Every now and then one runs across an album that conveniently reorganizes one’s universe. This happened to me in 1988 when I heard the album “Starfish” by the Australian band The Church and, in particular, the song “Reptile.” I long have been a fan of intricate guitar-based psychedelia. The Church came out of nowhere (in my sphere of listening) and overwhelmed me.
The band’s musicianship is superb. The album was produced by Waddy Wachtel and Greg Ladanyi. It has a bright, Dave Hassinger-esque sound with maybe just a notch too much reverb. The guitars and other elements blend into a cohesive, harmonious whole. “Reptile” is notable for its sparse, slinky guitar figurine. It is lithe and agile, with perfectly contrapuntal bass juxtaposed against the guitars. The record is luminous. It shines incandescently and remains revelatory upon each subsequent listening.
I was inspired to pick up previous and subsequent albums by the band. The prior albums show the nascent spark that became Starfish, but the song-writing is hesitant and the production inadequate. The two albums that came after Starfish – Gold Afternoon Fix and Priest=Aura – are brilliant. Slightly more obscure, not quite as poppy, but if anything more profound in their deployment of stylistic depth and sonic resources.
Music is non-propositional and non-representational. It succeeds retrospectively only to the extent it evokes the memory of a time and place, even if it is in the listener’s imagination. Few records are capable of accomplishing this result. King Crimson’s “Islands,” Jefferson Airplane’s “After Bathing at Baxter’s” and Love’s “Forever Changes” are other examples. As I reflect back on the late 1980s, “Starfish” uniquely defines that time and place.