There are three kinds of Cult fans.
The first kind followed them through their post-punk/goth beginnings as Southern Death Cult and through their breakthrough album, Love (1985). These fans felt betrayed or lost interest when the Cult turned toward the hard rock mainstream with the Rick Rubin-produced Electric (1987). Most of these folks have probably long since stopped listening to music altogether.
The second kind found Electric rather groovy, or rockin’, or both, and were blown away by the Cult’s metal apex, Sonic Temple (1989). These fans were let down by the 1991 follow-up Ceremony, though a few stayed on as far as commercial nadir The Cult (1994). These fans constitute by far the largest group, and the Cult have them to thank for their place in rock history.
The third kind have stuck with mainstays Ian Astbury and Billy Duffy all the way, through comebacks like Beyond Good and Evil and the inevitable indie release Born Into This (2007). I’ve never met any of this brand of Cult fan. They must exist, though, because the comeback albums sold well enough at least to enter the charts, and here the Cult are with another, Choice of Weapon.
You can apply all the late-career, post-commercial-peak clichés here. Have Astbury and Duffy filled in their rhythm section with a couple relatively faceless, facelessly professional veteran musicians? Yes. Have they tapped a producer of their glory-period material? Say hello to Bob Rock, a longtime associate who helmed Sonic Temple but, and this is not a point made in the band’s press material, The Cult as well. Have they claimed the new album is One of Their Best, If Not ,The Best? Check.
I must confess, I fall into the category of Cult observer who was always skeptical of the band’s intentions, but recognized “She Sells Sanctuary” as a bona-fide classic. Who felt that, after Love, the band were, as the English say, rather a load of bullocks. Who at least appreciated the calculated swagger of Electric as a genuine attempt to light a fire under an increasingly wimpy college music scene.
Cynicism weighs heavily, though. During the Cult’s turn-of-the-millennium hiatus, Astbury performed as a ringer for Jim Morrison along with Ray Manzarek and Robby Krieger in the badly-conceived, and even more badly named Doors of the 21st century. And, once you’ve taken a dive like that, you can’t really go back, can you?
Astbury is trying, aided and abetted by Duffy. And, like Born Into This, Choice of Weapon is not the trainwreck one might have predicted. Rock’s production, building on tracks laid by nu-metal veteran Chris Goss, is loud and crisp. Duffy is still a mean, no-nonsense guitarist who can crank up the noise but also dial up the texture when necessary. The other two hold down the bottom end as if their paychecks depended on it.
What is missing, and what has been missing since Electric, is the groove to match the swagger. These are self-serious songs with self-serious arrangements that take all the fun out of playing up native American imagery and cultural commentary, as Astbury is wont to do. The kind of rocking the Cult are up to on Choice of Weapon is made clear from opener “Honey From a Knife”, which chug-a-lugs like a million other hard rock and metal songs, rather than stomping or charging ahead.
As far as new sonic territory explored over the ten tracks, well, there isn’t any. “Life > Death” is curious in that it is a stately midtempo ballad that comes across like latter-day Bowie, dignified yet nondescript. “The Wolf” is the inevitable attempt to combine the Cult’s two best tracks, “She Sells Sanctuary” and “Love Removal Machine”, into one song, while “This Night in the City Forever” is psychedelic Doors pastiche.
One track does briefly hit on the avalanche of raw power that is the selling point of the band’s best work. “Amnesia” unleashes a monster descending riff and funky breakbeat, and does so convincingly until the lackluster chorus comes on. It’s tough to imagine the Cult are just now getting around to releasing a song called “Lucifer”, but here it is. “You working hard for the Devil / Sucking on the crack”, calls Astbury amid the overbearing, thudding rhythm. It is either exactly what Cult fans were waiting for or an embarrassing self parody.
While Duffy, at about 50, seems to have little trouble at least sounding like a rock star, Astbury does not always fare as well. His guttural howl is still unique, but it’s now more gruff and Muppety, and at times the words sound like they are struggling to get out.
Completists will appreciate the second disc featuring the two standalone singles the Cult released in 2010, along with their b-sides. “Every Man and Woman is a Star” is danceable; the others are not.
It’s likely the third kind of Cult fan, those who have stuck with the band all along, will be plenty satisfied with Weapon of Choice. Assuming they’re out there.