Posts Tagged ‘billy duffy’


The Cult: Choice of Weapon

May 22, 2012


I am young again. I am skinny and long-haired and tight-jeaned and cowboy-booted.

This is because in my head, and on my iPod, and in my car stereo, I have Choice of Weapon, the first Cult album since 1989’s Sonic Temple that didn’t make me say “Sure, they’re my favourite band, and it’s good to have a new record, but …”

There are two kinds of Cult albums: Billy music and Ian music. When Astbury has his way, the music is trippy, atmospheric, cinematic. When Duffy forces his hand, the tracks are bigger, louder and more ferocious, all about the riff, with everything else secondary.

Choice of Weapon is the first Cult record in decades that manages to capture both mens’ passions. Not since Love, in 1985, has Astbury’s esoteric snarl meshed so perfectly with Duffy’s Gretsch-grinding guitar work.

The songs on Choice of Weapon remind me most of Love, largely because of the way they insinuate themselves. There are few huge hooks here, but a lot of great little moments, whether vocal or guitar, hidden usually in the bridges of the album’s tracks.

Bombast? Yeah. Lots. The Wolf, Pale Horse, Honey from a Knife, Lucifer and first single For The Animals are raw, raunchy rock, and listening to them offers a glimpse of what 2007’s rushed Born Into This might have been able to achieve.

Turning away from the rough-from-the-floor sound of Born Into This (and, by extension, 1987’s Electric), The Cult has wrapped its tattooed arms around the studio tricks and effects layering that made Love and 1989’s Sonic Temple work so well. There are little reminders, too, like the jukey piano lick in For The Animals, a direct lift from Sonic Temple’s New York City, and little desert-rock tributes to Duffy’s skeleton spider guitar on Dreamtime, the 1984 album that launched the band while also managing to sound like it was made by a totally different crew of dudes.

The desert sound is honest this time around, as the band worked with Chris Goss, frontman of Masters of Reality, a band I like almost as much as The Cult. Goss, who produced Astbury’s slick solo CD (you really should seek it out) is the mastermind behind the Palm Desert scene (Queens of the Stone Age, Kyuss, etc.) and he brings that esthetic to Choice of Weapon in a big way.

This involves envoking big, wide skies, heat, crashing waters and passion, both through Astbury’s lyrics and Duffy’s playing. Astbury is better here than he’s been since the 80s; rougher, angrier, his trademark yelping toned down to something solemn and dark. There are no “Baby baby baby” chants here. “I came to you with love in my heart,” from For The Animals, carries a weary weight that Astbury has always seemed to be trying for. The man has been through a lot, and he finally sounds like the bluesman he’s always wanted to be.

And Duffy … this man can do no wrong on guitar, if you ask me. He sounds amazing even when playing on pure bona fide Cult garbage like Gone (from the band’s self-titled 1994 disc) or Sweet Salvation (from Ceremony, a song I listen to only because my cousin Donny Gerrard sings backup on it, and even then, it’s a challenge). Duffy knows that space can say more than noise, and he knows how to keep it simple, so we get big riffy songs like The Wolf and Pale Rider that have as much air as riffage, and they work.

Rhythm section: This is the first time the Astbury/Duffy team has produced two consecutive albums with the same bassist and drummer. Chris Wyse and John Tempesta know enough to hang back and do what has to be done without getting in the way, and they sound solid here.

Goss didn’t wrap production on Choice of Weapon; the band took the work they’d done with him and paid a visit to old crony Bob Rock, the Canadian pop star, super-producer and all-around cool cat. And it’s that combination, that rare mix of Goss, Rock, Astbury, Duffy, Wyse, Tempesta and, of course, my stuck-in-the-past musical tastes, that makes Choice of Weapon my album of the year. And it’s only May.


The Cult: Still Sonic

June 16, 2011

There’s going to be a new Cult album this fall, two years after Ian Astbury notoriously proclaimed physical media dead before the veteran band embarked on its Capsule program of downloadable/USB stick EPs. I bought the first one, featuring a new song called Every Man And Woman Is A Star, and it rocked. I tried to buy the second but ran into difficulties, which made me wish Ian would re-think his position on actual CDs. Luckily, he now listens to me, and you know why.

My relationship with The Cult goes back to the very beginning, and I stick with them, because they’re my age, and their music reflects what I like, even when it changes, which it does. When I had beads and a crimper, they were playing swirly songs about desert winds and dark nights. Later, when leather happened, the boys re-discovered AC/DC at the same time I did. And in the ’90s, we all cut our hair, bought T-shirts with car logos on them and started thinking Butch Vig was on the right track. By the 2000s, we’d said so long to that crap and just wanted good, solid guitar hard rock, and didn’t mind so much when the old jeans didn’t fit no more.

I’m glad to hear the Cult is returning. Not that they ever went away for long; through decades of infighting, alcohol, mood swings, power clashes and big bad hair, founders Ian Astbury and Billy Duffy have always managed to drift back together. But it occurred to me this week, while reading about the new album, that they’ve managed to stay with a cohesive rhythm section for the first time in their careers — in fact, for the first time, the band will release two CDs with the same bassist and drummer: Chris Wyse (his third tour of duty) and John Tempesta (his second).

Raymond Taylor Smith, Nigel Preston, Mark Brzezicki, Les Warner, Jamie Stewart, Mickey Curry, Charley Drayton, Kinley Wolfe, Craig Adams, Billy Morrissey, Scott Garrett, Michael Lee, Matt Sorum, Martyn LeNoble, Kid Chaos and tons of other characters have been in The Cult over the years, and I didn’t google that — I just know this shit. Craig Adams, in fact, has been in Sisters of Mercy, The Mission and The Cult, which makes him the one-two-three punch of weird ’80s post-punk psychedelic gothic hard rock, and I hope he knows that.

In a recent interview, Astbury said part of the problem over the years was trying to find that connection with a drummer that was lost when the late Nigel Preston was booted for drugs. Preston played on Dreamtime (the band’s first album) and on their breakthrough single She Sells Sanctuary before vanishing into the needle. Astbury, who clearly loved the man, said no drummer, no matter how talented, connected that way again.

Until, of course, the latest lineup, which Astbury pointed out is the most stable the band has ever had. You know, like I did, earlier, before I watched that interview.

Anyway, since the odd homemade Born Into This in 2007, all we’ve gotten from The Cult is some live stuff online, the two Capsule releases and Astbury’s amazing performance on Ghosts, featured on Slash’s solo CD from last year. If the new songs — Every Man and Woman is a Star, Siberia  and Embers — are indicators, The Cult has found a new and interesting position between the hard, hard rock of 2001’s Beyond Good And Evil and Born Into This: eclectic, rhythmic, not too headbangy, and more introspective.

Well, it comes with age.


Music Review: The Cult

June 30, 2009

My good buddy Jakob has just shared a piece of news with me: The Cult will be performing at Toronto’s Massey Hall in September. This has me rockin’ for a few reasons:

  • The last time my favourite rock band performed in Toronto, it was a Thursday night and I had to work.
  • That time was in a club. This time, it’s Massey Hall.
  • The last time I saw The Cult live was 1989, at the Sudbury Arena. Before that, it was 1987 at the CNE Grandstand. It’s time to see Ian Astbury and Billy Duffy and the boys again.
  • This isn’t just a concert: This is a live performance of the band’s pivotal, seminal 1985 album Love.
  • I like the idea of bands playing full albums. Another favourite of mine, The Mission, did it last year in England, saying so long to fans by playing each of their LPs in full over a series of nights. I’d have loved to have been there.
  • The Cult concert is a bit pricey, so I might have to sell a guitar or something.

What can I say about Love? Lots. This was the LP that introduced me to the band, via the still-intense single She Sells Sanctuary. According to my iTunes, it’s the most-played recording on my network. And that doesn’t count the multiple copies of the DVD I burned through. And cassettes. You know what’s on display right above my head, right now, on a shelf? The Love LP gatefold cover.

Love was the band’s breakthrough disc, but it came at a price. The next recording sessions were 1986’s Manor Sessions, which yielded an album called Peace that was never released. Instead, the band scrapped everything, headed to New York and used rented gear to crank out new versions of those songs under the bearded guru guidance of Rick Rubin. That album, Electric, was a radical change, a three-chord frenzy of short sharp shocks that opened The Cult up to a new audience but trampled all over their punky roots.

After that? Sonic Temple was a global megahit in 1989, but Astbury hated its commerciality. The 1991 followup, Ceremony, was the sound of two bandmates hating each other and hating what they were doing, and 1994’s self-titled disc was an all-Astbury experimentation that failed to sell and eventually ended the band.

In 1999, Ian and Billy reformed the group and roared back with 2001’s Beyond Good and Evil. Despite its lack of sales success, it’s still one of my favourite hard rock albums of all time, an underrated unknown gem. After a few years off while Ian fronted The Doors (or whatever they were called), they came back with 2007’s Born Into This, another experiment that came pretty close, but failed, to capture the energy of the early days.

I’m entering my 40s, but I still cling to the music of my teenaged years. Sad, I know. But it’s what resonates for me. And there is no recording that matters more than Love. Let me break it down for you:

  1. Nirvana: Love opens with this searing, soaring guitar workout that captures exactly why and how Billy Duffy changed the sound of alternative rock. Long before he settled back into a career based on fat chunky riffs, he used a Gretsch White Falcon, its body stuffed with spray foam, to heap layer after layer of British buzz over a driving rhythm. Young bands, take note: This is how you open an album
  2. Big Neon Glitter: The Cult has a tradition of opening big, then taking a left turn with track number 2. In this case, Big Neon Glitter is a very different track than its predecessor, and is very much Astbury’s turn to let us hear that epic rock howl. “Sex from the hip at the crack of a whip?” Indeed.
  3. Love: The title track gives it all back to Billy, who may have gone and purchased every effects pedal available in London just before recording it. This is the song I used to use to try to sell my metalhead friends on The Cult, but it rarely worked. My only beef with it is the heavy echo on Ian’s voice; at the time I suppose it worked in the context of Billy’s psychedelic wah-fest, but now it sounds a bit tinny in digital form. But stay tuned. When it comes to psychedelica, Billy was just getting started.
  4. Brother Wolf, Sister Moon: This is a moody, dramatic semi-ballad that highlights Astbury’s over-the-t0p lyrics. He’s often described as writing “enigmatic” songs, but I’ve never thought so. He sings things pretty straightforward, telling you what he’s thinking. And this, despite all the attempts to figure out what the hell’s going on, sounds to me like a young Englishman’s attempt to write about First Nations mythology.
  5. Rain: One of the album’s standouts is also its second single. Duffy dives back into his effects rack as Astbury howls one of his catchiest, most memorable vocal hooks. I also have a 12-inch remix of this called (Here Comes The) Rain which is even better. Buried under the heavily layered mix, though, there’s a chugging little power riff that hints at what The Cult would evolve into in the future.
  6. The Phoenix: Side 2 (yeah, I still think of albums that way) opens with Duffy’s most sinister guitar work yet, a twitching wah-wah workout that sounds like the soundtrack to a  movie about punk rockers in hell. This is the song that most sounds like something a band called The Cult would record.
  7. Hollow Man: Here’s my least favourite song on the album, and I often skip it. Again, this is Astbury indulging his literary leanings over a track I suspect Duffy churned out in a day or two.
  8. Revolution: The album’s second single was not a favourite of mine at the time. It’s a mid-tempo ballad, very gentle, very subtle. As the years went by, though, and as I got older and stuff, it grew on me more and more. I still listen to it a lot on its own. There’s nothing exceptional about it, really, and I suspect it was released as a single because somebody thought it had commercial appeal. It didn’t.
  9. She Sells Sanctuary: Ah, the big gun. I like how it’s buried at the end of the LP. Sanctuary wasn’t recorded as part of the Love sessions; it was a one-off single recorded with drummer Nigel Preston, who was turfed before the rest of the LP was recorded. I am not going to dwell on She Sells Sanctuary here. It is a perfect pop song, a perfect rock song, and one of the most iconic recordings of the 20th century. I own about 20 different remixes of it, and they’re all fantastic.
  10. Black Angel: The Love album closes with this oddity, a dirge about death. This is a pretty depressing tune, one that sounds the most like the band’s roots in Southern Death Cult. I can guarantee you that it’s never been played at a wedding.

There are several other tunes that sometimes pop up on versions of Love, as well as on the various (seemingly endless) 12-inch remix singles, EPs and 45s: Judith, Sunrise, All Souls Avenue, Little Face, No. 13, The Snake, etc. Of these, it’s pretty clear why they didn’t make the final cut, although Little Face has always been a favourite of mine.

And, like I mentioned, there are remixes galore. The Cult loved to issue extra discs featuring outtakes, new versions, remixes, etc. Back when I still had my Cult collection intact, the LPs took up a whole shelf on my wall: six actual albums, along with four or five 12-inch singles per album … it was insane.

I’m looking forward to The Cult’s show, not just to hear these songs live again — some of them haven’t been played since the Love tour 25 years ago — but to remember what it was like to be a kid in blue-collar Northern Ontario who liked this weird band from England. A lot of my hair mistakes of the 80s can be linked to all of this.

For more on The Cult, check out this episode of Big Bad Hair, featuring Jakob. Jakob can also be found here.