Wandering rock 'n' roll's backroads for decades, the four members of the Church have been quietly exploring the outer reaches of progressive pop music over 30 plus records. Known to '80s music nerds as the ethereal Australian rock band that spun the beautifully nebulous "Under the Milky Way," the Church have never stopped making increasingly excellent records. In fact, it's the band's quest that keeps them so cutting edge.
"The thing with the Church is that we're always trying to find our place, but we'll never find it," explains guitarst Marty Willson-Piper, whose Rickenbacker 12-string gives the band its signature sound. "If we found it, that would destroy everything. What do you do when you find the Holy Grail? Do you go home and watch the telly? 'Yeah, I found the Holy Grail. Now Friends repeats are on.' It's about the journey, and the journey must never end."
As their journey approaches the Beachland Ballroom —the first time they've played Cleveland since their acoustic 2005 tour — the Church are well aware that their odyssey is the inspiration for their evolving music. They're promoting Untitled #23, their most interesting and accessible album in years. As always, it's a set of shimmering, atmospheric soundscapes that surround the band's trademark prog jangle-pop. "Pangaea" — named after the hypothetical landmass that existed when all continents were joined 200 to 300 million years ago — sounds like it emerged from an ancient dream world, full of iridescent 12-string guitar, warm cellos and harp, and Steve Kilbey's mysterious and phosphorescent vocals.
"The title of the record comes from the concept of painting, which fits us really well," says Willson-Piper. "Like when you go into the art gallery in New York, modern artists will have titles like Untitled #24, Untitled #25, Untitled #26. But there's another concept here too. Generally, people who have been together for a long time make crap records, but painters don't start painting crap paintings. We like to think our best work is in the future, not the past."
The reference point will always be 1988's Starfish, which included the hit singles "Under the Milky Way" and "Reptile." It's part of what drives the band to create new worlds of progressive pop music. The Church recorded Starfish in Los Angeles while signed to Arista Records, and it was a grueling process that pitted the group against corporate agendas, heavy-handed producers and the band's own obstinate vision for making music. They don't plan on repeating those mistakes.
"Record companies used to do this thing where they'd sign you because you were great and then spend time changing you into something that you're not," says Willson-Piper. "And they wonder why the record business broke down. I think all the producer-engineers that screwed up the '80s with their horrible drum sounds really have a lot to answer for. Bands found themselves dragged along into a direction they didn't want to go, because they had no experience and no way of stopping it. Now they've just passed by the wayside, pointless in history."
The Church is one of the few bands to survive the '80s. Their enormous catalog contrasts with the output of most musical footnotes — from the glistening new-wave pop of 1981's Of Skins and Heart to the lost-in-space noise-rock of 2005's Uninvited, Like the Clouds. The 10 songs on Untitled #23 have a warm and melancholy spirit, sounding like a lost Pink Floyd soundtrack. The album floats through layers of subtle sonic textures that evolve from the ponderous, psychedelic art of "Happenstance" (which Willson-Piper sings) to the bright and hypnotic pop opus of "Operetta."
"Each song is quite different, but what's interesting is that they sound like they all belong together," says Willson-Piper. "It's just the imprint of who we are that makes it work."
Untitled #23 is one of four new simultaneous releases on the Church's own label, Unorthodox. Others include The Coffee Hounds EP (which includes a cover of Kate Bush's "Hounds of Love"), The Pangaea EP (which includes three exclusive songs from the Untitled #23 sessions) and Shriek: Excerpts From the Soundtrack (an ambient, literary hybrid collaboration with sci-fi writer Jeff VanderMeer). With the Church's expansive discography, they have plenty of material to please fans.
"When you've made as many records as we have, you have to leave 10 records out," says Willson-Piper. "But after the last [acoustic] tour, we're going to knock their socks off. "