Music

The Cult: Choice of Weapon

The veteran English rockers hope the third comeback album will be the charm.


The Cult

Choice of Weapon

Label: Cooking Vinyl
US Release Date: 2012-05-22
UK Release Date: 2012-05-21
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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.

5

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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