The Church — Untitled #23

“Starfish” from 1988 was my last bit of Church vinyl for a long time, but it wasn’t the end of my love of The Church. But by 1989, 1990, everything I bought was on CD. In 1990, they put out “Gold Afternoon Fix,” an absolutely great album. In 1992 “Priest=Aura” came out. It’s probably the Church album I’ve listened to the least. I read now that fans and the band consider it an artistic high point, but it never did it for me. And then I kinda broke my completist tendencies and let a number of Church releases go by. In 1999 they released “A Box of Birds,” a CD of covers that I just loved, and I was hooked again. Then came “After Everything Now This,” which was amazing, and “Parallel Universe,” which is a complete alternative version, on two discs, of “After Everything.” Then there was “Forget Yourself” in 2003, and I took a little break again.

Untitled #23 front cover
The Pangaea-themed Untitled #23 front cover

Then in 2009, at a time when things in our lives were more than a little rough, I found out I was going to finally have the chance to see one of my favorite bands of all time — The Church was playing The Egg.

If you’re not familiar, The Egg is a performing arts venue at the New York State Capitol complex, known as the Empire State Plaza. It is called The Egg for reasons that become obvious once you see it. They Might Be Giants wrote a wonderful paean to The Egg that I beg you to listen to:

Inside its odd shape are two theaters. The Church were playing in the smaller of the two, and we had very good seats.

Sometimes, you can have followed a band forever — and at this point I had been listening to The Church on and off for 27 years — and suddenly realize that you have no idea what they’re going to be like live. I’ll admit, I was a little worried that a band that did such careful layering in the studio might not be able to capture that on stage. So I was completely unprepared to be absolutely blown away by their performance, a performance that made it clear that they had an energy, skill and talent that barely translated onto record. It was an incredible sonic journey, and I’ve rarely been more pleased to have seen a band live.

They were touring in support of their latest album, “Untitled #23,” and although I not only hadn’t bought any vinyl in quite some time, and was actively getting rid of quite a number of records, for some reason when I saw this double album at the merch table, I wanted it on vinyl. Heavy vinyl, too, by the way, way before 180 gram became a buzzword.

But compared to the pyrotechnics they brought to the stage that night (and I do not believe I have ever seen a pedal board to rival Marty Wilson-Piper’s), this album is sedate. It follows their usual sorta pseudo-mystical ancient worlds feel, which the cover and label art really get across. I like it, but it’s not one of my top Church albums by a long shot. It probably suffers from having been only available to me on vinyl for many years when I wasn’t really listening to my records that much, relying instead on my computer to serve up all my music on demand.

But think of that – this was their 23rd studio album. How many bands get that kind of success? They continue to be very popular back home in Australia, and despite some changes in band members in recent years, they’re still going. We got to see them a second time almost exactly five years ago at World Cafe Live here in Philadelphia. They had lost Marty Wilson-Piper, but had an able replacement and still sounded fantastic.

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