Steve Kilbey has been doing this for a long time. The operative “this” meaning to make records. The functional “long time” meaning over forty years. All with the same band too: Australian cult rock group, The Church.
The frontman might be graying and his beard might be wizarding, but he is still playing his bass. He is a chief purveyor of a post-punk sonic that crosses wantonly between new-wave, shoegaze and indie rock. And he is perhaps the coolest grandpa you never knew you could have.
And he has categorically refused to stop: “It’s too big a body of work not to keep exploring it.”
That statement struck me as curious. But digging into their oeuvre made it resonate live at the Aladdin Theater in Portland March 16th.
One, they have a fantastically on-brand post-punk band name that always prompts questions when I say, “I’m listening to The Church,” and two, they showcase a group of moving parts that has brought a sense of newness to each decade of the work. In all those years, however, Kilbey and company have never made a concept album before.
The Church’s latest disc, The Hypnogogue, centers on a titular MacGuffin set in a dystopian near-future. The Hypnogogue is a wunderwerk developed by the Korean scientist and occultist Kim Sun Jong. Described as “part-machine, part-magic, part-tantric” by Kilbey during their stint at the Aladdin Theater, it converts inner visions into full-length albums. Perfect for an artist suffering from writer’s block.
Enter Eros Zeta, an over-the-hill rock star from Antarctica looking to restart his flagging career, explained Kilbey as he introduced each track and character between songs.
Concept albums are a loaded term. Kilbey admitted as much between songs, “concept albums they’re, uh… y’know.”
For any classic rock buff, not much else need be said.
For the rest: story-telling in a record, much less an album, has to strike the right balance of exposition without over-extension. The songwriting needs to convey complex narrative developments without disconnecting the audience from the music. The power in music lies in the emotions it evokes. Without that, it’s functionally white noise.
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As a testament to this difficulty, this does happen during the hour-plus runtime of The Hypnogogue.
But in the realm of concept albums about rock stars, the Church’s latest offering is standard fare and has its thrills. Rather than the story skitter into various directions like Spiders from Mars, however, the structure to Eros Zeta’s saga simply melts away like a candle burning low.
The fragmented nature of the lyrics lends a refractory, non-linear narrative structure to the story. Not that the events are told out of order but that the different flashpoints come to the surface in a soup of memory, conversations and sudden visions.
To bring this jumble of imagery alive, Kilbey and drummer Tim Powles feed off each other as guitarists Ian Haug, Ashley Naylor and multi-instrumentalist Jeffrey Cain feed into their respective vision and rhythm with a plethora of guitar and synthwork.
Everything is present for “Ascendance.” The opening track introduces the general conceit with a world-building swirl. A robotic call across the dystopian near-future of 2054 where “the sea is boiling and the Earth is recoiling.” And both music and lyric combine to showcase the motifs that will carry through to the end.
The band employs tape sounds, drones and synthesizers across the album, soundscaping as instruments fall in and out of the mix. Fingerpicking melodies, phasing shoegazing guitars and keyboards on delay set the soundscape for this cyberpunk film yet to be scripted.
As the song finishes, the Hypnogogue holds an inevitable air: “your ascension is assured/ your ascension, your reward.
How are you, how has the tour been so far? Do you find audiences have been receptive to the new material?
Ha! I’m stoned and in a conference room in a hotel in Wyoming where we are trying to do some recording for a few hours.
You’ve been doing this for over 40 years now, what makes a 40 year body of work so ready to be explored?
Well it’s just got some longevity or it doesn’t. People still wanna hear it all so I try and oblige.
The album’s soundscape can be described as a shoegazing, post-rock Blade Runner sequel (at least by me), how would you describe the sound of the record?
Seriously I dunno what it is. It’s a lotta cooks with their fingers in a broth supervised by me I guess.
You’ve said this is the first concept album from The Church. When did you realize it was going to be a concept album? How did the story of Eros Zeta, Sun Kim Jong and The Hypnogogue first come to mind?
It all just came together slowly. It seemed like it’d never happen. So much delay due to fires and plagues. As I’m working on it tho, one day, I just started to realise it was all falling into place. A light-hearted story of a singer and a scientist from opposite ends of the world. He submits to her process, which is a big hodge-podge of stuff like hypnosis, drugs, magic electrodes, gases, sex, and other things, too which I realise as I write this might not yet have been invented. And I do some juggling and recontextualizing and bang! A concept album!!
At times the narrative structure seems to melt away and the album becomes the same album that was created in the machine. How do you feel like you become the persona of Eros Zeta or share things in common?
Yes, the narrative structure is, as you say, fluid. I am Eros. I notice it all. I feel it all. I undergo it. It spits me out at the end. The Hypnogogue, it’s like fame and love and hard booze and hard drugs. Isn’t it?
Which song was the hardest to make?
“No Other You.” I wanted it to be really lovely
On which song on the record do you think the whole record seems to come together?
“Antarctica.” That’s where it totally locks it all away.
“C’est La Vie” is a conversation between Eros Zeta and his unnamed manager. Kilbey, without missing a beat, dove directly into his impression of a wizened agent during the downtime between songs. His voice went shrill, cautioning Zeta against Jong and the Hypnogogue.
It’s a straightforward jam with a post-punk attitude, a tale of caution answered by a glam callousness. “Here comes the future, according to me,” counterpoints “I wouldn’t fuck with that.” Ultimately, Zeta’s manager resigns to his stubbornness with a hollow maxim, “c’est la vie.”
Although Jong creates the Hypnogogue in the future, its concept is wholly grounded in our present anxieties regarding artificial intelligence.
Early ideas about artificial intelligence largely remained in academic fields and the creative work of writers like Isaac Asimov, Isaac Asimov, and you guessed it: a little bit of Ray Bradbury.
Today, we live in their creative visions: automated manufacturing is on the rise. Robotics is making large strides. And a large part of society interfaces with A.I. on one major center of the internet: the search engine. Probably Google.
Every search results page is generated by an algorithmic brain that crawls, categorizes and confers a selection of web pages based on relevancy to the query. That’s not just a Google thing, but Google has led to other developments in A.I.
In the mid-2010s, Google engineer Alexander Mordvintsev released DeepDream. The program used elements of artificial intelligence to enhance patterns in digital images via pareidolia (the tendency to perceive symbology where there otherwise is none) and mimic the effects of a psychedelic hallucination.
Not to admit to anything, but it was quite effective.
Morvintsev’s program wasn’t the first of the “artbots,” but DeepDream was a significant step in their evolution, setting the groundwork for more accessible and contemporary artbots like DALL-E, Starry AI or MidJourney AI. These were a new breed. Able to cross-reference pre-existing art and generate solid compositions. But as they spread across the internet, they also came under intense criticism from independent artists.
“Many have compared image generators to human artists seeking out inspiration,” freelance artist Loish explained via an Instagram post on December 15th.
“My art is literally being fed into these generators through the datasets, and spat back out of a program that has no inherent sense of what is respectful to artists… As long as my art is literally integrated into the system used to create the images, it is commercial use of my art without my consent.”
Citing potential legal challenges, Getty Images made the decision to ban AI-generated content in September of 2022.
In the writing world similar tools were beginning to emerge; services like Jasper.ai, ClosersCopy and Writesonic began to take root in the copywriting departments across the United States. But the name remembered in the news is ChatGPT.
Released in November by OpenAI [the same company behind DALL-E and DALLE-2] the chatbot could respond to user inputs using language models and machine learning. As with DeepDream, ChatGPT is not the first, but the level of intelligence was enough to produce middle-school-level essays or basic marketing copy.
Honestly, the essays are more impressive. And Kilbey himself is unconvinced that any A.I. could write half-decent lyrics. But the concern is still the same: who is being sampled? Are they being compensated? Are these tools ethical to use?
The central premise manages to twist those same concerns of plagiarism by way of occult elements. Kilbey is not afraid to mix this reality with the realms of fantasy and the Hypnogogue is not entirely made of artificial intelligence, machine-learning and the like; “he submits to her process which a big hodge-podge of stuff like hypnosis, drugs, magic electrodes, gases, sex, and other things too.”
Somewhere in this Frankenstein’s Dreamcatcher, astrology must fit as well. And as a dreamcatcher, it bears asking whether a machine is engaging in plagiarism if its only source is the dreams of the person it is working for. For that, Kilbey has an answer.
“They are his songs, not the machine’s,” he wrote, remarking on how the machine only builds on what is inside the person using it.
“Why wait a lifetime? Write ’em all now using the Hypnogogue!”
Whether consciously or unconsciously, Kilbey’s lyrics still draw links with modern developments in artificial intelligence and the next step of human evolution. In many ways, the Hypnogogue is a transhumanist dream: the machine enhancement of human existence and endeavors.
But it’s a hard sell to say that any member of the Church is a transhumanist.
“Our job is just to make [his words] come to life,” said Cain after the show. There’s never a narrator’s opinion on the implications for this Dreamweaver. That’s left for the characters.
And these questions and conundrums regarding authenticity are not for Zeta to answer. His concerns are far more immediate. His career is flagging. He needs a killer album to revive it. To him, Jong is the only one with the answer.
On “I Think I Knew,” Zeta finally meets the machine. Or at least, Kilbey’s lyrics reflect a dialogue between man and machine. The piano is exquisitely featured in the middle of the mix, melding together with Kilbey’s vocals before exploding into a synthesizer-enhanced solo.
It’s an absolutely beautiful piano-based piece, and it melds into its companion, “Flickering Lights.” The piano combines with noisemakers to build a musique concrète moment. A second piano melody fills in for the second half before the original resumes. A guitar menaces over the top like a dark cloud.
The process has already started, and Zeta will have to live with his decision.
The story touches on a lot of recent concerns and questions surrounding artificial intelligence, machine learning and their capacity to generate “original” work. What spurred your idea for The Hypnogogue?
I thought of the word first a long time ago and then I imagined the activity that would take place there. The machine isn’t so important. It’s the lovers. We see the world through Zeta’s eyes. They are his songs, not the machines’ songs, after all. But only in a very strange and ethical place. The Hypnogogue spits it all out if you got it in you. Why wait a lifetime? Write ’em all now using the Hypnogogue!
Which song was the hardest to make?
“No Other You.” I wanted it to be really lovely
During the concert, you also imbued a lot of science-fantasy into the nature of the machine, describing its creator as having a keen interest in the occult and building a machine that is “half-science, half-magic, half-tantric.” How does fantasy allow you to explore what some might consider a scientific reality?
I want them to have some very slightly naughty fun. The machine is a conglomeration of stuff that should never have been put together. Zeta is a spoiled rock star but he falls for Sun Kim Jong. But it’s supposed to all be there in the music.
Because the Hypnogogue uses a person’s dreams to create the music, do you think the concern of plagiarism is lesser or greater with this machine?
That’s a damn good question because the Hypnogogue is hoovering it all out and it’s a sonic vacuum cleaner. I guess then it reconstitutes it as another song. It’d be all mixed up!
Zeta’s manager also seems quite concerned about his use of the machine. What do you think would happen in our own world were The Hypnogogue to exist?
People would use them. Of course. People will use everything that comes along.
Do you have any of the same concerns?
I don’t believe any programs are getting anywhere near decent lyrics from what I’ve seen. Which isn’t admittedly that much.
What do you think the costs of using this machine would be?
It’d cost a fucking fortune.
It is alive.
A virtual reality device is creating visions of music. From “piano trickling into the cans,” “insulating guitars,” and a reptilian bass” to “the kick in your face” and the “snare in your heart.” The Hypnogogue pulls the music out of Zeta’s being to present him with a fully-fledged record.
However, this is where the album opens up to engage in a bit of metatheory. [I know, I know, but let me smoke this one] what if the music the Hypnogogue created is actually the music we hear on the album? Instead of The Hypnogogue by The Church, this is The Hypnogogue by Eros Zeta.
Kilbey is pliable here, writing back, “Yes, the narrative structure is, as you say, fluid. I am Eros. I notice it all. I feel it all. I undergo it. It spits me out at the end.”
It tracks: Zeta would have understandably been dreaming about using this machine. The Hypnogogue could, in fact, be construed as the music the machines make from Zeta’s inner visions. It’s all there, every detail and every variation he could possibly need.
The Hypnogogue has optimized his creativity. But at what cost?
When asked about the possibility of how much a process like The Hypnogogue could cost, Kilbey was short and material: “It’d cost a fucking fortune.”
It never asks the question, yet the title track’s pianos first play hopeful, but short, the guitars shimmer on either ear. Then riding on distorted chords from a second guitar, the same piano shifts to dread. Kilbey sings in a strained baritone as it happens.
Back-up vocals filter into mind and the song falls into a pregnant pause. E-Bows call like sirens. The guitars meet them on the back of a marauding rhythm. The melody is dire, and the embellishments are minacious.
They fall again, and the E-bow ripostes. Stronger, but more strained than before, holding its last note until no more. Haug and Naylor flood back in, their twin timbre harrowing. For good measure, Cain sprinkles a piano phrase as if to say “what have you done?”
A last chorus repeats: “You won’t get something out of mind/ You won’t get something outta my time/ You won’t get something outta mind/ You won’t get something out, a lie.”
With this ex machina origin, it’s ever still inhuman and uncanny. The only human response to it would be to shirk. It’s one thing for humans to channel music through a machine. It’s another for the machine to make music from the human.
Go one further, and the premise becomes a Faustian bargain: to feed oneself to the machine would be to drain oneself of that same creative spark necessary for making music, little by little, song by song. No longer can he expand or improvise on what is presented to him. Zeta stands at the precipice of his Pyrrhic victory, looking down with an internal silence and playing music that was irrevocably zapped out of him.
And he is forced to jump.
hits second joint
Taking the meta-theory out doesn’t make this any less of a fantastic piece that regales the experience of using The Hypnogogue. But considering that Jong herself is a dabbler in the occult, that Kilbey himself flirts with a fantastical approach to science-fiction, imagining the tax such a machine could incur upon the soul has a certain fun to it.
Maybe fun isn’t the right word there. It lacks a certain existential horror. Yeah, existential horror does the trick.
From here, the narrative stops. Sure, “Albert Ross” and “Thorn” play, but where they fall into the story is never made clear in the music. Kilbey only clarified during the show that the master tapes were lost inside the Hypnogogue and that Albert Ross, Zeta’s trusted guitar, has been given life, jumping into the machine to retrieve them. In exchange for the tapes, Albert Ross gives himself up.
It’s a fantastic addendum to the story, but it’s something that a concert clarification does not give justice. That is the job of the music.
The narrative picks back up again as Zeta leaves for his home in Antarctica on “Aerodrome.” And for the first time, the audience hears his regrets.
“I wish I never said it, I wish I never read it,” Zeta sings,” I wish I never bought it, I wish I’d never thought it at all.”
For my money, “Aerodrome” is where Zeta’s character is fully peeled back. Kilbey is at his peak lyricism. And guitarists Naylor and Haug simply win this record.
Perhaps they embody Zeta’s impostor syndrome. Perhaps they cleansed his mixed feelings of being “the first” to use this technology. But certainly, they strike a nerve, allowing for the best instants of acoustic guitar all along the runtime. They ripple with the water in a restroom sink, splash the face and leave Zeta looking in the mirror to face the music.
It’s only fitting that “Aerodrome” ends philharmonic, a vocal reverb reaching across the atrium, a mass of violin-sound mounting past the mezzanine.
“The hidden cost of living, now, I’m giving this life/
A burden of the boomers, now, the rumours are rife/
The echo snatched away by the whispering wind/
Now the serpent is hatched, a new world begins/
I hate feeling this alone.”
Yet the album moves on: there’s over 20 minutes of music left.
Zeta muses on what’s next for his career for “These Coming Days,” he bursts into a ballad from an obsession for Sun Kim Jong on “No Other You.” He finally comes home to “Antarctica” after touring this new material, and, happy-ending of happy-endings, finds personal acceptance on “Second Bridge.”
The breadth of material stretches like any shoegaze concept album should. And at this point, The Hypnogogue feels duty-bound to go past the 50-minute mark, or what’s the damn point?
When asked where he thinks the album truly comes together, Kilbey points to “Antarctica.” And the song certainly received a fair shake in concert as a regimental rhythm from the drum paced the performance before tapering into Kilbey’s bass part and testimonial psyched-out guitars from Haug and Naylor on either side.
On record, the song then bursts into a mini solo and finishes on a view of a fisherman’s life in the growing society of Antarctica. There’s no more tension between guitars and bass because it need not be there. But in concert? The band makes sure the audience feels this denouement.
But that’s Kilbey’s answer to the question. The real answer depends on how far a listener wants to fall into The Hypnogogue.
It’s just that deep.
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The Hypnogogue Credits
Label: Communicating Vessels
Genre: Post-Punk, Shoegaze, Post-Rock
Release: February 24th 2023
- “C’est La Vie”
- “I Think I Knew”
- “Flickering Lights”
- “The Hypnogogue”
- “Albert Ross”
- “These Coming Days”
- “No Other You”
- “Second Bridge”
- Steve Kilbey: bass, vox
- Tim Powles: drums
- Ian Haug: guitar, e-bow
- Ashley Naylor: guitar, e-bow
- Jeffrey Cain: synths, keys, e-bow