By Robert Dean Lurie
I. Here comes the future according to me
The Church’s The Hypnogogue is weird, wonderful, and relentlessly hypnotic, a major statement from a band that is well into its fifth decade and ought to have nothing left to prove.
I offer that takeaway in consideration of readers who may be pressed for time. Life speeds up, don’t you know? And not everyone has the bandwidth for a digressive essay ostensibly about the Church. Is The Hypnogogue good? And would it be of interest to general music listeners who might not be familiar with the long and twisty saga of this veteran Australian band? Yep and yep! See you at the shows.
Now, the rest…
The Hypnogogue has some things to say, quite accidentally, about Artificial Intelligence. This comes via the storyline singer/bassist/lyricist Steve Kilbey cooked up for the album’s underlying arc. It’s worth quoting his synopsis at length:
The Hypnogogue is a machine and a process that pulls music straight out of dreams. The [title] song is about Eros Zeta, the biggest rock star of 2054, who has traveled from his home in Antarctica (against his manager’s wishes) to use the Hypnogogue to help him revive his flagging fortunes. In the midst of the toxic process, he also falls in love with [the machine’s creator] Sun Kim and it all ends tragically (of course…as these things often do.)
Now, ChatGPT is not quite the Hypnogogue. It does not purport to pull music out of dreams, and it does not require an elaborate, quasi-Black Mass ritual to do its work.
The publicly accessible AI can, however, write songs. New “Steve Kilbey” songs, if you like. Or new Beatles songs. It has assimilated their existing works and is ready to go. And it can perform the songwriting process lightning-fast, spitting out lyrics, chords, and melodies. The results are not great—yet. But we’re still in the earliest stages of all this.
The very idea of a songwriting AI is a triumph of the Silicon Valley mindset: Why write or read a book, manage your home appliances, drive a car, tie your shoes, or play an instrument if we can provide a device to do these things for you? For me, and probably for a lot of other musicians, it evokes anger, fear, and, to be honest, curiosity. Can ChatGPT help me work out the Guided By Voices/Robert Fripp hybrid sound I’ve had bouncing around in my head for years? Maybe it can feed me a hooky chord progression “in the style of Squeeze” that I could tweak and call my own. That’s fairly innocuous, right?
We can extrapolate from there. Embedded in the idea, if not the current reality, are possibilities for reviving one’s “flagging fortunes.” And you don’t have to travel from Antarctica to South Korea to do it. The beta of the Hypnogogue is here, in 2023, a click away. Someone will eventually figure out how to get it, or its successors, to do the things Steve Kilbey has half-seriously ascribed to it. Hell, someone has already figured out how to tweet by thinking alone. It’s coming.
The storyline underpinning The Hypnogogue is tongue-in-cheek. The emotions underlying it are not. What pieces of ourselves are we willing to trade in order to acquire fame, youth, talent, (insert your secret longing here)? And at what point have we traded too much? These fraught questions, more than the storyline, inform the content of the songs on The Hypnogogue. Kilbey can post all the whimsical, surrealist Easter eggs on social media he wants, but there is gravity pulling at the corners of that smirk.
II. I think I knew where it all was leading to
Skeptical fans may wonder if this current version of the Church is itself a sort of Hypnogogue—that is, an artificial construct into which Kilbey feeds his ideas and which spits out “Church”-sounding music. It’s a reasonable question. This is not, in the purest sense, the band that recorded the international breakthrough album Starfish (featuring the now-classic single “Under the Milky Way”) and the earlier Australian hit albums The Blurred Crusade and Of Skins and Heart in the 1980s. Iconic guitarist Marty Willson-Piper—who, for a time, was the band’s de-facto co-frontman and kept the Church flag aloft through some especially rough patches—left a decade ago. And founding member Peter Koppes, whose own soaring, big-as-the-universe guitar sound is arguably as much a part of the Church’s signature as Kilbey’s voice, left in 2020. Kilbey himself does not sound the same; his singing style has grown rougher in recent years. A sort of hybrid Cockney/Aussie accent has crept in, Lord Byron giving way to a working-class mystic.
I’ll admit that I harbored some doubts as I waited for this new Church to take the stage in Phoenix last May. I didn’t worry that the other musicians had become Kilbey’s backing band; I knew that the group’s composition process continued to be collaborative, as it had been since 1985’s Heyday. I just didn’t know if I’d like the results, especially since I’d been on the fence about several of Kilbey’s recent projects. And Tim Powles, the group’s longtime drummer, producer, and sonic jack-of-all-trades, had been sidelined from the tour because of a health issue—thus cutting (albeit temporarily) one of the remaining threads of continuity between this and the “old” Church. Who exactly would be taking the stage?
Well, it’s true that they sounded a little different, mainly because substitute drummer Barton Price had a style all his own and nudged the band onto heretofore unexplored rhythmic and improvisational side streets (a welcome development in my view). But Kilbey sang beautifully, and by the second or third song, an unmistakable spirit had descended. This was the Church. No one in the Crescent Ballroom could doubt it. That spirit manifested, always, in a shared ethos, a collective will, a restlessness, a need to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. Early in the set, Steve asked—sincerely, not facetiously—“Are we kicking ass?”
A resounding “Yes!” came back from the audience.
A paradox, then: The Church without Koppes and Willson-Piper is not the same band and never will be. And yet, the Church with newer members Ian Haug, Jeff Cain, and Ashley Naylor (and even Barton Price, jumping onto the moving train for that single tour) is the Church, undiminished. I can’t fully explain it, other than to paraphrase physicist/philosopher Steven Phelps’s observation that the earth can be both round and flat simultaneously, depending on one’s perspective.
And it is from this forever-changing/forever-constant band/state-of-mind/place called the Church that The Hypnogogue emerges.
III. I go to my sleep backwards / But then I’ll live life forward
The album begins with “Ascendence,” which functions both as an overture and a beguiling magic trick: the chord progression seems to go up and up and up. (Kilbey likens it to the infinite staircase in M.C. Escher’s lithograph Ascending and Descending.) Production-wise it’s a stridently unfashionable piece of Pink Floyd bloat—sustained, groaning guitars, thunderous drums, and burbling keyboards. Which is a ridiculous way to begin an album in the attention-challenged 2020s—almost punk rock in its intransigence. I admire the hell out of it, even as it tries my patience by the halfway point.
With “C’est La Vie,” the album suddenly locks into what may be the most inspired 5-song run in the Church’s entire canon. And this is one of the greatest of all Church singles. An army of electric and acoustic guitar arpeggios marches across the channels, fugitive notes dancing in and out of the formations, underpinned by a droning heartbeat bass. Hypnotic. Unsettling. A weirdly triumphant song about self-doubt and washed-up prospects. Is this Eros Zeta mulling his flagging fortunes in 2054 or Kilbey lamenting how he “blew that bonanza”—i.e Starfish’s surprise success and attendant unrealized possibilities—back in 1988-89? How about both, and your story too?
“I Think I Knew” consolidates the gains. It’s a lush, arena-sized ballad that may remind some younger listeners of Coldplay. I’m not going to indulge the critical cliché of slagging that band—I think they’re very good, actually—but it’s worth noting that the Church has been tilling these fields since “To Be in Your Eyes” back in 1982. The best-known iteration of this style is “Lost” (from Starfish), and “I Think I Knew” stands confidently alongside that fan favorite. As with “Lost,” the opaque lyrics gently cut against the straightforward music. “I think I knew what this machine has done to you”… well, that must be the Hypnogogue, right? But it’s also a nod to “Tantalized” from Heyday:
“I embraced the machine, went through the routine / I hid from the people who were trying to find me.”
Two opposing, yet related, machines. In “Tantalized,” the phrase seems to evoke our mechanistic, efficiency-obsessed society (and, possibly, manifestations of that mentality in the music industry)—the pervasive pressure to produce and consume, to be a useful cog or be discarded. The Hypnogogue, on the other hand, entices with the promise to outwit that larger machine. Here’s a shortcut for raking it in and exiting the rat race entirely. But not so fast. Outwitting a machine (even a metaphorical one) with another machine rarely works. It only creates complications that must then be resolved by yet another machine. And on it goes. That’s a core premise in the works of Jacques Ellul, the baffling and brilliant author of The Technological Society (1954). Now…am I reading too much of my own tech paranoia into the Church’s half-baked concept? You better believe I am! Every Church fan brings his or her obsessions into the mix. That’s a feature, not a bug, of Kilbey’s Rorschach test song lyrics. And it’s one of the things that makes “I Think I Knew” not a Coldplay song.
But it’s the song’s most impenetrable line that lingers the longest:
“I think I knew how one and one and one make two.”
It sticks in the brain like a Zen koan, echoing, echoing, refusing to yield. And then, as the rational mind relaxes, a breakthrough: “One and one and one make two” is something the machine wouldn’t understand. It may be the way out of the Hypnogogue.
Or maybe it just sounds cool.
“Flickering Lights” drifts along ghostlike, intimating that it might dematerialize at any moment.
“A vision of you, so water clear / I’ve thought of it pursuing me all through these years.”
Piano notes rain overheard while Kilbey’s bassline suggests light footfalls down the hall. And there is a second voice: a mellotron, warbling its alien melody behind the vocal. And this sets us up for—
“The Hypnogogue.” There’s that tentative piano again; then one guitar, two guitars, three, all playing the same high-on-the-neck melody but staggered. One by one, they peel off, each moving on to chords, riffs… but someone (Haug? Cain? Naylor?) continues playing that primary riff, only to pass it off to someone else—And apart from a few short interludes, it keeps spiraling its way through the song. Amazing. We’re back in Escher territory, but this is a descent.
“When you wanted it / I was there / When you first went in / No one twisted your arm.”
I recall another lyric, one of Kilbey’s favorites, from Tom Verlaine:
“I remember how the darkness doubled.”
Yes. The “I” in “The Hypnogogue” suggests the Devil—either the cloven-hooved rascal himself or our unguarded desires (which are the same thing). But is the temptation on offer the Hypnogogue? Or, stretching back across the timeline, the heroin that held Kilbey in thrall during the 1990s, promising so much and delivering so sparingly? Both? I remember how the darkness doubled.
And so we end our winning streak, with “Albert Ross.” Who the hell is Albert Ross? Wikipedia helpfully suggests a character in Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency by Douglas Adams. Or an English footballer. Or, most likely, a play on the word “albatross.” (See also the previous Church song “Cantilever” – i.e. “Can’t I leave her”?) Well, Albert brings us in for landing on wings of acoustic strings—guitars, a mandolin, or bandolero, with Tim Powles’ percussion washing in and out across the shore.
“Everyone must want something, somewhere you cannot go.”
If the previous song was from the point of view of the tempter, here we have the victim, caught in the net and fully aware. Not regretful, exactly. Just understanding that desire cannot be satisfied. Not fully. Not ever.
Yes. The best run of songs on any Church album. I’m calling it right there. But to declare The Hypnogogue one of the top three Church releases, as Kilbey has done, is perhaps giving in to the “new car smell.” He may not be wrong, but it’s going to take some time to determine where it finally lands in the 29(ish) album lineup. And the back half of The Hypnogogue is not as assured as the front end, though treasures continue to proliferate: “Aerodrome,” “These Coming Days,” the impressive Bowie pastiche “No Other You,” and “Second Bridge,” the grand finale.
Steve Kilbey 2009/Photo Credit - Harper Piver
Curious readers (especially those not familiar with the Church) who wish to give The Hypnogogue a spin should be warned that it may take a few listens to unlock its charms. Even your uber-fan here didn’t crack it until attempt #3. But then something magical happened: Not only did The Hypnogogue reveal itself to be a great album, all of those other previously off-putting Kilbey projects of the past few years suddenly descrambled. And a torrent of amazing songs, scattered across a half-dozen or more albums, came rushing into my life: “Unrule,” “Tantric Hammer,” “Baby Poe,” “No Goodbye,” “So We Pray,” “Halfway,” “No Attachment,” and more. Look them up—after listening to The Hypnogogue.
IV. I’ll find a way to break through
There is one prevailing narrative that is long overdue for retirement, even as it seems to fuel the feelings of loss and regret that predominate on The Hypnogogue: the idea that the Church were a once-promising band that blew their chances and were thenceforth relegated to the “Where are they now?” category.
If this is true, it is only true in the financial sense.
Artistically, several of the Church’s best albums appeared after the band fell off the public radar: Priest=Aura (1992); Hologram of Baal (1998); After Everything Now This (2002); and Untitled #23 (2009).
In 2013, after Willson-Piper left, the idea of a Marty-less Church seemed unthinkable to some. Yet “Further Deeper” (2014) proved to be a loud, powerful, and supremely confident record.
I recall a conversation with Steve Kilbey during the fall of 2017, outside a venue in Phoenix where the band was about to play, in which he claimed, quite offhandedly, that the group’s manager had quit only hours before and “run off with all the money.” It was the last night of the tour. If accurate, Steve’s statement meant the band would soon be flying home with very little in their pockets. Yet the Church took the stage that evening and delivered one of the most incendiary performances I’d ever seen from them.
And now, after the departure of the irreplaceable Peter Koppes, we get The Hypnogogue.
The unmistakable conclusion to be drawn is that this band gains strength from disaster and failure. I don’t know if their rocket fuel is hunger or desperation, and I certainly wouldn’t wish such travails on them willingly, but they have never not delivered in the face of adversity.
In contrast, the one time they had the wind at their backs, after Starfish, they punted with Gold Afternoon Fix—a fine album, but not an ambitious one. Not the knockout punch the moment required. It proved to be the end of their mainstream success.
So there we have the final paradox: The Church are at their most successful when they are at their least successful. That doesn’t compute in the machine. But the Church stand outside the machine.
Robert Dean Lurie is a writer and musician based in Tempe, Arizona. He received his MFA in Creative Writing from the University of North Carolina Wilmington and is the author of 'Begin the Begin: R.E.M.'s Early Years,' 'We Can Be Heroes: The Radical Individualism of David Bowie,' and 'No Certainty Attached: Steve Kilbey and The Church.'