There’s a strange tension at the very heart of The Cult, who at this stage are comprised of original members (and primary songwriters) Ian Astbury and Billy Duffy, and hired guns John Tempesta (formerly of White Zombie and Rob Zombie), Damon Fox (of Bigelf) and Grant Fitzpatrick (of Cherie Curry‘s band).
The tension is what has driven the band to massive success (the album they’re touring this go around, Sonic Temple, shifted a few million copies back in 1989) but it’s also what has driven them to be playing these relatively small shows when the bands that The Cult seem to treat as their equals (Guns N’ Roses, Metallica, Nine Inch Nails) sell out arenas and stadiums. Put simply, The Cult have never been entirely sure who they want to be, and as a result have never been entirely sure who their fans are. Their fanbase is a mixture of old goths who got on board in the first two albums, or hard rockers who got on with Electric or Sonic Temple, or either of those two camps that got back on board with their goth-metal comeback, 2001’s Beyond Good and Evil. So since 1989 their fanbase has been split down those lines, and their largely passable records since have suffered as a result. The only time they took a chance musically, in 1994, resulted in a self-titled album that was largely ignored by the wider world, despite its rough charm.
The Cult started back in 1983, in Bradford, playing zippy and energetic post-punk with an exotic Native American twist. But before long, they’d peaked, releasing their iconic Love album in 1985 – and continued to release records to gradually diminishing critical acclaim to this day. However, with Sonic Temple celebrating its 30th anniversary this year – and it being their highest-selling album – they’ve decided to tour the shit out of it, a similar tactic to the ‘heritage album’ tours they’ve done in the past for Love and its hard rockin’ follow-up, Electric.
The bottom line is that The Cult have been going through these motions for over ten years now. They release an album that gets decent reviews, tour that for a year, then look at what their next dollar-chasing heritage tour will be. Ian Astbury, for all his pretentiousness, clearly wishes that their new releases were strong enough to warrant inclusion in the setlists, but the truth is that on this tour they’re yet to play anything from after 2001.
As for the show? It’s fine, you might even say ‘professional’. Of course, Ian Astbury still has some hideous vocal tics that he hasn’t shaken for this tour – most notably that he can only seem to sing one syllable of each word in The Cult’s most famous songs, owing, no doubt, to him completely phoning them in every night. But when he phones them in as well as this, who’s complaining? He’s at his best when they play songs that he hasn’t been phoning in for twenty years, like New York City, Automatic Blues and American Horse (a highlight on the night). With these songs, songs that he’s probably had to relearn, he is full-throated and vigorous – a far cry from his half-arsed versions of their most famous material.
Billy Duffy scowls and preens and prances around, leather-jacketed riff lord once more. He seems to be having fun playing Sonic Temple’s denser, heavier riffage, as a lot of the deeper cuts don’t ever make it onto The Cult’s usual setlists – like Astbury, he seems to be relishing this chance to play some different material. His guitar style was, and remains, completely unique, and his liberal, lengthy solos are proof of how underrated he is in terms of hard rock guitar heroes.
Fox, Tempesta and Fitzpatrick provide little highlights throughout the show – from Fox’s Doors-y organ interludes (a reminder that Astbury has been the singer for The Doors in the past is probably worth mentioning here), to Fitzpatrick’s monstrous bass intro to Sun King, to Tempesta’s unbelievably powerful drumming. They’re consummate professionals, playing a consummately professional show.
So what’s the problem, you are probably already asking? Why not five stars? The answer is, of course, that this is all wrong. Bands playing venues this small should not be playing shows this rehearsed, this sterile. The Cult’s true contemporaries, the bands that they should be aligning themselves with – Killing Joke, The Mission, Gary Numan – have never let themselves slip into doing a Vegas-style revue of previous material delivered in such a sterile way.
Outside the venue, one fan was talking about how good The Cult were at playing material that was over thirty years old, and delivering it exactly the same way, at every gig, since the first time they saw them nearly twenty years ago. That just about sums up everything right – and everything wrong – with seeing The Cult live: if you’ve seen them once, you never need to see them again.