by Steve Kilbey


As sublime as [The Church's] Untitled #23 is, Kilbey's Painkiller contains the stronger set of songs. It's more surprising considering his reputation for stream-of-consciousness experimentation. Conventional rumor holds that Kilbey needs the Church to rein in his meandering tendencies and certainly the beat poetry of tracks such as "Outbound" is well in character, but it's also a beautifully tense mood portrait. "Wolfe," one of three tunes under three minutes, is the catchiest tune from either album. "File Under Travel" sets the controls for the heart of the sun, spanning 12 minutes of space-rock indulgence, anchored by Powles' drumming. Kilbey's best non-Church album in a lengthy discography is a must for fans.

Australia's The Church, with its 1988 cosmic masterpiece Starfish and Top 40 single "Under the Milky Way," stands among the best alt-rock bands. The rich interplay between guitarists Peter Koppes (the "technical" one) and Marty Willson-Piper (the band's emotional core) served The Church well over several unappreciated albums (Gold Afternoon Fix, Priest=Aura). But what of singer/bassist Steve Kilbey, whose existential, sci-fi-tinged lyrics offered so much pleasure? At 54, does he still wield magic?

Painkiller suggests he does. For those who love The Church's majestic pop, Kilbey's first solo effort in five years satisfies. "Wolfe," all symphonic edges, reminds us just how textured Kilbey's band could be. Whether you enjoy it with midnight headphones or during rush hour, Painkiller tastes sweeter than a strawberry-flavored codeine trip.

Willson-Piper, meanwhile, offers his own solo effort following a nine-year studio hiatus. Cracking the lid on Nightjar reveals timeless, guitar-centered popcraft, always evident on Church albums. Ballads like "No One There" shimmer in the brightness of 12-string guitars, even while Willson-Piper draws upon grittier folk and country influences on tracks like "A Game for Losers."

With a new Church CD due later this year, Kilbey and Willson-Piper offer excellent appetizers that shouldn't be passed over for the main course.

Steve Kilbey "Painkiller"
14 01 2009

Rating: A
Score: 9.4

Just a month into 2009, and I've found a record that I feel is worth talking about. It's an import-only release, and therefore hard to track down, so I'd like thank Three Imaginary Girls for kindly publishing the first review I read of it, which prompted me to send for it. It's good enough that I am revising my admittedly cranky year-end list and adding this, the new record by Steve Kilbey, to it.

Steve Kilbey has had a prolific and thoughtful solo career. As a solo artist, he has explored musical expanses and depths that have, with all but the exception of a few songs, expanded well beyond the reach of The Church. The legendary but underexplored and, in the States anyway, undervalued band is best known for the 1988 hit "Under the Milky Way" which appeared later in the film Donnie Darko. He has released ten solo LPs (including one collaboration with his brother, Russell), all fascinating on some level and most containing truly untapped pop or ambient gems. But it is here, on Painkiller, that Kilbey has assembled an extremely strong, memorable, and diverse set of songs that work well as an artfully assembled continuum.

Kilbey first started kicking out solo records marketed in the United States in 1986 with the release of Unearthed, a poorly-produced but very interesting set of songs that demonstrated a rigid, quirky, and strong acumen for keyboard- and drum machine-driven psychedelic rock sci-fi songs. Later came Earthed, keyboard-heavy instrumental tracks designed to set a spacey mood, along with some spoken poetry and a book of writing meant to accompany the instrumental tracks. While well-reviewed, as were many quirky releases on Ryko Records in its day, Earthed was definitely a love-or-hate affair, one where the sincerity and craftsmanship of the spoken poetry was probably the best part. Later life events saw Kilbey move through collaborations, marriage, divorce, fatherhood, the breakup and subsequent reformation of The Church, arrest for possession, intense LSD and heroin experiences, and a jumbled exploration of his musical and artistic identity through dedication to creation, not being afraid to publish extremely honest and confused material, and finally a stronger sense of dedication to his own artistic identity and an increasingly transcendent quality in his art and music. Albums in the late '90s and early in this decade explored reconstructions and completion of early songs, a charismatic live acoustic record of choice solo material and songs by The Church, and druggie-intellectual pop songs.

Painkiller seems influenced by Kilbey's collaboration with Tim Powles, the current drummer of The Church and a veteran recording engineer, drummer, and multi-instrumentalist. The record was recorded in Powles' studio (Spacejunk), and I'm guessing he's playing drums on much of the record, and some of the trippy sound effects are signatures of his handiwork.

While a few of the space sounds muck up various openings and otherwise long outstretches of really beautiful instrumentation, the pop sensibility, lyrics, and arrangement of the songs are among the best Kilbey has ever written. There are tons of great things to say about the body of work—the varied and lush arrangements, the pristine production work by Powles, the flawless and diamond-sharp performances, the hypnotic thematic balance that makes its presence felt without being repetitious, a seamless mix of vocal and instrumental tracks that never seem forced and never mistake themselves for new age ramblings or pseudo-classical detritus, and at times, moments when Kilbey and co. just flat-out rock.

Standout tracks include the short and allegorical "Wolfe", "Crystalline Rush", "Oenone", "Forever Lasts For Nothing", "Not What You Say", my favorite "Spirit In Flame", with a rambling dub beat, and the anthemic, slightly affected "Forever Lasts For Nothing."

Listen to Steve Kilbey's back catalog for free on lala, then make it a point to track down selected songs from Painkiller and his other releases on myspace.

Steve is currently wrapping up yet another solo project with Martin Kennedy of the band All India Radio, which by the sound of the my space tracks, sounds as though it will be another stunning solo release.

The lifecycle of this record? Without global distribution or a rush of sales from word-of-mouth on the web, Painkiller is likely to remain an obscure gem. However, read differently—if it gets significant press and blog support, if alternative radio picks it up—it could be a sleeper. It feels like a sleeper—great sleepers are often maybe artists lurking in the deepest corners and recesses of the cultural memory who create something new that's sort of familiar but not immediately recognizable, not just begging a question but an investigation on the part of the listener. This investment of time vests the listener in the piece of art, which increases the chances of affinity.

The more accessible songs are quite accessible, and they are really, really good. Those with an ear for quality will pick up on that. The strange processing and sound effects may stave off more of a grass-roots movement, however. "Weird" puts off a lot of people. Lame. In the end—long-tail or sleeper—it's a toss-up.

Steve Kilbey - Painkiller

From the opening notes of "Outbound" to the closing ambient ripples of "Not What You Say," this is an album in the truest sense of the word, meaning that it must be listened to in its entirety.

Steve Kilbey is best known as the lead singer of the veteran psychedelic rock group, The Church. Their releases, especially during the 1990s, are dense and sonically dark offerings that continue to be amongst my favorite records to this day. What many people don't know is that Steve Kilbey has put out several solo CDs that have been just as good if not better than the widely known releases by The Church. In this capacity, he focuses more on experimentation and space, providing a much more challenging range of material. Painkiller follows in this vein, but also includes some more accessible acoustic melodies that lie comfortably next to the expected experimentally charged compositions.

Back to "Outbound," perhaps the best song that Kilbey has recorded in years. Driving bass leads the murky track while some strange ambient electronics flicker in the background. His voice is raw and energized, but also holds with it a certain amount of desperate vulnerability. It is rare that Kilbey shouts, but here he frantically belts out the first lines "White hippy Moses like an aphid in the roses/Universal inverse in inverted poses/Like a snort of amnesia, a ball up your noses/Not what the man in the street supposes." That is just the beginning of a song that not only improves with each additional listen, but one that doesn't lose any of its initial charm upon repeated playing.

"Celestial" is just that, a gorgeous floating piece of music with ringing mellotron and lovely piano bits splashed all over it. Here, Kilbey's voice returns to it stoned cool croon as the beautiful melody is supplemented by further radiotronic dabbling. "Song For The Masking" starts out with a cadent bass line and marching drums that almost echoes "Piggy" by Nine Inch Nails, but without the animosity and with an ounce of what sounds like defeat in his voice. The acoustic guitars that come in transform the chorus into more of a torch song where the lyrics turn towards self-doubt: "Masking the rusty surface/Facing the sea/Asking me for a purpose/So patiently."

The more experimental songs on the record are corkers too. "File Under Travel" is an epic instrumental that lasts over ten minutes. The pounding of the bass is reminiscent of the opening track, but a little more loose and raucous. Crunchy overdriven guitars are blended with rhythm instruments to make a wholly dizzying chaos that is quite wonderful. And for anyone seeking something more accessible, there are some great straightforward acoustic songs that will appeal to those yearning for something a little more mainstream. "Forever Lasts For Nothing" is a short folk song that sounds like it could have been squeezed onto an early Church record. "Spirit In Flame" combines the experimental and electronic side with the folksy side to make a quite remarkable track. Kilbey's vocals are soaked in hazy studio effects while a typically slinky bass line and trippy drums provide the backbone of the music until the chorus arrives with a more conventional sounding, but altogether moving acoustic guitar-led change.

Painkiller was released by Karmic Hit Records, an independent Australian label that is more or less run by Kilbey and his brothers. This new record is not cheap as it is not yet easy to come by in Seattle, but is well worth every last cent that you will have to spend in order to acquire it from the record company or from The release is truly astonishing though. I would even hasten to say that it may be the best record of the year as far as I am concerned.

-Andrew Boe, December 09, 2008

A review of the concert, 12 Sep 08 @ Oxford Arts appraisal of my evening as much as a concert was written up the evening after.

Wednesday night, 10 September, I went along to the Painkiller gig at the Oxford Art Factory situated at the Hyde Park end of Oxford Street, Darlinghurst.

I almost didn't go. I was heavy-hearted and burdened with a friend's unhappiness. The anticipation of witnessing and involving my senses in Steve Kilbey's new line-up and music washed over me. I felt cotton-wooled, numbed and nonchalant about leaving the door. Conversely I knew perfectly well I couldn't miss this. So, after a (small) glass of red, I hopped into my car and drove the 15 minute drive to Oxford Street.

I parked at Oxford Street Paddington and walked briskly towards the Darlinghurst end of things. It was a crisp, fresh evening with a dry icy breeze that served to awaken and straighten my senses. Activity around Taylor Square and Darlinghurst seemed relatively subdued, even for a Wednesday night. Perhaps because it was such a crisp night, or there was some sports game featured on the tele, that people avoided what is usually a 24-hour bustle. It was the kind of night that made you feel a sense of joy about hopping into bed early. I walked fast to my destination and was pleased to find tickets were still available.

I got there with little time to spare prior to the main act coming on. The OAF is underground, a large cavernous room with a fine stage and moshpit and elevated section toward the back of the room. I bought myself a beer, a mid-strength Coopers Light Ale, and guzzled it pleasingly as I observed the throng in eager anticipation of their hero, and the music that was about to be divined & delivered for the first time on a universal stage. I felt very alone, but not lonely. I really wasn't in the mood to be talking to people anyway, but that's probably because I wasn't talking to people. I wondered who the bloggers were. Apparently two Go-Betweens showed up. I didn't recognise them; they are a band I've officially gotten into since...last Saturday.

By the time the band came on I bought myself another of those delectable malty mid-strengths and wormed my way toward the centre of the pit although I didn't quite make it. I was conscious of not wanting to stand in anyone's way even though I'm of about average height. Tim Powles, Steve Kilbey, two guitarists including one from the Brian Jonestown Massacre, and a sound programmer/keyboardist herded the stage to our rapture and delight. Kilbey's countenance differed to what I'd encountered on the numerous times I've seen him take the stage. He seemed serious, resolute, dead-keen to dive into some unknown and unexplored territory with this new line-up of musicians to perform an album recorded yet not performed up until now. A man on a mission, in other words.

I was struck with Kilbey's incessant bass-riffs. The bass, the fender custom 60's jazz bass, sounded tremendous. Warm, rich, creamy, deep. I felt Kilbey was in the deliberate process of channelling as much power and mojo from his bass than ever before. The man and his instrument were one. He had the freedom. His aura shimmered. The familiarity of expectation that comes with a famous tried-and-true line-up was cast aside so that essentially, this gig was almost a Kilbey solo gig, the star being the man and his bass. The surrounding musicians unleashed much sonic glory and magnificence, yet the core of this sonic tour-de-force was primarily focussed on the singer and his bass guitar.

I tend to listen to bass more than other instruments, always have, so perhaps I'm biased.

There was one song that struck a familiar chord with me, 'Wolfe' which I've seen Kilbey perform solo at a couple of shows this year. And along with the remainder of the gig, it was magnificent. The music was primal, seismic, almost volcanic in its underlying intensity and sonic visionariness. Kilbey seemed set to explore uncharted territory in rock on a visceral level, to uncover majesties that travel deep beneath the earth's crust, revealing themselves sonically in shades and sparks of multi-dimensional colour, feeling, and fury. He wanted to go higher than Everest, transcend the speed of light, and with his band, he actually did. They achieved something mighty special that night. Kilbey is an astonishingly magnificent man, I always see him as a deep well of unbounded creative intelligence. On this night I feel that he dived further into this well as the earth rumbled around us all.

People around me had their cameras out, taking photos, sizing up the band members, shooting mini-videos. For one fleeting moment I wondered if I'd best brought my camera but dismissed the notion immediately, refocussing my total awareness again on this sonic journey into hitherto uncharted psycho-musical territory.

My heart remains heavy for a good friend's predicament. I am sending much love into the universe. Painkiller is what we need, or what most of us need. Musically I felt the earth move under my feet. Is the earth about to move under our feet? Time will tell. Until then there is the album to listen to, Painkiller.

I don't have a musician's vocabulary and can't write a review from that perspective (unlike the great reviews by my good friend Stefan and by the wise Altres), but I thought I'd scribble down a few words about my Painkiller experience just the same...

I've made it a habit - well, call it a ritual - that each time I receive a new Church or Steve Kilbey album, I get that first listen in while lying down in a dark room with headphones cranked up. First impressions are important, and I want the music to totally wash over me.

The first time around, I'm looking for that song that causes goosebumps to ripple up and down my arms. The one that makes my body feel suddenly light. That makes me forget myself. There's always at least one like that. A song I latch onto immediately. Others sometimes take a few listens to sink in (and often a song I didn't like for years suddenly worms its way in and becomes an enduring favourite - Night Friends was one of those).

Well, after all the hype, I plugged in Painkiller around midnight, while the city slept, and I prepared to be amazed. I'd already heard Outbound on the myspace page and been listening to it for a while, so I knew that wouldn't be the one. I'd heard Wolfe too, on several acoustic bootlegs, so that one wouldn't startle me either. But... wait a minute! I'd never heard it like this! As the lead-in began and the music swelled, my eyes popped open and that familiar feeling swept over me. It built even more with Celestial, and Crystalline Rush took it to the ecstatic. It's difficult to describe the beauty of these songs, the feelings of nostalgia and hope they inspire. I guess the best I can do is to say that they cause your chest to expand and swell as though your heart might burst. That's the sort of energy contained in these songs.

And then things suddenly turn darker. Song for the Masking slides in with the sort of baseline that makes your skin crawl and your morals do likewise.

The dissolution truly begins with File Under Travel. This felt like everything Travel by Thought was trying to be but couldn't quite reach. It drives you relentlessly out of yourself until you don't know up from down, left from right, fractured from whole. It's a journey all right, one that shatters your consciousness into a thousand pieces and leaves you disoriented, but strangely open and receptive.

From there to the end of the album was a sonic blur - the songs blended together and pulled me along with them on a rollercoaster journey of pure emotion such that I can't really describe my first impressions of each one. I can only throw down my initial thoughts when I came out of my trance.

One of the things that impressed me most was the intricate structure of the album. It felt like the songs at each end mirrored - or better yet, provided a foil for - each other. The swelling chords and shouted vocals of Wolfe and the easier, wiser, more upbeat retrospective of Forever Lasts for Nothing. The sublime hope of Celestial and the darker, more jaded perspective of Spirit in Flame. But the absolute masterpiece was the placement of the two bookends - Outbound and Not What You Say. Painkiller opens by launching you out into space, beyond the solar system and into unexplored territory. In the middle, the journey turns transdimensional. It's like being sucked into a black hole and dissolved into your component elements. You're gradually reassembled in an entirely new and unfamiliar form, until at the end of the journey you suddenly find yourself drifting eerily at the bottom of the sea, a place you never expected to end up - or have you reached another strange galaxy altogether? You could just as easily be floating in the void.

That last song, Not What You Say, is a particular stroke of genius. It uses some of the same elements as the rest of the songs, a vocal or a melody that gives you something familiar to cling to, setting your mind at ease, before blindsiding you with sounds you never could have anticipated. Its effect is to "unhinge" you. After the initial lyrics set the stage there's a long middle bit where a few simple notes are repeated over and over. Like a metronome, it's incredibly effective at dropping you into a meditative state. The music eventually swells once more and lyrics come in, taking you a bit higher, and then those notes come back and reinforce your trance. You're brought deeper and deeper until finally an odd silence ensues and for twenty minutes you hear the distant song of whales. For a moment I began to come out of it - I thought "what the fuck?" and "how long will that go on for?", but every time I considered shutting it off, I simply couldn't. The sounds were absolutely mesmerizing.

Soundscape is an apt description of Kilbey's and The Church's work. This was nothing short of an aural journey through a richly described inner landscape, orchestrated by a master.

Also, Polinski's mixing was inventive and effective. Leaving in odd echoey bits of studio conversation at exactly the right moment was a stroke of genius. Nothing about this album is what you predict or what you expect.

And lest the above sound esoteric or somehow granola, the album totally rocks. It's base-driven in a way that prior stuff wasn't. The base comes fully to the forefront and slithers like a houri through a cloud of incense until you're nearly intoxicated. Combine that with Tim Powles relentless driving beat and you've got rock on an entirely new level.

I have to say that I loved (and still love) Dabble. Blessed One is sublime. Untitled Too, with it's kickass nautical terminology and shouted delivery, hint at some of the vocal territory that would later be explored here. And Time to Say Goodbye is my funeral song, for when my bones are finally eaten by some animal in the desert. But the contrast between these two consecutive solo albums is night and day. The artistic development that took place in those seven years is staggering. This is another world entirely, with a depth and a layering that was never realized on SK's prior solo work (though you always felt he was reaching for it).

Well fucking done, Killa. This is art that rocks.