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The Church - The Hypnogogue (Communicating Vessels)

24 February 2023

Now in their fifth decade of existence, Australian rock icons The Church continue their evolution on their latest album The Hypnogogue. Since their last album, 2017’s Man Woman Life Death Infinity , the band has undergone more personnel changes, with guitarist Ian Haug, drummer Tim Powles and bassist/vocalist Steven Kilbey joined by former Remy Zero instrumentalist and Church touring sideman Jeffrey Cain as a full member, and Even frontman Ashley Naylor replacing departed founding guitarist Peter Koppes – leaving Kilbey, as the last original member, firmly in charge. With enough time between records to let the new lineup find itself and to have something to prove again, Kilbey and company come back with one of the band’s most ambitious and engrossing albums.

Unabashedly influenced as much by progressive rock as jangle pop and psychedelia, The Hypnogogue is the Church’s first full-on concept album, with a storyline involving the titular machine that pulls music from dreams and the washed-up rock star who hopes it will jumpstart his moribund career. As with all great concept records, though, you don’t really need to grok the story to appreciate the music. Indeed, if you were handed an unlabeled CD with these songs on it, you’d likely find them just as absorbing as if you were listening on headphones with a lyric sheet in front of you. That engagement comes in part because the album simply sounds great, with atmospheric keyboard textures underscoring the band’s usual web of jangling and blissed-out guitars, the rhythm section equal parts forceful and sensitive to the needs of the melodies, and Kilbey sounding as supple and commanding as he ever has.

But the main thing that makes it easy to get lost in this record is the songs themselves. Simply stated, the Church’s songwriting mojo is on fire here. With a perfect blend of the eagerness of a band with fresh faces and their new notions, and the confidence of veterans who know exactly how to capture their ideas, the group takes on pretty much every stylistic permutation you’d want to hear and knocks it out of the park. Folk rocking cuts like “Aerodome” and “C’est La Vie” represent the band at its poppiest and most accessible, while “Flickering Lights” and the absolutely lovely “Albert Ross” offer up some of their best ballads – always underrated items in their inventory. Tunes like “Thorn” and “The Coming Days” sidestep go-to moves, using their signature sonics for ethereal songs less concrete and more elusive than their more hooky endeavors. Given the grandiose aspirations behind the music, it’s no surprise that the combo shines brightest on their anthems – the lighter-waving “No Other You,” the dreamy “Succulent,” the shapechanging “Antarctica,” and the fist-pumping “Ascendance” find this version of the band at their very peak.

Performed in 6/8 time, the title track stands shoulder-to-shoulder with any of the best psych rock epics in the Church catalog – it’s no wonder it was released as the first single, as it sums up of the appeal of The Hypnogogue nicely in six and a half minutes. It also signals what turns out to be categorically true – nearly forty-five years on, the Church refuses to rest on its considerable laurels, and makes music as potent and powerful as its classics with just as much skill, sanguinity, and spirit.