Top critical review
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a flawed but worthwhile transition album
on January 12, 2002
1996's Magician Among the Spirits marked the beginning of the end of a meandering time in the Church's career. After 1992's remarkable Priest=Aura, cofounder Peter Koppes' left the band, leaving other co-founder and lead vocalist Steve Kilbey and signature lead guitarist Marty Willson-Piper to trudge on. Magician is the second of two albums (Sometime Anywhere is the first) where the subdued, lengthy, and occasionally dreamy compositions of Kilbey and Willson-Piper were marked by an aching, empty spaciousness that suggested some understated yearning (rather than the scintillating, often psychedelic guitar rock of their 80's records). Whether Kilbey and Willson-Piper intended it or not, their songs seemed to be fragments calling out for Koppes' input.
On Magician, Koppes made his brief "guest" return, and the hint that he might rejoin the group (as well as the gradually increasing presence of the Church's excellent drummer, Tim Powles) gives this record a certain lift. Magician feels like the heir apparent to Priest=Aura that 1994's Sometime Anywhere was not; but it plays like more of an uneven ten-song sketchbook than a fully-realized release.
Still, it features some great songs. "Comedown", the single (and a really great song live!), bottles the spirit and energy of classic Church songs like "Reptile" from Starfish and "When You Were Mine" from The Blurred Crusade. "Ladyboy" is another interesting return to form that successfully avoids formula.
Yet, other songs on Magician are curious oddities that tend to stumble, regain a sense of direction and form, and then stumble again almost thoughtlessly. Some of these tunes are interesting; the most compelling is probably "Romany Caravan". Some other tracks seem like the product of handful of musicians exploring each other's musical energy together in some late night studio session, but feel incomplete or unmolded ("The Further Adventures of the Time Being" and "Magician Among the Spirits"). Other tracks duplicate previous successes ( "Welcome" feels like an alternate version of "Aura" from Priest=Aura and it makes me smile every time I hear it), and similarly, "Afterimage" is an instrumental that seems kindred to "Film", Priest's closer.
The re-release of Magician with four extra tracks has bolstered the strength and continuity of the record to some degree, and I recommend choosing it over the original 1996 release.
If you are new to the Church, I don't recommend starting with Magician Among the Spirits (I gave it three stars here, but if Amazon supported half star ratings, I'd give it 3 ½). Start with Starfish or The Blurred Crusade. If you find yourself really getting into them and feel driven to try to unravel Steve Kilbey's lyrics or are fascinated by some of the sometimes deep, sometimes deeply bizarre emotional spaces Church songs can conjure, then give records like Magician Among the Spirits and Séance a try.