The sound of the Church has remained remarkably consistent over the years, even as a series of fundamental personnel changes have left bassist/songwriter Steve Kilbey the only remaining original member. The enduring Australian band’s twenty-sixth album, The Hypnogogue, might well be termed a return to form, except that, even as it incorporates new recruits, the band picks right up where it left off with 2017’s Man Woman Life Death Infinity.
Clearly inspired by the group’s longevity, not to mention the enlistment of estimable enlistments in the persons of guitarist Ashley Naylor and keyboardist Jeffrey Cain, Kilbey has collaborated with his bandmates to conjure an ambitious song cycle. On this first concept album in the forty-plus year history of the Church, the invigorated quintet tells the tale of the LP’s title, a device and a process grounded in a physical and mental state termed ‘hypnagogia,’ the transition between wakefulness and sleep.
To their great credit, however, the Church doesn’t allow the story to get in the way of the music. To that end, the fittingly designated opener, “Ascension,” boasts all the earmarks of their well-established style, including insistent but understated drumming and all manner of layered guitars from, respectively, Tim Powles, a group member since 1994, and Ian Haug who joined the ranks in 2013.
The unity of the band, not to mention its vintage sound including blended acoustic guitars, is especially impressive as those instrumental mechanics integrate strings and additional keyboards from Roger Mason. To be fair, the sonic stimulation emanating from “C’est La Vie” deeply shrouds the elements of the quasi-mystical, sci-fi-oriented narrative, but the extensive graphics plus text in the package’s sixteen-page booklet otherwise encourages imaginative interpretation.
Yet, as with “I Think I Knew,” the plush sound quality offers an immersive listening sensation. At such junctures The Hypnogogue sounds personal for Steve Kilbey and his bandmates: co-songwriters throughout, the fivesome clearly share an abiding connection with the material and the production of the record.
Given the lofty premise at work here, that is no small accomplishment. But, in the most practical terms, the Church manages to imbue the group-composed material with an otherworldly atmosphere and, to that end, no overstatement of performance, arrangement or production, interferes with the entrancing qualities of the songs.
Not surprisingly, there’s tangible drama arising from the title track itself. Purposely sequenced at the very center of the baker’s dozen cuts, it’s an effective setup for the relative quiet of “Albert Ross,” where a hypnotic quality radiates all the way into “Thorn:” Steve Kilbey’s vocal delivery, alternating half-spoken segments and more melodious interludes, stands out in even greater relief framed by lush, deeply-echoed group vocals.
Crisp fingerpicking along multiple fretboards during “Aerodrome” act as introduction of yet another chapter of this aural novella. Yet when Kilbey intones, ‘I hate feeling this alone…,’ it’s quite clear how he’s used personal expression of emotion as the foundation for this fictional piece. No wonder “These Coming Days” sounds like it could be juxtaposed with the most famous Church song of all, “Under the Milky Way,” as well as other evocative cuts from their extensive canon like “Electric Lash.”
Needless to say, long-term fans of this band should find The Hypnogogue a boon to their devotion. But it’s also true this latest work would function effectively as an introduction to this rock and roll institution from Down Under. As suggested in no uncertain terms with “Succulent,” there’s plenty of the sensual as well as the abstract to ponder within this sixty-plus minutes and the virtual cliff-hanger of a closer, in the form of a piano-dominated “Second Bridge,” only heightens the arresting overall effect.