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The Cult

+ {The Southern Death Cult} + {Holy Barbarians} + {Ian Astbury}

Post-punk goth gods to arena-filling monsters of metal in the space of only a few years, The CULT (and their shamanistic, tattooed leader Ian Astbury) were one of the few acts that could cross-pollenate fans from the staunch punk and metal divisions. While there wasn’t much that could split The SOUTHERN DEATH CULT’s debut `Fatman’ 45 with The CULT’s star-bright single `She Sells Sanctuary’, it was inevitable that their brand of neo-psychedelic classic rock was suited to the burgeoning American market.
Back in 1981, Bradford, England had been the stamping ground for a young Ian Astbury (alias Ian Lindsey), as he formed the enterprising gothic-rock combo The SOUTHERN DEATH CULT. Having spent time in Canada as a kid, Ian had been profoundly influenced by Native American culture, although problems soon arose when the singer felt his pseudo-hippy philosophy and idealisms were being compromised by the group set-up. And that was only after one single, the double-A sided `Moya’ / `Fatman’, which hit the top of the indie charts when released by Situation 2 toward the end of 1982. With guitarist Buzz (alias David Burroughs), bassist Barry Jepson and drummer Aky (alias Haq Qureshi) taking off to form Getting The Fear (and, in turn, Into A Circle) after supporting goth cousins BAUHAUS, the fragments of what could’ve been a mighty act surfaced on summer 1983’s posthumous live and in-session compilation of sorts, SOUTHERN DEATH CULT {*6}; highlights were few and far between, but check out the whooping `False Faces’, the spine-tingling `The Crypt’ and the howling `All Glory’.
Altering their nom de plume slightly to DEATH CULT, and roping in lead guitarist Billy Duffy (ex-Nosebleeds, ex-THEATRE OF HATE), bassist Jamie Stewart (ex-RITUAL, ex-CRISIS) and drummer Ray Mondo (also ex-RITUAL), the 12-inch single `Brothers Grimm’ (b/w `Ghost Dance’, `Horse Nation’ and `Christians’) was to compete with the aforementioned SDC set. Swapping SEX GANG CHILDREN-bound Mondo for the same goth band’s Nigel Preston, `God’s Zoo’ signed off for DEATH CULT, as the same line-up relocated to London in ’84, switching to The CULT moniker for the native Indian-inspired `Spiritwalker’. Moving along the corridor to the snazzier Beggars Banquet imprint (Situation 2 was an off-shoot), Sire Records in America were only too happy to oblige the removal of their indie-gothic tag for proper parent debut album, DREAMTIME (1984) {*7}. Opening with the aforesaid `Horse Nation’ (lyrics verbatim from the book, Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee) and celebrating the Hopi ceremonial tribal dance a la `Butterflies’, the #21 set was primarily down to Astbury-Duffy songs with the exception of SDC’s `A Flower In The Desert’. Also bolstered by the effective `Go West (Crazy Spinning Circles)’, but not the Top 75 breaker `Resurrection Joe’, initial copies of the record came with a bonus “Live At The Lyceum” disc.
The turning point for The CULT came in summer ’85 with the kaleidoscopic intrigue of `She Sells Sanctuary’, a Top 20 platter that fashioned some kind of distinct identity. The subsequent departure of Preston delayed their follow-up set for a few months, while BIG COUNTRY’s Mark Brzezicki filled the vacancy. Veering little from the cascading bombast of the Top 20 single, `Rain’, the mystic schtick of `Brother Wolf; Sister Moon’, `Nirvana’ and `Phoenix’, these songs heralded their brand of metal on Top 5 set, LOVE (1985) {*8}. Finding Les Warner (from JOHNNY THUNDERS’ band) to stir some fresh life into third major hit, `Revolution’, The CULT were now one of the hottest properties to spring from Old Blighty. Astbury’s flowing locks were also something of an anomaly for an “alternative” band in those dark 80s days and, for this, the band were derided in some areas of the music press.
The CULT’s response was to throw caution to the wind and do what they’d probably always secretly dreamed of doing: writing massive, anthemic heavy rock songs. With metal guru Rick Rubin at the production helm, Duffy’s guitar was pushed way up in the mix and the sound generally tightened for ELECTRIC (1987) {*8}. The result: any fans clinging to gothic pretensions were aghast, while Kerrang! readers loved it. Possibly the rock band’s finest moment, the set spawned the booty-shaking singles `Love Removal Machine’, `Lil’ Devil and the AC/DC-riffed `Wild Flower’; hell, it even had a cover of STEPPENWOLF’s `Born To Be Wild’!
Session drummer Mickey Curry in for a sacked Warner (tour addition Haggis/Kid Chaos of ZODIAC MINDWARP also departed), SONIC TEMPLE (1989) {*7} was another heavy rock effort, if a bit more grandiose in its reach. Featuring their hit tribute to doomed 60s child Edith “Edie” Sedgwick, by way of `Edie (Ciao Baby)’, the transatlantic Top 10 record dispensed with psychedelia for hard-crunching, heavy-grinding, back-to-basic rawk; `Fire Woman’, `Sun King’ (also twinned with a re-take of `Edie…’) and `Sweet Soul Sister’ found a heart within the soul of the charts. On all of these cuts, live drummer Matt Sorum (ex-Y TORI KANT READ) would appear and Mark Taylor (keyboards) would flesh-out the sound. When Jamie Stewart bailed in April 1990, a former bassist for BALAAM AND THE ANGEL, Mark Morris, would fill the gap up to October; Sorum was poached by rivals GUNS N’ ROSES, ironically a band who’d supported Astbury and Co in their salad days.
Line-up changes had always dogged The CULT throughout their career, leaving Astbury and Duffy the only original members. Roping in a plethora of session men, including drummer Curry, percussionist Alex Acuna, bassist Charley Drayton, keyboardist Richie Zito, organist Benmont Tench and synth/pianist Scott Thurston, 1991’s CEREMONY {*5} sounded somewhat patchy and listless. Although the record was a relative success in its first month of sales, the poor showing of modest hits `Wild Hearted Son’ and `Heart Of Soul’ (plus Astbury’s ever-increasing fascination with Native American culture), buried it deep among the sands of time. Having already turned down a chance in 1990, to play Jim Morrison in Oliver Stone’s The Doors movie (citing being unhappy with the representation of the iconic singer), Astbury’s career looked to be at a transitional point. Despite a chart-topping compilation album, PURE CULT {*9} selling like hotcakes on the back of a re-issued `She Sells Sanctuary’ smash, the ever-changing group were in no hurry to return from world tours.
Settling with American drummer Scott Garrett and former MISSION bassist Craig Adams, the Bob Rock-produced sixth album, THE CULT (1994) {*4} had its critics tenfold. A “very personal, and very revealing” account of his life, dealing with sexual abuse aged 15 to wasted years spent residing in Glasgow, Astbury was in contemplation mode with no room for commercial compromise. Frustrating for the duelling pair of songwriters, the album suffered even worse than its predecessor, hitting only UK No.21 and US #69, while singles `Coming Down’ and `Star’ were for the avid collector only. Their glory days clearly over, Astbury and Duffy would try other things; seasoned campaigner James Stevenson (live rhythm guitar) wondered why he’d made the effort to join up from GENE LOVES JEZEBEL; he’d return in 2013!
In 1996, Astbury, based in Liverpool once again, was in full flight, fronting a fresh US-biased rock outfit, HOLY BARBARIANS, alongside Patrick Sugg (guitar/vocals), and brothers Matt (bass) and Scott Garrett (drums). Not a million miles from Ian’s main act, mixing up psychedelic 60s sounds, CREAM {*4} didn’t shift many copies. Granted, it was more or less an exercise for the singer to keep his high-octane larynx intact, but material such as `Space Junkie’ (a flop 45), `Opium’ and `Brother Fights’, just couldn’t cut it amongst a post-grunge music world.
The ageing rock warrior IAN ASTBURY finally released a bona fide solo album in the shape of the much-delayed SPIRIT/LIGHT/SPEED (2000) {*4}, a record enlisting former MASTERS OF REALITY multi-instrumentalist Chris Goss on production duties; Scott Garrett on drums. While the lyrical sentiments and mystic overtones remained the same – check out the Che Guevara-style sleeve – the music made a concerted effort to get hip with some pre-/post-millennial industrial angst by way of `Tonight (Illuminated)’, the single `High Time Amplifier’ and a re-vamp of The Cult’s `The Witch (SLT Return)’.
When the long-awaited reunification CULT album, BEYOND GOOD AND EVIL {*6} finally arrived in summer 2001, it came as little surprise that their noised-up approach remained intact. Save for a few nods to their classic late 80s/early 90s heyday (`War (The Process)’, `Rise’ and `Breathe’), the band embraced the harsher sonic climate of post-metal, with Duffy giving it laldy on the distortion pedal. Having said that, old-time CULT fans were placated to a certain degree with the reliable Astbury wail and an obvious reluctance to completely forego the killer hooks which made them so compelling in the first place. Matt Sorum returning on drums, and either Chris Wyse or Martyn LeNoble contributing bass, it gate-crashed the US Top 40, although stalling at a disappointing No.69 in Britain.
Having spurned to be part of a cinematic The Doors a decade ago, Astbury was still a shock choice to front a revitalised DOORS (OF THE 21st CENTURY) – featuring originals Manzarek and Krieger – for major global concerts. Re-named Riders On The Storm, due to obvious conflicting interests, Astbury maintained this course of action for a number of years, only giving way when The CULT (Astbury and Duffy) beckoned once again.
Adding Chris Wyse full-time and hired gun journeyman John Tempesta (ex-HELMET, ex-WHITE ZOMBIE, ex-TESTAMENT, ex-EXODUS, et al), a position in the roster of Roadrunner Records rattled a few cages for 2007’s BORN INTO THIS {*6}. Produced by Midas touch associate Youth (from KILLING JOKE), there were certainly elements of punk, metal, industrial and gothic-glam balladry, unashamedly displayed on `Dirty Little Rockstar’, `Diamonds’ and the crooner-deep `Holy Mountain’.
On the back of bringing back to life their “Love” album on tour, it would thankfully be the same line-up that graced “comeback” album number two, CHOICE OF WEAPON (2012) {*7}. This time powering into the charts on both sides of the Atlantic (released by Cooking Vinyl Records), Chris Goss and Bob Rock worked their magic on Astbury’s shamanistic swaggering and Duffy’s rambunctious riffs. A deeper delve into the Native American and tantric Tibetan cultures, `For The Animals’, `Honey From A Knife’ and the swirling “She Sells Sanctuary”-lite `The Wolf’, were worthy of admission price alone.
Minus bassist Wyse (his studio place taken by filler Chris Chaney: Grant Fitzpatrick on tour), The CULT raised the flag for tribal, neo-hippie hard-rock by way of the Bob Rock-produced 10th set, HIDDEN CITY (2016) {*7}. Top 20 in Britain, but nowhere else in their quest for a convincing third-part comeback, Astbury’s wailing Banshee touches had gone, swamped under a deeper, baritone croon inspired by the Native American spirits or some cosmic karmic colloquy. Closer to SAXON than any goth-rock roots, `Dark Energy’, `No Love Lost’, the piano-led `In Blood’ and the head-spinning `G.O.A.T’, raised any semblance of the once-strutting, cock-sure CULT of old, but who could fault a band now celebrating 35 years in the business… on and off.
© MC Strong 1994-2006/GRD // rev-up MCS Aug2015-Feb2016

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