Final Days is an uncompromising record played with the passion and conviction to back up its ambitious artistic vision.
Whatever happened to the Mayan apocalypse? Ever since 2012 came and went, popular literature and film have provided a seemingly endless banquet to stoke and serve the American public’s insatiable appetite for total destruction. Music hasn’t exactly been immune to this existential strain of hyper-pessimism either, but, then again, industrial and assorted "post-" subgenres have long been harnessing pre-and post-millennium tension, from the object assault of Einstürzende Neubauten’s Kollaps to Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s urban decay projections. More overtly conceptual, Cult of Youth’s Final Days engages a uniquely cinematic approach. “Todestrieb” -- the German word for the term 'death drive' -- opens the album by taking the notion of ‘setting the scene’ as literally as it can. With its lashing whips, distant marching drums, moaning horns and ominous drone, “Todestrieb” is the vivid audio track for a doomed procession in an ancient scorched landscape.
The battered optimism at war with bitter disillusionment throughout Love Will Prevail, the predecessor to Final Days, sounds all but entirely cast aside with Cult of Youth mastermind Sean Ragon’s baritone proclamations on “Dragon Rouge”: “To open up, to conceal / Many question what is real / But when you hear the angels calling / Know which way the ants are crawling." “Dragon Rouge” carries over the cold-but-lush gothic folk sound of Love Will Prevail and winds it up in a tapestry of tribal percussion and bristling electronics. That tension boils into a fury with “Empty Faction”, a careening bolt of punk-folk in which Ragon spits out every line like an inflammatory accusation. One gets the overwhelming sense that love may not actually prevail in these Final Days.
As an entity, Cult of Youth has grown with each successive album, from being Ragon’s affair alone to bringing in key additional musicians to help achieve his vision for Love Will Prevail. The Cult of Youth that made Final Days is now a five-piece band, with the addition of guitarist Christian Kount and bassist Jasper McGandy, formerly of the Hunt, as well as drummer Cory Flannigan and cellist Paige Flash. The communal reinvigoration they bring is most tangible when songs stretch out past their intitial structures. “Down the Moon” starts as a rambling folk jam, but then Flannigan’s snare comes in, Ragon beseeches the moon to rise, and everyone takes their cue to let loose, consuming the repeating electric guitar figure into a swirling storm.
The precipice on which humanity stands that Final Days concerns itself is more of a philosophical conundrum than the physical-world environmental crisis that we’re mired in. Indeed, we already sped past any chance to stop climate change long ago, maybe it’s a good time to sort out where you stand otherwise. “When you’re lost between worlds / He appears / When you’re trapped between gods / He appears," Ragon declares in the sprawling nocturne “Of Amber”, with cello and horn building a resolute defense against the encroaching darkness, before everything disintegrates in a long wash of dreamy chimes and whispered exhalations.
If the death drive is real, and mankind is destined to subconsciously pursue its own demise, knowing it doesn’t weaken the sting of hopelessness at the heart of such a reality. The tormented spirit of Final Days isn’t going down without a fight though, and the band sound practically enraged on the climactic, searing “Sanctuary”. “I said forgive me sister / For I know not what I’ve done / I know the end is coming / And she said it’s just begun," Ragon darkly intones, ranting his way to an unholy scream as Armageddon swirls all around. When the chaos finally fades, the remaining landscape echoes with loneliness; a rolling bottle, a distant dog bark, but no humanity to speak of. And yet, “Roses”, the album’s most beautiful passage, sounds almost hopeful. Ragon still seethes with accounts of broken men and laying with wolves, but his strumming is markedly gentle at first as one by one the rest of the band join in and the song peacefully awakens. It’s a welcome relief after the heavy head trip of Final Days, an uncompromising record alive with the passion and conviction to back up its ambitious artistic vision.