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IF there is a magician among the spirits, his name might well be Steve Kilbey - a Merlin caught in some timelessness where the spheres collide in epic grandioseness and symphonies erupt from the impact, a place where angels can soar and demons lurk in dark shadows that flit on the arms of a gusty breeze - only he doesn't realise the potency of his own spells or what he casts.

Kilbey's spell-binder turned 16 this year: The Church - a tribulation that has constantly risen above its own self-predicted ashes. For the first time in nearly a decade he doesn't say 'this is it, this is the last album, it's all over'. That's a change. His own self-depreciation isn't.

Cynically, he will reply to a comment that he has position of respect in the music community with a strangled laugh, "I do have a position in the community? Really!"; will sound surprised - genuinely - at any praise for the 10th and most achieved Church studio opus Magician Among The Spirits - he's already read too many negative reviews and too many positive reviews and agrees with both; still seems bamboozled by the nature of adulation and attack heaped upon The Church, this most munificent of Australian bands who at their best - when Kilbey, Marty Willson-Piper and Peter Koppes spark and lock at that somewhat indefinable level where pure creativity makes reality of dreams, something we can all share the incandescent beauty of - remain a peerless force and virtually unchallenged in ability to sculpt and shape soundscapes that bless rock with classics, twist pop with symphonics, and make it work. Oh yes, make it work.

And on Magician it all works best; the promise of the long and tangled Sometime Anywhere with its skeins and threads and hints, its cross-genre morphing, finds a blazing extreme expression monstrous in scope, vast in achievement; a record that takes getting to know, to understand, until it seeps in and grips the spirit. A magician amongst the spirit. Here's the blurred crusade of the art-rockers of the late '60s and early '70s - Pink Floyd, Genesis, Yes, King Crimson, their German electronic counterparts - Neu, Can (there are echoes of Tago Mago in the darkest spots here), Ash Ra Temple, Amon Duul, of tribal musicians scattered to the four corners in their villages and rituals, of ambience and ambient, techno and technology loosed, and of rock. It's been coming for a long time.

Ever since a skinny tripped out kid of a muso sat around a pool at the average Riverside Lodge in Perth in 1981, a year or so after the band's formation, and skidded and paddled and floundered his way through an interview, full of dreams and hopes and visions. To watch The Church that year and the next on cramped stages in beer-barn hotels when that circuit used to exist and listen to the songs that echoed fitfully and passionately from Of Skins And Heart and the wonderful Blurred Crusade (Almost With You remains one of the greatest pop songs) was to be struck by the sweat and heat of a guitar symphony in uncontrolled burn: the future was there for all to hear. Memories In Future TenseChrome InjuryWhen You Were MineField Of MarsUnguarded MomentYou TookMagician owes much to these early spirits.

Nearly 15 years and so many records and interviews later, Steve Kilbey is still a dreamer, still makes most sense of a world he hears in his headphones, is cut by the pen far deeper than any knife. In an unguarded moment he can be like the trapped or the misunderstood or the offended. Those close to him comment on his quietness - and his ability to do anything he chooses musically. And on Magician he has (including the 14-minute breathtaking title track)and he's still trying to work out whether that's good or bad, and what to do next.

"The trouble with albums that take a long time to get into is sometimes people don't bother," he says thoughtfully. "They listen to it twice and if it doesn't happen they give up. Magician is symphonic but I don't know. I just made it and it's funny - I make records in a strange way these days.

"I used to preplan everything. Like in the Blurred Crusade days everything was totally preplanned and the record ended up sounding like the demo versions only bigger and better whereas these days I just don't have anything planned. I just let everything happen and I'm the conduit for it to happen, and I'm looking for input from all the other people involved as much as possible. I'm just tending more and more and more towards that rather than trying to plan things to an extent where I should make an album where things are really planned just to see what happens.

"I think a lot of that has to do with what I'm doing outside of The Church in ambient music (his passion for it can be heard on a batch of solo albums and is oft declared) and working with guys like Simon Polinski who sort of specialises in ambient music so the whole thing starts to take on this experimental kind of feeling which ... The Church aren't really supposed to be that experimental."

Pictures by Brian Smith from Shadow Cabinet, the home of The Church
It begs the question 'who said?', but gets the obvious statement that, certainly, in the '90s The Church have become more and more precisely that beast. And how fascinating and exciting to see and hear.

"We've been becoming that, yeah, yeah, and I guess we will probably make another record," he says. "I've been thinking that we should try and steer it back towards the old thing a little bit." Again, it begs the question 'why?' - one track on Magician proves imperiously that The Church can still do symphonic guitar rock better than nearly anybody else you'd care to name. Comedown is a genuine classic, a sweeping vast hook-laden, melody-blissed reminder of their heritage. Make an album of them and sure it would be fawned upon but to this band - if only - there is so much more.

"Yeah, but, you know, I wonder where this is going to lead us if we keep going like this. I just (laughter) think it's going to lead us to Metal Machine Music in another two albums.

"But I've just made a record with Peter Koppes and it's basically the same line-up as the record except Marty isn't on it - just Peter, me and Tim (Powles, drums). And it's like taken this whole approach to an even more 'nth' degree and it's really good. I'm really happy with it. It's just really happened right on the spot. Even less thought went into it - if that's possible - than this one. It's called 'The Reformation' which is sort of like the reformation of The Church or something."

Just like his regular pronouncements that The Church is over, old wounds heal - not so long ago Peter and The Church weren't words to put in the same sentence after things got acrimonious. Yet there's something fated about this lot, something that'll keep throwing them back together, even if reviewers - particularly those Kilbey identifies as 'in the 25 to 35-year-old bracket and rising to their first editorship' see in The Church a sacred cow ready for the slaughter and lick their lips in anticipation of earning their spurs with a bout of the poison pen. That's always been the yin and yang of the spirits that swirl around The Church; for years as Kilbey observes they were virtually untouchable, they even got good reviews for bad records.

"It was like we were one of the favoured bands in Australia," he says, "and people would give us good reviews no matter what we put out. For example, Hindsight, somebody said 'you can see on this record why The Church is so important' whereas I thought that record showed why The Church wasn't important. But I guess you go through these cycles all the time. I feel like we're in a bit of a critical sort of negative position right now."

Still, he quivers at the words of one critic who commented on their 7-minute plus evocation of the old Steve Harley and Cockney Rebel classic "Ritz" 'fey, pointed and dated with the Cockney Rebel song just like the rest of the album'. And he can see why some people would hate it and some people would love it. The same is true of the epic title-track, the spirit of which spins back to the early '70s and those magnificent Peter Gabriel-led Genesis albums such as FoxtrotNursery Crymes and Trespass or Yes and an epic such as Heart Of The Sunrise from Close To The Edge. "Exactly, I grew up on those on too," he chatters. "Like when you bought a Genesis record you wanted your 15-minute piece. If it was any shorter than 15-minutes it was like what's going on here? Where's Supper's Ready?

"But there's also a movement that sprung after that which said songs should be three minutes long and anything longer than that was just ridiculous. You know, a lot of rock people don't want you to think of yourself as a classical composer. They want the disposable trashy side of rock and anybody who tries to use a four syllable word or a longer piece of music or anything else becomes pretentious and fey and the classic songs are about cars and girls and last two minutes. Anything else is sort of going beyond the duty statement of what rock'n'roll is supposed to be all about."

There's a pause, quite lengthy, a gathering of the forces, intent. "For everybody who thinks the track Magician Among The Spirits is a waste of 14 minutes, there's a lot of people who are going to smoke a joint, turn off the lights and really get into it and every note and part of it ... so you can't fucking please everybody."

And that's the spirit amid the magician. The Church, as they say, is on a high - and getting higher.

Return to 1996 Press Cuttings