The second album, The Blurred Crusade, refined the sound and brought the sixties influences to the foreground. The single "Almost With You" represents this style very concisely: chiming arpeggios of Willson-Piper's guitar, atmospheric soloing and unusual voicings from Peter Koppes, Ploog's quite hard, driving drum sound and Kilbey's dark velvet vocals with its intonation between singing and talking. Also The Blurred Crusade featured a nine-minute psychedelic art rock piece ("You Took").
Seance, the third album, was an attempt to enrich the typical Church sound with synthesizers and more “electronic” production. Made under the aegis of Nick Launay (Midnight Oil, Kate Bush), its mostly the eccentric, cannon-like drum sound catching attention. In "Travel By Thought," Seance features an improvised, psychedelic noise experiment. Keyboard soundscapes and experimental guitar sounds show up also on the follow up, Remote Luxury. The distinct separation of lead (Koppes) and rhythm guitar (Willson-Piper) is dissolved in favor of a more textured sound ideal. Solos and riffs are more and more replaced by a complex fabric of interlocking guitar parts.
Heyday renounces synth sounds almost completely. Peter Walsh's production with its transparent sound subverts the bulk of mid-eighties productions heavily. There are hardly any soli. Instead of this, a warm, 12 string driven, kaleidoscope-like sound dominates, with massive use of effects (echo, e-bow, drones). Kilbey's vocals clearly move away from the Bowie pattern. Instead of synthetic strings, a real orchestra is used on some tracks. Starfish (1988) combines the lot of guitar effects with a more outlined, rockier sound. Open voicings and modal scales coin the sonic scapes. This direction continues also on Gold Afternoon Fix in an even more transparent fashion.
Priest=Aura (1992) reintegrates again elements of prog rock. The guitar interplay is becoming more and more complex. Rooting in the creative process with long jam sessions, songs with a vast number of counterpoints and unusual chords often result. The minor or modal-tinged songs are getting more and more elegiac and elaborate. Noise and white noise are added to the sonic palette, probably inspired by the experiments of My Bloody Valentine.
Sometime Anywhere (1994) mirrors a radical break, triggered by the exit of Peter Koppes. What the guitar arrangements lose in complex interplay is compensated by the massive use of sequencers and electronically generated sounds. Willson-Piper's playing with mostly monodic melodies departs clearly from his earlier “jingle-jangle” style. He continues these experiments on Magician Among The Spirits. The influence of Krautrock bands such as Can or Neu! becomes more obvious. A cover of Steve Harley's "Ritz" pays homage to the seventies.
However, Hologram Of Baal is an attempt to return to the more compact sound of the Starfish era after Peter Koppes had come back, enriched with elements of ambient music, whereas After Everything Now This is defined by a gently flowing, soothing, elegic sound, dominated by orchestral, string-like (but guitar-made) layers of music.
Forget Yourself (2004) summarizes The Church's different phases. It tends to edgier sounds and an almost encyclopedic use of guitars and effect units. The production strikes with a rough, quasi-live, nevertheless multi-layered sound.
Most of The Church's lyrics are written by Steve Kilbey, who was the sole songwriter on all albums up to Remote Luxury. Until then, Kilbey brought basically completed/demoed songs to the sessions while the arrangement was a group effort, mostly done by Peter Koppes. This changed since with Heyday in 1985. Now, the songs are results of expanded jam sessions. The music is first written in the studio, after which Kilbey writes the lyrics. His lyrics and poems are often described as surreal, though Kilbey flatly rejects any fixed meaning of his poetry, categorizing them as art pour l'art. Surveying his body of work, several recurring themes can be noticed: myths, legends, dreams and nightmares, visions, drug fantasies, orientalisms, biblical (not Christian) motifs. These thematic circles are linked, using numerous word plays and references. More recently, Kilbey has stated (about his latest collection, "Eden") his poetry questions "the fabric of love and fear, temptation and creation and our eternal quest for meaning." Often he tries to sketch with few strokes and hints a complete epic course, leaving the details to the listener's imagination.
The Church handle their lyrics to some extent subversively. Strikingly, since the release of 1988's Starfish they have refused to provide lyric sheets to the albums, on the idea that sung lyrics should be listened to, not read. Kilbey likes the idea of a lyric emerging in a person's head, spawning lots of new and unforeseen meanings.
If you believe what you read on the net, ‘The Church’ are more of a studio band, erratic at best when playing live. I have to admit that it’s probably 15 years since I saw them play live, but during the 80’s ‘I would go out way’ to catch a show. Can’t remember ever being disappointed. This offering is The Church I remember.
The Church 06/23/90 Chicago
02 North, South, East, And West
03 Terra Nova Cain
04 Hotel Womb
08 Don't Look Back
09 Under The Milky Way
10 Dancing Barefoot
12 Russion Autumn Heart
13 An Interlude