Album number five from Australia’s best kept musical secret managed the near impossible by actually improving on its immaculate predecessor ‘Heyday’. It was the album that briefly threatened to launch them into the mainstream. The fact that it didn’t remains one of those enduring mysteries for the ages that perhaps the greatest minds of some far flung future utopia will one day be able to unravel.
Few albums boast an opening track as attention grabbing as ‘Destination’. It finds lead vocalist and bassist Steve Kilbey musing chillingly on the end of civilisation as we know it: ‘In the space between our houses/Some bones have been discovered/Yet our procession lurches on/As if we have recovered’. The bass throbs menacingly, guitars rise in pitch and tone from mere anxiety to barely controlled hysteria and there’s no respite in anything resembling a conventional chorus. Instead, at the culmination of each verse, the music dies away and there is a brief interlude of near silence before Kilbey returns to the mic, whispering like a lost soul. Each time the effect is startling. This is music from the edge of the abyss and anyone of a nervous disposition will probably have run screaming for the exits long before the song reaches its final fade out.
‘Under The Milky Way’ marked a commercial highpoint for the band when released as a single. A number one in their homeland, it briefly dented the US top forty and even enjoyed modest airplay in the UK. Now, it seems to have taken on a life of its own thanks to the multiple different versions and its use in everything from 'Miami Vice' to 'Trigger Happy TV', from 'Prison Break' to 'Donnie Darko'. The original remains a haunting, timeless masterclass in brooding, atmospheric pop-rock. From the hushed acoustic intro the song gradually builds momentum, gathering additional layers of sound via bass, drums, keyboards, guitars and even a Theremin. Mysterious. Enigmatic. Ethereal. It’s a song to get lost in and despite its near five minutes running time always seems to end too soon.
‘Blood Money’ is as cold and heartless as ‘Under The Milky Way’ is warm and wistful. Built around an edgy, insistent riff it’s the perfect vehicle for Kilbey’s icy drawl as he recounts what might or might not be the tale of a blackmail plot gone awry. ‘Lost’, on the other hand, is a bizarre stream of consciousness set against the gentle, sun-kissed ebb and flow of those trademark jangling Rickenbackers. It’s quite lovely – albeit in a slightly unsettling, off-kilter way.
Apparently inspired by their time in Los Angeles recording the album (a time which, by all accounts, was not a happy one), ‘North, South, East, West’ sees Kilbey taking a lyrical blowtorch to the excesses and absurdities of late twentieth century life to a fittingly high-octane, riff-fuelled backing. ‘I’ll take my payment, I’ll catch my flight and don’t wait up for me tonight’ he concludes with the weary disgust of a man who can’t wait to escape from the sleazy, soul-sucking metropolis where anything goes and ‘the face of today’ is ‘just a scalpel away.’
Guitarists Marty Wilson-Piper and Peter Koppes each contribute a composition of their own. Wilson-Piper’s appropriately titled ‘Spark’ is an Iggy style glam-punk anthem that crackles with such energy and spontaneity you can’t help thinking it must have been recorded live in a single take. Koppes opts for a more mellow vibe. ‘A New Season’ is all cascading melody and hazy vocal harmonies. Clocking in at less than three minutes, it’s the shortest, sweetest thing on the album.
If ‘Destination’ and ‘Under The Milky Way’ have made justifiable claims for greatness on behalf of ‘Starfish’, then it’s ‘Antenna’ and ‘Reptile’ that finally, emphatically destroy any arguments to the contrary. ‘Antenna’ is, quite simply, gorgeous. The waltzing melody which shifts effortlessly between plaintive verse and imploring chorus is intoxicating enough; but when, in the closing moments, Marty Wilson-Piper’s baroque, already gravity-defying guitar arpeggios soar off into the stratosphere, the effect is nothing short of rapturous.
‘Reptile’ is another thing entirely; taught, dark, and almost unbearably claustrophobic, it finds Kilbey apparently in the clutches of some beautiful but deadly succubus gradually draining the life out of him. Guitars entwine with the sinister complicity of murderous lovers, the bass-line wriggles and writhes like the creature of the title and there’s a gloriously incongruous instrumental break which seems to belong to a different song altogether. Fittingly the song’s climax is a descent into the maelstrom; where guitars and drums fuse into one headlong crescendo of sound, seeming to offer both damnation and bliss in equal measure.
Closing track ‘Hotel Womb’ takes us on a surreal lyrical odyssey into some bizarre netherworld to the accompaniment of a sumptuous psychedelic wig-out. Like all of the songs here it seems infused with something of the beauty and strangeness of the Australian landscape; a sense of wide open space and the ultimate fragility of civilisation in the face of nature that could only have originated in a country at the margins of the inhabited world.
Interesting to note that in the same year ‘Starfish’ came out, fellow countrymen INXS were enjoying success with their album ‘Kick’. ‘Kick’ was a collection of slick, commercial and ultimately soulless funk-rock work outs and sub-Jagger lasciviousness that sold by the million and made them international superstars. But ‘Kick’ could have been recorded by any band, anywhere. By contrast, there are times when ‘Starfish’ sounds like the work of a band from a different dimension - not just a different hemisphere.
In the end it never quite happened for The Church. Their moment passed and they slipped back into cult obscurity where they remain to this day - still making great music. For the uninitiated this is still the best place to start. Those of us who’ve already made the journey can only smile knowingly in anticipation of the treasures that await you…