Death Disco: The (Death) Cult’s Visit to “God’s Zoo”

In the late 1980s, British band the Cult held the banner high for glam-free, classicist hard rock. Given focus and muscle by producers Rick Rubin and Bob Rock, Cult LPs Electric (1987) and Sonic Temple (1989) found commercial favor by splitting the difference between AC/DC and the Doors, and matching ginormous meat-and-potatoes riffage with panoramic-voiced singer Ian Astbury’s unquenchable fascination with Native American spirituality.

Over two decades later, the Cult is still at it (with Astbury and guitarist Billy Duffy being the only members left from the glory day), and is releasing its first album in five years, Choice of Weapon, today in the United States. Fans of head-nodding metal-inclined Cult classics like “Love Removal Machine” will find plenty to like in the album’s lead single “For the Animals”, and I myself have a soft spot for well-executed rock ‘n’ roll swagger of the sort employed by that track. But in spite of the virtues of its signature sound, the band was definitely more interesting when very early on, under the moniker of Death Cult, it was poised to lead the second wave of gothic rock.

For those unawares, the Cult wasn’t always a one-band compendium of your local animal name-themed classic rock radio station. In the early ’80s, Ian Astbury (under the name Ian Lindsay) was the vocalist for Southern Death Cult, a group that though fate and good timing emerged as a rallying point for the coalescing gothic rock genre and its attendant subculture. In spite of its (ahem) cult success, Astbury split that band in 1983, and recruited Billy Duffy, bassist Jamie Stewart, and drummer Ray Mondo to form Death Cult that same year. Though the word “Death” was excised from the name after one EP (which coincided with the swift influx of psychedelic and metal influences) in an effort to distance the foursome from the macabre music scene it had been borne of, the Cult’s first iteration should be remembered if just for “God’s Zoo”, a bewitching stylistic mixture that matches gloom with dance grooves to give the concept of the goth club night the soundtrack it truly deserves.

Duffy’s exotic-flavored guitar line (no power chords here, it’s instead unequivocally goth rock in its timbre and spook factor) is a winner in of itself, but what really catches the ear off the bat is Jamie Stewart’s irresistible bassline, which bubbles and pops with unabashed funkiness. Stewart really gets to the shine in the pre-choruses when Duffy pulls back and Mondo rides his cymbals in a 16th-note disco style, and the bassist lays down an ominous yet body-swaying oompah groove that by rights should make Peter Hook insanely jealous. Once the chorus arrives, Astbury’s outsized voice is finally given proper room, matching melodies with Duffy’s fretwork to create an instantly satisfying chant-along section. Not to be outdone by his bandmates, Duffy assumes responsibility for making a great chorus even better by simply shifting the key he’s playing in partway through.

While definitely more death disco than rock ‘n’ roll raunch, “God’s Zoo” ultimately betrays a desire by the (Death) Cult to hit hard as well as sway to the beat. The execution is forceful throughout, but it’s the ending where “God’s Zoo” comes closest to straight-up headbanging fare, all due to the percussive ferocity of the way Astbury shouts the word “Flies” over and over until he sighs one last Jim Morrison-indebted cry. It’s at that moment that the song exhibits a palpable hint of danger, which is fed and reinforced until the absolute last possible moment for one downright compelling ending