|Side One:||Side Two:|
"Nirvana" opens the album with a simple drumstick count from Mark Brzezicki (of Big Country), but Billy Duffy (though still credited at this time with the more officialese William H. Duffy) fans out a single chord from the guitar with the immediately pulsing bass of Jamie Stewart, Brzezicki now matching that pulse with hi-hat and off-beat snares. Duffy slashes guitar melody over this, big and broad, Ian Astbury descending from above with some simple "Oh, oh, oh yeah!" that seems to turn the band toward the verse as a whole, Brzezicki now embracing primarily snare and bass kick, Duffy's crunchy riffs muted but escaping at the end of each of Astbury's lines. Astbury's voice is broad, wide and big, in keeping with Duffy's guitar stylings, gnarling up in their unmuted freedom with a hook of a riff that builds up the tension--"And when the music is loud", Astbury sings, and then it is just that: the initial melody was that of the chorus, and now his voice soars over the riffs Duffy started the album with, but held back a bit to let Astbury control that chorus like nobody's business. At the midpoint, a start-stop bridge, emphasized largely by Brzezicki's drums, but sounding best in the slippery, open riffs of Duffy. Billy goes into a coiled chug of muted riffing with the most delightful little branches of released strings that slowly manages to morph into a rising, rising, and rising solo that eschews the sense of "show-off" completely, being utterly appropriate for the song's movement.
"Big Neon Glitter" is not bright and sparkly as one might think, single-picked, muted guitar strings with relatively light distortion echo just slightly, and are undercut by a sliding bass from Stewart that seems to fade down as it slides off of its notes, Brzezicki rolls into snare and bass hits, which slowly increase Duffy's confidence, finally cementing it with a snare build that releases the strings, putting the same riff into a more complicated pattern, one that makes use of open strings for space,. Brzezicki, too, opens up, pounding the skins with a more primal--though just slightly restrained--force, before Duffy reaches into the heavens with another shining, high progression. "Drag me back/Drag me back drag me back drag me back" Astbury enters to say, seemingly repeating himself in a sense somewhere between hurrying the slow-moving and sinking into relaxation. Duffy's guitars become more spaced apart, Brzezicki pushing the song forward, but Astbury making his notes count at the speed he feels appropriate, which isn't always the tempo Brzezicki is setting. The bridge sees Brzezicki putting four on the floor, Stewart's bass sliding up forcefully then back down with energy expended, Duffy's guitar running tight circles around the rhythm section, Ian only briefly fading in with rhythmic vocalization that leaves as fast as it comes.
"Brother Wolf; Sister Moon" is the most explicit acknowledgment of the Native American aesthetic Ian favoured (actually, I think he still favours it). Duffy plays a low, arpeggiated chord over and over, joined subtly by bass kicks from Brzezicki, but most apparently by the flickers of mournful wailing that come from another of his own performances. It's the kind of track you'd at least half expect to half spoken word lyrics, but Ian continues to make the most of his voice, his lyrics not even going in the story direction you might expect from the music and title, instead running on his favoured approach of a set of lines that are repeated in a fashion that is not always distinctly verse-chorus-verse. "And blow my fears..." he pauses, then sings "...away," and Brzezicki drops his drums more strongly into the track--still a simple, steady and slow beat, but the snare drum echoing, and Stewart's bass quietly rising up to join it in volume, too. It's a hypnotic track, a slow fuse, but a burning one; when Duffy takes up the reins from Astbury and begins a solo that doesn't much violate the song's tempo, he doesn't take that fuse and explode, so much as burn it brighter, Stewart's keyboard part adding the most expectation to the track, high in the track and repeated with a melody that implies an eventual release, Ian repeating his lyrics before he pauses again, this time his word returning the song to its origins, a recording of an actual thunderstorm blanketing the track in one of the most musically appropriate moments for one I can recall.
Released as a single shortly before the album itself, "Rain" riffs more like "Nirvana", though the steady four-on-the-floor from Brzezicki is given a speedy feel by his eighth note responses on the hi-hat. At open, Duffy's guitars play as slowly picked chords on the one hand, but rising wails of lead. Mark releases his grip on the rapid beat slightly when the introduction ends, though, a subtle tambourine maintaining the eight notes, but most of the beat stuck to bass-snare-bass-snare pulsebeats. Duffy's lead fades for the verse, his riffing turning to partly muted chugs, that open back up (though quietly) with Ian's voice, which leaps along the tops of Billy's high-reaching chorus lick. The return of the rapid opening beat allows Stewart's bass to make itself known, before it gives way to the martial drumming of Mark and the shattering, tightly knit riffs that launch the song back into its chorus as the song finds its close.
Wah-wah is the order of the day in "Phoenix", apparently a technique Billy picked up simply because there was a pedal in the studio, and not one he normally kept in his repertoire. He lays down a warbling riff, to which Ian replies "Yeah!" and Brzezicki adds a pair of kicks and then a steady beat to. Duffy's lead burns off into the atmosphere and leaves behind a more restrained riff that mirrors Stewart's bass, before it finds itself unable to be controlled and begins to spiral out from that simpler base, as Ian repeats "Fire, fire, fire..." in a way much calmer than he would do a few years later in "Fire Woman". The wah allows Billy to wrestle out a song-length lead that gets neither boring nor too showy, and never stable and repetitious. It gives the whole thing a sort of "tougher" sense, not quite aggression but just pure strength.
"Hollow Man" is built on a steady foundation of Stewart's bass, one that ties down the free-floating riffs of Billy just long enough for Brzezicki to wrest control away and pull Duffy back down to earth for a riff that locates Ian's voice and brings the song into a more distinct form that it carries onward. While a few songs on the album have backing vocals, they are most apparent here, in the only instance where they are the voices of Duffy and Stewart, echoing the words of Ian, at a vocal expression more of us can wrap our heads around. The lead riff Duffy follows with is like a rising flame that burns the rest away to leave nothing but a slightly tremolo-quivered ringing chord, and a bass-kick, snare-rim tap, which is itself burnt away with that same flaming riff, and leaves the verse's structure intact in its wake instead. Billy's lead begins to become wiry and aggressive in its bonds to the rest of the song, fighting more and more until the final beat of the song is let go.
Downtempo in a style very different from "Brother Wolf; Sister Moon", "Revolution" has a thumping bassline and another of the more steady beats Brzezicki lays down. Duffy's guitar is relatively subdued, though it doesn't starve for volume or presence. Ian is similarly restrained: not quiet, not restricted in power, but kept at a reasonable medium largely, though his singing style doesn't lend itself significantly to this approach and he throws a few tricks in here and there. At the chorus, though, he sings out into the distance, "There's a revolution!/There's a revolution!" with a kind of clenched-fist passion, though he spends most of the verses questioning the nature of revolution, the meaning of images, and the strength of either. It's anthemic in an entirely different sense form "Nirvana" or "Rain", which is exemplified in the deliberate pace of Duffy's solo--it's a fist raised more in solidarity, a glimmer of hope in rain, than it is a fist raised to punch at the air, or as a symbol to represent an undimmed effort despite exhaustion. The Soultanas (who are responsible for the album's other backing vocals) appear with choral "Ahhs" and repetitions of the title word, all of it seeming to imply a non-specific revolution--not a theme song for a particular one, or maybe even any of them, yet not far off in tone from what one might be.
"She Sells Sanctuary" is a track the band was originally inclined to omit from the album, as it was released months earlier as a single, and was recorded with their then-drummer Nigel Preston, whose undiagnosed mental illness left him out of the band due to increasingly erratic behaviour. It's chopped down from the lengthy runtime of the single (6:59 to 4:22), but still has a big sound that belies its comparatively short running time (it's also now the second shortest track on the album, after "Rain"). The watery, ethereal guitar that starts it turns quickly to the burning rock of the song's primary riff, which is expanded by the use of a clean guitar's sound on the same riffs. Ian's voice is in top firm, his mouth, his lungs open wide for every word. Nigel's drums are steady and consistent, as is Stewart's pulsing bass, but the Billy and Ian trade their energies throughout, soaring vocals for soaring leads, occasionally overlapped but never treading on each other. It briefly morphs into a vaguely psychedelic passage backed by steady 4/4 kicks, but it finds itself immediately becoming a final anthemic run through the verse and then a slow devolution into that watery opening guitar again.
The rapid song-end strumming that opens "Black Angel" is a complete distraction from what it becomes, a more clearly defined but still rapid riff is suggested, but replaced with a sped-up funereal clean guitar line that the distortion matches in volume, melody and rhythm. Reverberating chords let ring at the beginning of each measure suggest a desert's desolation. Ian sings at his most gentle and quiet, but the kicks Brzezicki places behind him open his voice: "It's a long way to go/A black angel at your side"...it's a chorus that trudges with its words--it's a long way to go, his voice says, not suggesting giving up, even sympathetic, but not just stating the facts, though maybe with a hint of confidence in the ability to finish the trip anyway. Of course, this is a trip with death, if "black angel" didn't make that clear enough, the line is sometimes clarifed to "The reaper at your side", nevermind "Journey on to the eternal reward". It's the theme of a journey, too intimate to be relegated to soundtrack status, but it would not be out of place there all the same--a cloaked figure pushing on through winds and sand, the hazy mirage of a black angel waiting off to the side. Brzezicki turns to a martial beat, implications of a steady march, and Duffy lays it over with his prettiest lead, which weaves around keys from Stewart, the mournful sound of a long journey that nears end but is still far off enough to be distant. "It's a long, long, long goodbye" Ian begins to sing, and then it all wraps suddenly.
If you're wondering, the symbols next to each song's description are those that are placed in the back cover's tracklisting, as well as interspersed in the lyrics. If you actually blow up the picture of the cover in my hand, you'll find that, oddly, the two sides are "reversed": Side Two is above the central Cult wings, just below the band's logo, and Side One is below and above the album title. Oddly, the back cover also shows the symbols in a row--and they're reversed in the same fashion. Other pressings undo this choice, but I'm left wondering if it was intentional or accidental. I also wonder a bit if the symbol for "Hollow Man" is intended for "Black Angel", though there are certainly enough death symbols in Egyptian mythology that that might be one as well (it's not one I can place, so I'm not sure, myself--and perhaps it's not so obvious as that). Each is of course drawn in the oblong shape that indicates a cartouche--but more than one is clearly taken from other cultures (a yin/yang appears in the one for "Revolution", for instance).
The Cult has an interesting sound, and they've got a weird reputation. All the reviews included in the Omnibus edition prattle on about how they seem to be trying to bring back the '60s, and other such tripe, and use this "against" them, despite the fact that it is not inherently good or bad, and Billy himself comments on realizing this, saying that he learned that Pete Townshend, for instance, was not automatically a boring old dinosaur just because Steve Jones (of the Sex Pistols) said he was, and that he had to "unlearn" a lot. I found all of this quite endearing: I've never been one to truck much with the reaction of punks as purely relevant to all music, much though I appreciate the shakeup--music can always use that.
What they actually sound like, though, is vaguely influenced by their imagery and their name: it's music that carries on long enough and in fashions that use enough repetition that it could easily be thought of as mantra or chant, the kind of sounds and words that could fit with a darkened room lit only by large flames--not as a means of pretension or silliness, but as the right atmosphere for the sound. And sometimes it's too big and loud and janglingly bright to fit in that space, but it seems right anyway.
Indeed, this seems to be why "gothic rock" is attached to them as a label, at least in their early days (notwithstanding lingering associations from prior incarnation Southern Death Cult, which is a pretty cool name, you have to admit)--but they're often pictured at the time (including inside the gatefold) in endless necklaces and paisley for Duffy, or the same excess jewelry and a leather jacket for Ian. There's a sort of flowingness to their aesthetic as people that gives an oddly believable metaphysical sense to their image and sound. Astbury's lyrics help this, but most importantly, none of it comes off as contrived or overtly naïve, it just comes off as aged, goth-y mystics who like to play rock. That might sound silly to some, I suppose, but it tends to work quite well for me, considering how they carry it off--neither taking it too far, nor seeming to chafe at its implications.
It's nice, if nothing else, to see a band that is willing to create their own sound, not deny the past, and still come out of a scene (and a label) more known for the peculiar and "arty".
- Next Up: The Cure - Seventeen Seconds