The Cult
Photo: Juan Azulay

The Cult Still Rock on ‘Under the Midnight Sun’

However the Cult cultivate their energy, Under the Midnight Sun sits below their most essential albums while looking down on their more awkward moments.

The Cult
Under the Midnight Sun
Round Hill Records
7 October 2022

The Cult have released only five albums in the past 21 years, making the arrival of each new album a special occasion. That affords singer Ian Astbury and guitarist Billy Duffy some time and space to plot each move, selecting producers they think will help bring the most out of their latest batch of songs. For Under the Midnight Sun, they enlisted the help of Tom Dalgety, a young studio hand who has worked with Killing Joke, Pixies, Therapy?, Rammstein, the Damned, Ghost, and many more that would have plenty of producers twice his age seeing green. What came out of the process is quite possibly the Cult’s leanest album yet, featuring only eight songs clocking in at 35 minutes.

While that might give the impression of a hyper-focused Cult that managed to narrow its focus, Under the Midnight Sun isn’t entirely all that. Some of it sounds just as majestic as if it were 1985 all over again when Joy Division were a recent memory and the subsequent post-punk/new wave movement was gaining momentum. At other times it sounds tired, as if Astbury and Duffy’s ages were finally catching up to them. A bulk of it sits somewhere in the middle, well within reach of what the Cult sounded like at the height of their creativity but somehow lacking a particular spirit that could help push them over the edge. It could be that in our COVID-stricken times, Under the Midnight Sun is the brightest the Cult will manage to shine, and that’s just fine.

Under the Midnight Sun is named after that time of year just below the Arctic circle when the sun shines around the clock. The Cult were playing at the Provinssirock festival in Finland, and Astbury couldn’t help but notice what a bright and shining sun does for a festival crowd at 4:00 in the morning: “People are laying on the grass, making out, drinking, smoking. There were rows of flowers at the front of the stage from the performances earlier that evening. It was an incredible moment.” The Cult gave Dalgety the task of helping them to distill that feeling into their music. That sounds like a rather vague order, but one only has to use their imagination to impose Duffy’s atmospheric guitar over the haze of unfamiliarly bright midnight. Close your eyes tight enough, and you will find that the opening strum of “Mirror” fits the image perfectly.

“We own the night / Shut out the light!” It just wouldn’t be the Cult if they didn’t cling to that gothic underbelly in some small way, even when the sun is out. Duffy continues to sling exotic single-line melodies that weave quite the minor-key tapestry for Astbury’s quasi-spiritual growls and yelps. “Mirror” is followed by the densely riff-heavy “A Cut Inside”, a buildup that introduces you to the side one’s finest song, “Vendetta X”. Here, Astbury and Buffy can tap into that old chemistry that helped make the Love album a college radio favorite, with pulsating synthesizer rhythms thrown in for good measure. Side one concludes with the single “Give Me Mercy”, a rather bleary attempt to grab the listener by the collar, commanding, “Give me mercy / Love will find you / Give me mercy / A new language.” Somehow, it just doesn’t feel appropriate.

Under the Midnight Sun’s second half is sturdier overall, though it lacks the first half’s proportions of highs and lows. “Outer Heaven” features a coda roughly two minutes from the end that is debatably more satisfying than the song itself. “Impermanence”, an ode to something “broken and beautiful”, is a self-assured uptempo number that clears the way for the dramatic title track that closes the album. Duffy throws in the occasional odd chord amid what might usually pass for a predictable arrangement.

Complete with soaring guitar lines and orchestral swells, it’s outdone by “Knife Through Butterfly Heart”. At six minutes and four seconds, it’s the longest track here, and does it ever take advantage of its length. The kaleidoscopic psychedelia of the song’s first two minutes, where Astbury softly mentions his shattered crown, is abruptly shoved aside for a bottom-heavy riff from Duffy. Strings are present again, even though things are a whole lot less pastoral this time around. “Love is all around / All around is love!” Astbury belts over the menacing roar before Duffy takes over with one of his solos straight out of the Sonic Temple sessions.

It’s rare that a band that has been around as long as the Cult should continue to avoid narrowing their focus, but there’s also something refreshing in the way Astbury and Duffy continue to drift between approaches and producers nearly 40 years after their first album together. Are the two on a never-ending quest to never be fully satisfied with their art? Or is it a case of late-onset ADD? However the Cult cultivate their energy, Under the Midnight Sun sits somewhere below their most essential albums while looking down on their more awkward moments. Face it; it’s more fun to count the small blessings than grumble over faded glories.

RATING 6 / 10