It is difficult to comprehend that in the space of a little over twelve months, Steve Kilbey has released three monumental albums under various guises (read my reviews of ‘Chryse Planitia‘ with Gareth Koch, ‘Jupiter 13‘ with Martin Kennedy, ‘Eleven Women‘ as a solo effort). And now Kilbey gifts us the monumental double album ‘The Hall of Counterfeits’ with his band The Winged Heels. All this while working on another album by The Church and rumours persist of a collaboration with one of the members of fellow legends Underground Lovers. Add to this an intensive series of live performances both solo and with various bands across the Eastern Coast of Australia (including The Church), this miraculous dedication to his craft.
With such a work rate, there would be an understanding if the output wavered or diluted but Kilbey has extraordinarily managed to keep crafting stunning melodies and stunning lyrics while drawing in the best musicians and making the best of their creations. Above all is an extraordinary diversity of Kilbey’s work – from the psychedelic indie pop of Jupiter 13, the acoustic romantic yearnings in ‘Eleven Women’ to the baroque, medieval tones of ‘Chryse Planitia’.
Which brings us to ‘The Hall of Counterfeits’ – the fourth in this remarkable body of work produced during the COVID era. A double album, this represents perhaps the most eclectic of Kilbey’s output – whereas I described ‘Jupiter 13’ as a sci-fi journey cloaked in a psychedelic indie shimmer, ‘The Hall of Counterfeits’ seems to look inwards and across the globe: tales of history and adventure with touches of world music intruding gracefully throughout. There are fewer indie pop tunes in this collection – although they do surface and when they surface they have the class and stature of anything Kilbey has released before. Kilbey says of the album’s themes:
…time has enabled me to give voice to those same preoccupations: past lives, Indian and Middle Eastern music, religion, ancient history, the Beatles and the many implications of their work.
Mysticism and magic, ancient histories and strange foreign lands, deities and fortune tellers: they all roam throughout the landscapes of the vast double album. Kilbey is a poetic shaman leading his band of musicians through differing textures – the one seamless element that binds and creates a cohesive whole.
Kilbey sees this album as the product of a life’s work:
A new sprawling double album, a labour of love. The record I had to make before I shuffle off this mortal coil and begin again all over – some other time, some other place. But this record is the big one and even if I do get another 30 years down here it will be a hard one to ever top.
The songs songs have an ascendant ethereal tone more in common with ‘Chryse Planitia’, so it is no surprise that multi-instrumentalist and composer Gareth Koch is a member of The Winged Heels. His medieval-influenced approach to guitars provide delicacy and a hint of exoticism. Other members – Barton Price on drums and Roger Mason on keys – spent time with Australian legends Models – so expertise and innovation is a given genetic constant of the band, providing the indie sensibilities and driving rhythms.
With such input, ‘The Hall of Counterfeit’ is organic and granular – it is filled with real and exotic instruments and built with live musicians playing earthy, tangible music. Production trickery is minimised and subtle: this gives the album as a whole a fresh, sharp vibrancy. You can hear the picks scraping, the bows scratching and the crack of the drum sticks on rims.
Opening track ‘Arcadia’ is mystic and sparkles with an air of melancholy. It’s the opening blast that foreshadows the rest of album: acoustic, shimmering and hypnotic, strange exotic sounds that filter in and out like a psychedelic dream.
By contrast, next track ‘Swinging on The Moon’ sets out with a blistering wall of sound – melodic, thumping – before segueing into a psychedelic ballad: a fuller shimmering melodic track before blasting back. However many contrast and textures, the anthemic stature remains. Haunting strings, chattering voices, hand claps and other exotic instruments lend an air of exoticism.
There are more surreal and challenging numbers that are opaque, discordant and with unexpected structures. Witness ‘Karnak’: a shuddering melange of sounds and textures that has the anarchy of something from The Birthday Party.
‘Warren’ sharply moves to a melodic jingle jangle sound – crystalline strumming and an ethereal, magical pace with mysterious lyrics. Kilbey’s ear for melodic mastery is on display, infused with an air of melancholy highlighted by a harmonica wailing in the distance.
Indian mysticism infuses the instrumentation and percussive rhythms of ‘Horizon Meets the Ground’ with its haunting lyrics – the price of flesh goes up, the price of wine goes down, the price of fame remains the same – and dreamy pace that evokes strange and ancient worlds. This not so much a song as an atmosphere, a movement conjuring up visions and colours.
‘Brass Razoo’ then swings us back to earth, to the here and now, with its inner city indie rock pace and structure: Kilbey’s inherent ear for pop tunes resurfaces with a song that would fit in The Church’s catalogue. Shimmering guitars, Himalayan Mountain-sized choruses and a spark, complete with the odd whoop.
Dream like fugues emanate from Kilbey’s reverberated, distant vocals in ‘I’ve Been Here Before’ – an insistent drone and ethereal strings: an epic and statuesque track with a ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’ vibe . Psychedelic and slightly ominous with a killer melody.
‘Euphoric Recall’ and ‘Amorous Plethora’ have the slight ethnic and exotic feel (the latter with that touch of arch humour Kilbey does so well) while ‘Anglesea’ is filled with the pop sensibilities in a blistering roller coaster of a track.
‘Everything’s For Sale’ is a bouncy bar room jaunt, exuberant and joyous with its rippling piano and knee slapping pace and arch lyrics. ‘Tantric Hammer’ is Kilbey at his most indie pop best: celestial melodies and a jingle jangle guitars ringing out loud with arch, humorous lyrics.
The album ends with the magnificent pop melodies of ‘Love Song Yet to be Named’ where Kilbey’s baritone voice thunders and croons. The anthemic chorus and driving finish make this a perfect ending and confirm Kilbey’s position as the emperor of all he surveys.
Ultimately, ‘The Halls of Counterfeit’ is a magnificent journey through the exotic, magical and mysterious mind of Steve Kilbey: a mystical fertile land that is psychedelic, multi-textured and mind-expanding. Delivered with a coterie of musicians who are masters of their craft: a mix between the academic intricacies of Koch’s inherent classicism and the pop sensibilities of Price and Mason.
Don’t forget to read our interview with Kilbey late last year where he talks of getting The Winged Heels together.
The album is out on 4 June 2021 and you can preorder here.
Steve Kilbey and The Winged Heels will be undertaking an extensive tour in NSW in the next few weeks – full details here.