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One of the few bands I’ve seen live across multiple decades, including when they opened for Billy Idol at the Worcester Centrum in 1987 and when they headlined the Hampton Beach Casino over many recent summers. This band literally brought a wolf on stage with them in 1987. A live wolf on a leash. And 25 years later the lead singer still has pipes that could bring down the house. Do they sound exactly the same? Yes, at least close enough, and that’s a good thing. Of the three albums I know well, Electric stands alone as their absolute best. Love has some sentimental favorite tracks for me. But I wanted to review Sonic Temple for two reasons: one, it had their most popular songs, so if you’ve heard of The Cult, you’ve likely heard “Fire Woman” or “Sweet Soul Sister,” making it an easy way into the rest of their work; and, two, listening to Ozzy’s Boneyard on XM radio this afternoon and they started playing The Cult, which reminded me they’re a harder band than I usually give them credit for. I listen to plenty of metal and hard rock and normally think of The Cult as some weird hybrid of The Cure, REM, and Bon Jovi, but they’re not. Much harder, much louder, much closer to metal. Not going to follow Heff’s lead, just going to talk about some tracks and let the vocals, lyrics, instrumentals, production, and all that come through.
After leading with “Sun King,” an ok but not great track, The Cult launches into “Fire Woman,” which could have been on either of the previous two albums, it just sounds so much like The Cult: ringing guitars, soaring chorus, crashing drums, long long long notes held by the singer, Ian Astbury, lyrics that make no sense, but sound kind of cool. In concert, when they start “Fire Woman” its easy to think their playing “Rain” or “She Sells Sanctuary.” That’s not critical in a bad way, just saying they’ve got a distinct sound and they run with it and it works and you’ll sing along.
“American Horse”: great chorus, ok thumping sound. The vocals sound like something off an early Aerosmith album, which is a high compliment as that band’s early stuff was fantastic. Could see this song coming right after “Last Child,” but here, on this album, just struggles to fit in completely. Oh, and the guitars – last 90 seconds is just the guitarist (Duffy?) going off, screaming, riffing, ripping, spinning – pretty fantastic and weirdly just fades away at the end.
“Edie (Ciao Baby)”: they released an acoustic or at least extended remix of this song that tended to get more radio play than the standard album cut. That remix had a more haunting sound, maybe extra violins or something, but on the original album cut the drummer lays down an incredibly subtle and perfect little hi-hat beat that accelerates the song more than you realize. It’s not a slow-moving ballad, but a running riff of a song, just on the edge of being thunderous.
“Sweet Soul Sister”: the most popular and so not surprisingly good and lasting track off this, even if it also verges on being too close to “Fire Woman” and all the similar songs before it. The drums, again, drive this harder than you might notice at first. And the lead guitar dances all around before just tearing into licks and chords and screams. The bridge gets kind of funky like they’re trying to hard to make the song different, but thankfully it doesn’t last too long before crashing back into the anthem-like chorus. One of those songs you could imagine closing out an OzzyFest, with The Cult joined on stage by five other guitarists and two drum kits hammering away. Until the end, which kind of fades and dies. Honestly, too many songs on this album fade away instead of ending properly
“New York City” includes a stretch that sounds so much like The Cult you’ll forget which song it is – syncopated, backing guitar and drums stapled together, drums accenting but mostly thumping and a screeching guitar. If you go back and list the some of the tracks off the album Love, you’ll hear where Duffy started with his guitar solos, the long rambling spiraling runs that seem to come and go off the songs overall sound and vibe. Two albums later and he just rips and lets the band try to keep pace. Overall, not one of my favorite songs, but surprised me listening to it again how solid it holds together.
Not every song works. The title track, “Wake Up Time for Freedom,” and “Soldier Blue” have that Cult sound, but don’t move me at all. Easily forgettable. But I do like the last track, “Medicine Train.” Released two years after Guns & Roses’ Appetite you can hear the echoes of that album’s “Mr Brownstone” and “Night Train,” but The Cult keeps this all their own. And they sneak in a winking lyric that might sum up the whole album: “shooting from the hip in a sonic temple.” Oh, and the song ends like they listened to Aerosmith’s “Train Kept a-Rollin’’, also not at all a bad thing.
(I could go higher, but “Edie” and “Sweet Soul Sister” are the only two tracks I want to hear, again and again, tracks I would miss if I didn’t hear them. Some of the rest is good, but honestly just average)
You’re getting three things with The Cult: 1) a distinct sound, best exemplified on Sonic Temple by “Sweet Soul Sister,” but just as iconic (for them) in “She Sells Sanctuary.”; 2) echoes of Aerosmith, the Stones, AC/DC, and even a touch or two of Led Zeppelin, all filtered through their own love removal machine; and 3) screaming fantastic surprising-its-so-good guitar. If you’re not moved by the vocals and the songwriting seems too derivative, just pay attention to Billy Duffy as he rambles and rips all over the place, relentlessly, with no concern for the rest of the song.