Albums Revisited: The Church’s ‘Priest=Aura’ Turns 25: a look back at the group’s underrated masterpiece
March 10 marks the 25th anniversary of Priest=Aura, the 8th studio album from Aussie alternative psych-rockers The Church.The released followed on the success of 1988’s Starfish featuring their breakthrough hit Under The Milky Way, and 1990’s Gold Afternoon Fix, which featured the more modest hit single Metropolis.
The experience of recording those albums in Los Angeles (produced by Waddy Wachtel) was less than pleasant for the group however, who were displeased by the sterile studio environment and meddling from record label Arista Records. Those experiences led the group to record Priest=Aura in their native country at Sydney’s Studios 321 with both a new producer (Gavin MacKillop) and drummer (Jay Dee Daughtery, replacing veteran percussionist Richard Ploog).
This relaxed state of working with less label interference combined with indulging illicit substances (i.e. opium and heroin) resulted in the group’s most expansive and experimental work.
The result was the 1992 release Priest=Aura, an album as ethereal and evocative as its mysterious title (gleamed after Kilbey misread a note written by a Spanish fan).
Guitarist Marty Willson-Piper used the creative conceit of one word song titles to spur creativity. This freeform approach inspired vocalist/bassist Steve Kilbey to indulge his steam of consciousness lyrics more than ever before.
Take Aura, the ambling, hypnotic album opener where Kilbey’s clever wordplay conjures imagery of some ancient colonial expedition:
Across yonder ocean the natives are fierce
Their ears are filled their teeth are pierced
But it’s not their spears that spill your breath
They kill their enemies by loving them to death
Priest=Aura was the band’s lengthiest release, featuring fourteen tracks and utilizing expanded song lengths. Chaos (clocking in at nearly 10 minutes) is the most notable example, and the most adventurous composition, creating a sense of queasy unease over a dissonant bassline and Willson-Piper and Peter Koppes’ dueling guitar feedback.
The interplay of Koppes and Willson-Piper (who departed the group in 2011 to be replaced by Ian Haug) was a key element of The Church’s sound and they were at the top of their game on this album, from the shimmering, bell-like tones on Kings, to the dystopian flavored instrumental Film.
Despite the upbeat and breezy track Feel and their bewitching single Ripple, Priest was the group’s darkest album. That’s largely due to the lyrics. Take the femme fatale character in Luster (The best impression of a succubus,that I have ever seen) or the supernatural sexual predator in The Disillusionist (They say that he’s famous from the waist down/But the top half of his body is a corpse).
Those songs are the musical equivalent of urban legend ghost stories that play wonderfully in the theater of the mind. There’s a sense of melancholy that runs throughout. But you’d be hard pressed to call it dreary even if its best played on rainy days and foggy nights. It’s atmospherics are almost narcotic.
Priest=Aura was criminally ignored upon its release. It came at the height of the grunge movement when understated echoey guitar rock was not in fashion, and its sales suffered accordingly.
It also received mixed reviews, including a middling examination from Rolling Stone (one that Kilbey would joke about during an 2014 SXSW interview.)
It’s a review that mistakes Kilbey’s open-ended lyrics as a negative, saying “Though sporadically clever, his lyrics flit around ideas rather than embody them.” Diehard fans know that his open to interpretation poetry is one of the band’s greatest strengths. His prose never hits you over the head. It offer lyrical riddles rife for pondering and reflection.
Or as he stated in an interview I conducted in 2013: “I think it’s better not to know…and I think it’s better not to see them all written down…I think the songs might have more mystery and longevity and more interpretability in them if I refrain from doing that.”
The poor commercial response to the album, along with inner-band tensions resulted in Koppes departing the group (he would return as a regular member in 1997).
The album came out right in time for me however. Suffering from a bout of depression in college, I found it deeply soothing, and a healthy counterbalance to the aggressive grunge and industrial albums that were also in my regular rotation.
I was fascinated by the lyrics and cinematic soundscapes of tracks like Dome where Kilbey weaves a tale that sounds like it came from watching a B-movie on late night television:
I saw this film about some people who lived in a dome
In a beautiful field next to a river of foam
I fell asleep before it was over
I must have dreamt of the end
Speaking of cinematic, the mournful and haunting Mistress even inspired one of my film school projects. Its one of The Church’s most emotive songs, where Kilbey’s lyrics espouse heartbreak over a relationship with all the somberness of a funeral procession. It feels like a doomed romance with a ghost. It’s the aural equivalent of a Twilight Zone episode.
The fact that such a work of art gained indifference strictly due to musical trends is maddening. But in the end, it’s worked in its favor. Its aged like a fine wine, a fan favorite regarded as their high watermark.
It’s Kilbey’s favorite as well, noting its “the best album that the Church as the Church had ever done,” going to state in his autobiography Something Quite Peculiar that its their “undisputed masterpiece“ As a testament to its cult acclaim, the band played the album in its entirety on their 2011 Future, Past, Perfect tour (along with Untitled #23 and Starfish).
25 years later, Priest=Aura has lost none of its power. It still conjures a sound that creates a dream state unlike any other album. It’s elusive and intangible in the most wonderful way. And that’s what keeps its devotees coming back for more.
Buy Priest=Aura (reissued on 180 gram vinyl) on Amazon: