From the introduction, the listener transports to the fictional 1st Congregational Church Of Eternal Love And Free Hugs, supposedly set in Little Sodbury, 14 miles from Bath, where Kula Shaker frontman Crispian Mills used to live. It is the feast of Michaelmas, and the clergyman, voiced by Crispian, delivers a sermon to his parishioners on how Saint Michael fought back against evil. Despite the intense sermon, the delivery is comical.
Some Indian musical elements subtly sit in the background as 1st Congregational Church Of Eternal Love And Free Hugs, being a double and conceptual album, bears witness to fruitful musical evolution. Thankfully for fans of Kula Shaker, though, the quartet has not entirely abandoned their core sixties rock sound in favour of late eighties pop. Furthermore, the clergyman and his supporting choir mistress, voiced by Jane Stanness, offer hilarious skits throughout.
The first of this album’s 15 songs, “I’m Against It”, is the most familiar sounding track inducing happy memories of “Grateful When You’re Dead”. “Hometown” follows with a jangly rock guitar introduction which develops with gorgeous organ and warming harmonies about war and post-war spirit. In some respects, it’s a reinterpretation of Kula Shaker’s B-side and Hawkwind cover “Hurry on Sundown (Hari Om Sundown)” minus the harmonica.
The opening to “Burning Down” gives a nod to Kula Shaker’s Pilgrim’s Progress folk and ukulele arrangements, especially “Ophelia”. What makes “Burning Down” innovative is when the song unexpectedly explodes into a crescendo of a captivating stadium rock anthem. The theme is haunting and unnerving, yet one will equally be compelled to dance and sing along. Less sinister is the sixties-inspired love song, “Love and Separation”. The folk theme returns on “Farewell Beautiful Dreamer” with flutes and whistles, marching band drums, and “Let It Be” inspired guitar solos.
Mysticism comes to life on the opening of “Gingerbread Man”. It has the perfect introductory soundscape as if one is witnessing Alice fall down the rabbit hole. “Gingerbread Man” then evolves into a catchy guitar and organ-led song with infectious harmonies and an Indian themed backdrop. Described by Crispian as challenging to play live, “Gingerbread Man” is easy to fall in love with and play on repeat.
Alongside folk and mysticism come retrospectives. “303 Revisited”, as described by Mills, is “a nod to (Bob) Dylan” by “closing the circle on a story” as George Harrison did with “Here Comes The Moon” from his 1979 self-titled LP. As well as being more sanguine than “303”, it’s also more emotive. Accompanying subtle distorted Indian instruments like those The Beatles, especially Harrison, used in the latter half of their careers allows “303 Revisited” to create the perfect melancholy to conclude the “303” theme.
The songs about the battles between good and evil tend to be found on the latter half of this album, with “Where Have All The Brave Knights Gone” being one of the first. “108 Ways To Leave Your Narcissist” can be interpreted as advice and actions one should take when faced with the challenges and issues raised on Kula Shaker’s 1999 song “108 Battles (In the Mind)”. “108 Ways to Leave Your Narcissist” explores how to get rid of toxic people and influences with upbeat guitar riffs and organs.
The lead single, “The Once And Future King”, the most unique, complex, prog and least instant track on this LP, describes people following a leader and going into battle with them to defeat and triumph over tyranny. This song’s introduction inadvertently and indirectly salutes “Mystical Machine Gun”. Nonetheless, “The Once And Future King” is one of the most innovative tracks on this album, and if the listener perseveres, they will be generously rewarded with spiritual elation.
From a song about joining a leader in the fight against evil comes “Shattered Bones”, a song about a “one man Calvary to fight the tyranny”. “Shattered Bones” is one of the few songs that pays homage to the new arrangements found on K2.0. Using “33 Crows” as a template, it’s more upbeat and emotive with more sophisticated production owing to an impressive spectrum of horns and organs with a twinge of country.
Where “Shattered Bones” evolved “33 Crows”, “Don’t Forsake Me” evolves Mystical Machine Gun B-side “Holy River”. Amidst a soundtrack of pounding rock inspired by The Who’s Who’s Next, Kula Shaker ask for God’s forgiveness and guidance to stay on the right path. The injection of Kula Shaker’s signature harmonies and Indian sounding backdrops makes “Don’t Forsake Me” another innovative work of art.
The acoustic-led “After the Fall (Part 1)” with its wondrous messianic sounds is the perfect backdrop to a song about the promised utopia following Lucifer’s defeat. The longest song, at almost six and a half minutes, “After the Fall (parts 2&3)”, addresses the battle and defeat of Lucifer. The Spaghetti Western showdown introduction with a subtle backdrop of Indian instruments leads into a funk melody accompanied by changed periphery Indian sounding riffs. Perfection is then reached with supernovas of glorious trumpets and brief guitar solos.
1st Congregational Church Of Eternal Love And Free Hugs is undoubtedly one of the greatest homages to rock music from the latter half of the sixties. Kula Shaker demonstrated with this album that the musical evolution of this era did not stop on 31st December 1969. As well as evolving the sixties sound, Kula Shaker also evolved their sound, making 1st Congregational Church Of Eternal Love And Free Hugs a new essential album for newcomers to the band to start with, replacing K.
For those who need more convincing, heed Crispian’s words, “If something makes you feel good, it’s not crap…” 1st Congregational Church Of Eternal Love And Free Hugs will undoubtedly uplift all.
INTERVIEW: Crispian Mills discusses ‘1st Congregational Church Of Eternal Love and Free Hugs’ – Listen here.