The 1980s are often remembered as the time of synth pop, but—in Australia, at least—this is misleading. The land Downunder brought forth excellent, world class guitar based bands… the maturing sound of Midnight Oil, the power pop exuberance of Hoodoo Gurus and the introspective guitar rock of The Church.
Formed in Sydney, The Church released their first album in 1981 (the highly regarded Of Skins And Heart) and by 1988 had relocated to Los Angeles to record for their new record company Arista. With veteran session musician Waddy Wachtel producing, the band created their cleanest-sounding and most successful album to date. The achievements of Starfish rode squarely on the back of iconic single “Under the Milky Way”, whose languid beauty and mystical confusion struck a chord with listeners worldwide.
A sense of place infuses these songs of displacement, movement and stasis in tension. The endless search for a place to belong; scanning the horizon, like Estragon and Vladimir, for an arrival that never comes. Opening song “Destination” powerfully introduces the theme…
In the space between our cities, a storm is slowly forming
Something eating up our days, I feel it every morning
This is followed by The Church’s best known song, “Under the Milky Way”, whose frayed beauty leads to a refrain about searching, searching… only to find a galaxy of unknowns. It’s a powerful theme, that in “Lost” manifests as localised, internal confusion. Now hang up ’cause the lines are all crossed, you are so lost. Elsewhere, the sparkling guitar arpeggios of “North, South, East and West” underpin a sense of spatial bewilderment. And you might find me there, North and south and east and west.
Perhaps this all sounds ambient, or at least, transient. Not so. “Reptile” is a multi-layered rocker while Marty Wilson-Piper’s “Spark” has plenty of what the lyric hopes for in the energised sound.
A rolling song in triple time, “Antenna” arcs back to the space between people while closing song “Hotel Womb” has a sense of hiding from the world, being safe from the dangers outside while a heartbreaking distance still separates the protagonist from the person physically closest to him. It also has some killer guitars.
There’s a melancholy in the DNA of Steve Kilbey’s voice, narrating an atmospheric journey punctuated by piercing guitar breaks and uplifting choruses. That’s a fair summary of Starfish; deeply satisfying in its bemused dislocation while flexing strong musical muscles and demonstrating masterful craft. A starfish may reside anywhere from the ocean’s tidal zone to its darkest depths, yet here is an album anchored on earth, stretching towards the uncountable stars. We all live under the Milky Way, yet The Church beckon us to stretch with them, an invitation both persuasive and timeless.
This article was originally published at Discrepancy Records on 17 December 2021.
It is re-posted here with kind permission