The recent success of ‘Hidden City’, the excellent new album by The Cult, has prompted a revisit to their back catalogue for the second in the series of Overlooked or Underrated. Most of The Cult’s work has got the treatment and reviews that it deserved, but their self-titled sixth studio album, also known as the ‘Black Sheep’ album due to the cover art, is the one from their back catalogue that is constantly overlooked, even by the band themselves. Only two songs, ‘Gone’ and ‘Star’ have been featured with any regularity in their live set and only the much maligned ‘Ceremony’ album has been ignored on a similar scale. ‘The Cult’ was released to almost universal indifference back in October 1994, so what went wrong?
The relative failure and black sheep status of the album can be summed up in two words – Grunge and Britpop, which is pretty ironic considering their oft cited influence on grunge. Even so, Billy Duffy and Ian Astbury had never really fit into a scene, though they’d garnered their audience from the Goth rock crowd and had achieved notable success with their own brand of hard rock; total album sales running into the millions. However, with the reshaped musical landscape they basically became a band adrift, their sound not really striking a chord with anyone outside of their own fanbase and their creative direction moving away from more traditional rock influences not being well received by die-hard fans. They weren’t grunge, they definitely weren’t Britpop and now they weren’t even metal anymore, but when you listen back to the album it really does rock and there is a lot of really accomplished work on offer, it just didn’t exactly fit the time. It is telling that Hidden City probably has more in common with this record than any other releases in the Cult’s extensive catalogue, being that both find the band writing meaningful songs that push them out of their musical comfort zone.
The songs on ‘The Cult’ are among the most personal the duo has ever penned, covering issues like Astbury’s experience of sexual abuse, the death of their contemporaries and sobriety. Lyrically speaking, they are at their most sincere and their most offensive, so, maybe, way back in 1994, it was just not the right climate for the record. It seems strange, however, that the band should distance themselves so much from such a brutally honest record – there are several quality tracks here that have never been played live. Ok, it is by no means a perfect album, but there is plenty of quality material and repeated listens reveal it to be a record of depth and intensity with some genuinely killer moments; Bob Rock‘s crisp production as impeccable as ever.
‘Gone’ opens the album to a bass riff and touches of piano, before exploding in uncharacteristically angry fashion, immediately showing a different side to the band. Damn this song burns! Surely rating among their finest, it is the one track still getting regular live outings. The following track, ‘Coming Down’, is much more disposable but it’s got groove and a killer hook to the tambourine fueled chorus. It is in similar vein to ‘Star’, a track left unfinished from the ‘Sonic Temple’ sessions, which also explores an industrial dance groove, a sound they’d flirted with on ‘The Witch’ on ‘Pure Cult’, but never quite managed to fit. Nevertheless, it’s a good tune with a wonderfully rough edged vocal and is the only other song on the album to have graced repeated set lists.
The first half of the album is probably the stronger, the seriously underrated ‘Real Grrrl’ boasting an emotionally charged performance from Astbury, while the guitar lines have more than a taste of early era Cult. Then there’s the brooding ‘Black Sun’ and the slick bass groove to ‘Naturally High’ featuring some lovely understated guitar from Duffy. It is ‘Joy’ however, which ranks as one of The Cult’s most criminally overlooked songs. It has a dark energy in the abrasive riffing and a powerful intensity to the bridge/chorus, while the organ riff lends an air of modern day Doors; killer.
The second half features some of the more throwaway songs, like the straight up rock n roll of ‘Be Free, which doesn’t really fit with the vibe of the record, and the grungy ‘Universal You’, co-written with The Mission‘s Craig Adams to the loud-quiet-loud formula, though not quite nailing it. It’s not that either of these tracks are bad, they just fall a little short and maybe could’ve been saved for b-sides.‘Emperor’s New Horse’ is another that starts out not really firing on all cylinders, but it’s saved by a killer hook and works within the context of the record.
‘Sacred Life’ and ‘The Saints Are Down’ however, count among Astbury/Duffy’s most atmospherically reflective work. The former, is a sincere tribute to souls the world has lost, and is easy on the ear, while the latter is a slow burning ballad with a heavy dose of hard rock intensity. I love tracks like these and at a different time and in a different context they could’ve become Cult classics.
All told ‘The Cult’ is a vastly underrated album, which today would easily be an eight out of ten and even the band themselves should maybe give a second chance. Astbury is on fine vocal form throughout, stretching his voice way beyond the norm, while Duffy`s guitar playing is sublime as he shows off the versatility that gives them so much depth. There is more than enough killer material on this record to keep any fan of quality rock happy; definitely worth another listen.