Live Music + Gig Reviews

The Cult presents Death Cult @ Institute, Birmingham

14 November 2023

A tentative exercise in nostalgia became a showcase of this band’s ability to transcend time, bridging the gap between their roots and the present with honesty and authenticity

The Cult presents Death Cult

The Cult presents Death Cult (Photo: Tim Cadiente)

The announcement that The Cult would be stringing together a run of special shows performing material that they’d only played in their earliest iteration as Death Cult was, understandably, something to get excited about. 

Though the tour was billed as The Cult presents Death Cult 1983-2023, and with many outlets billing this as a tour by ‘Death Cult’, it was clear that they were cheating the brief somewhat, especially as they were playing material from their iconic 1985 album Love (in particular Hollow Man, Rain and She Sells Sanctuary) throughout the setlist. Nevertheless, the quartet, made up of original duo Ian Astbury (vocals and tambourine) and Billy Duffy (guitar), and newer members John Tempesta (drums) and Charlie Jones (bass), were more than up to the immense task of making 40 year old music sound relevant to ears jaded by time.

The band walked on stage with a sharp, overwhelming tang of incense filling the air (old habits die hard) and performed a largely banter-less run-through of material that amounted to their best performance in these parts in a decade or more. 

Where their 2019 Sonic Temple anniversary tour found their divisive frontman Astbury in a combative mood, this was the opposite: a riveting and often emotional testament to the enduring legacy of the band, spanning his own formative years as the founder of Southern Death Cult (their most powerful song Moya was the first song of the encore) through the OG duo’s days as Death Cult and the subsequent evolution into The Cult. The atmosphere at the venue was – pardon the pun – electric as fans followed the band on their journey through the early chapters of their musical odyssey. 

Opening with selections from their Death Cult era, the band transported the audience back to a time before 1984 when the seeds of their distinctive sound were just beginning to sprout. The raw, primal energy Christians, God’s Zoo and Brothers Grimm in particular were incredibly potent – the reedy, tinny sound of the studio recordings beefed up by Astbury’s now-leonine roar (which he adopted sometime around 1987) and Duffy’s chunky, metallic riffage – something one imagines he’d have scoffed at back in 1983. 

The setlist then expertly wove in material from the first Cult album – including Butterflies and A Flower in the Desert, which was performed as a vocal and guitar duet, before a surprise appearance by the band’s original and most fondly remembered bassist Jamie Stewart for an incredible Resurrection Joe and Horse Nation (the latter probably the best thing they’ve ever written).

The final five songs of the main set – Go West, Hollow Man, Dreamtime, Spiritwalker and Rain – may just be the best run of songs the band have performed in these parts since 1985. Truly exceptional. What had clearly started as a tentative exercise in nostalgia became a showcase of the band’s ability to transcend time, bridging the gap between their roots and the present with surprising honesty and authenticity.

As the final echoes of the ubiquitous (but still incredible) She Sells Sanctuary echoed through the venue, there was a collective sense of fulfilment amongst the audience, as though they’d shared something truly unexpected and truly remarkable. At one point in the night, Astbury promised that they weren’t doing it for the money, but for a love of the songs they made as kids. With a performance that majestic, it was easy to believe him. 

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