The Cult have never stayed in one place for very long, musically speaking. Having started out under the name Southern Death Cult, shortening it up to Death Cult, and eventually sticking with the moniker, The Cult for the greater part of their 25 years together, name changes are nothing compared to lineup changes and shifts in sound.
Bearing the distinction of having had more occupants on the band’s drum throne than even Spinal Tap and a similarly revolving cast of bassists, the presence of vocalist Ian Astbury and guitarist Billy Duffy have been the sole constants in each phase of The Cult’s history.
With a sound comprised of classic hard rock and vaguely bluesy metal, goth, punk—even psychedelia and mysticism—each of these attributes of The Cult’s style has taken its turn as the central ingredient on every one of their albums.
Consider the band’s “big three” albums, the iconic discs that brought forward the band’s major hit singles of the ‘80s as a barometer of their shifting styles. In the punky, yet slightly gothic vein of The Cure was Love. Then came Electric filled with throttling, traditional guitar-driven rock. Its follow-up, Sonic Temple, teetered between metal and blues-tempered rock. Subsequent albums found The Cult exploring more alternative and experimental territory, merging more into the lane of psychedelia and dirge-like groove rock.
This time around, The Cult suffers from an identity crisis. While they’ve always been known for switching up their sound, the band’s latest release, Born Into This has very few moments where The Cult sounds like The Cult. The disc combines the sound of two of the group’s “big three” albums. There are slight differences, however with this effort maintaining the subdued ethos of Love minus that album’s musical subtleties. Thanks to muddied production values that mask Duffy’s typically brash guitar work, there are times when The Cult even loses that recognizable point to their sound.
“Citizens” could very nearly be anthemic with its catchy chorus and Duffy’s crisp, stinging, yet crystalline guitar riffs buffered with mild distortion. What prevents this is how much of a backseat Duffy’s guitar parts take in the mix, tuned down instead of crashing through and featured prominently. In doing so, it only calls more attention to the uncharacteristic quaver in Astbury’s vocals on the track.
Fresh off of his gig with The Doors of the 21st Century, Ian Astbury takes on more of the vocal style heard on Electric, adopting a serrated edge to his distinctive melodically hoarse, fluid, sexually charged vocals. While that’s not necessarily a bad thing, it seems that his time filling in for the late Doors’ frontman has robbed him of more of his own unique voice and in its place is a demonstration of auditory prancing and posturing a la Jim Morrison. This could just be an unfair assessment, considering Astbury’s vocals have always drawn comparisons to Morrison. Even so, prior to Born Into This, his unique tone could be instantly identifiable as that of the lead singer of The Cult. On this go ‘round, it seems that Astbury has forgotten how to sound like himself, having not only sharing peyote-visions with Morrison’s ghost, but a few late night Monte Cristo conversations with the spectre of Elvis Presley.
“Holy Mountain” is one of those tracks that would have even the most stalwart of Cult fans, used to their band dabbling in a cornucopia of styles, screaming “holy *%#@!”. From the opening syllable of the otherwise beautiful, heavily acoustic/electric ballad, Astbury dusts off his best Elvis impersonation. However, this isn’t the raucus, hip-swiveling “Jailhouse Rock” Presley. Nope. Rather, this impersonation is one of the breathless Presley sweat-mopping his way through “My Way” while on the way to a hip replacement.
This sort of equivalent of dressing up in someone else’s sound is normally reserved for fledgling bands struggling to find their own voice, not a band the caliber of The Cult, particularly at this stage of their career. With the acquisition of the legendary John Tempesta on drums, it would stand to reason that Born Into This could have benefited from a harder, heavier edge. Having played with White Zombie and Testament among other heavy metal outfits, Tempesta’s steady, thrashing drumming style was just one more casualty of the album’s ho-hum production.
There are moments where the group hits their stride on Born Into This. “I Assassin” is probably the closest the band comes to old school Cult, echoing the dark buzz of their Electric and Sonic Temple days with both Duffy and Tempesta getting some time in the spotlight with a bottom-heavy guitar solo that builds to a squeal and punishing drumming, respectively.
Veering towards the darker, more mystically inclined incarnation of The Cult found scattered throughout their catalogue and marked by Astbury’s lovely, semi-abstract lyrics, “Tiger in the Sun” heavily features dark-sounding acoustic guitar work from Duffy beating out rhythmic riffs that carry the song skyward. The lyrical majesty of “Tiger In the Sun” is a refreshing change of pace from the uncharacteristic lyrical cheese of “Dirty Little Rockstar”, “Diamonds”, and the album’s title track.
Overall, the disc’s major flaw lies within its cloudy production values. Not really renowned for keeping the same style from album to album this disc seems to be too much of a mishmash of every genre they’ve ever test driven instead of sticking with one, cohesive sound on this latest offering. However, even the most lackluster parts of Born Into This won’t frighten away longtime fans of the band.
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