From their blinding ascent in the ’80s to near implosion in the early ’90s which led to their eventual break-up several years later, The Cult have always been a band defying the odds.
Their story of defiance, led by band lynchpins Ian Astbury and Billy Duffy, has seen a creative existence combining the sound worlds of punk, hard rock and goth rock into some roaring theatrical form of journey rock. Their ability to shape shift has seen The Cult glean the vestiges of everyone from the punks and goths to the more user-friendly enthusiasts of rock music. Yes, in their own way The Cult have been an outlier and, by extension, makes them the quintessential rock band of our time.
Careering through decades where their music has been swept up by a new generation of listeners, The Cult have steadfastly maintained their core listenership of the early days. This isn’t some crusty bunch of has-beens on the other side of their creative arc. While the term veteran may be lashed their way (repeatedly), The Cult’s mark across the artistic tapestry is discernible.
And while their last two records may be considered patchy by some, the same can’t be levelled at their latest offering, Under the Midnight Sun. Simply put, it’s the best thing Astbury has delivered since the BXI EP alongside Japanese noise exponents, Boris.
Astbury’s rich vein of storytelling is Under the Midnight Sun’s greatest boon. There’s a lot of talk of heaven, ships of fire, blood of roses (Impermanence), and of course love, as he wails the words “Lost in love’s illusion” during the closing epic title track. Conjuring up mystic, feral imagery that seemingly intersects the past with the present, it all plays out as an epic fantasy presented by one of the greatest vocalists of our time.
Consisting of eight songs, there’s very little fat to trim on Under the Midnight Sun. This is The Cult at their meticulous best, and for a band that has been around for longer than most, this in itself is a feat; most of their contemporaries would care little for quality control. The Cult have never been one of those bands, however.
Opening with Mirror, Billy Duffy’s riffs cut through the atmosphere where Astbury, as ever, soars (“A silence blooms/ The nightbird croons“). A Cut Inside follows and is caked in the band’s staple choruses, which harness that vital, uplifting feeling (“Caught in the light with tears in my eyes” and “No heathens in heaven/No sweet surrender“). It’s vintage stuff from The Cult, underlining the kind of contrasts that Astbury has spent a career emitting from the vocal booths.
“By hook, by claw, we’re gonna take it back,” he sings on the electro-rock odyssey, Vendetta X. There’s a lot at stake as Astbury recounts a story of the protagonist’s struggles, the drama matched with sweeping arrangements that cause an almighty bluster.
Which leads into Give Me Mercy. With a riff possessing the kind of immediacy only The Cult can muster, Give Me Mercy stacks up amongst the band’s finest work. From start to finish, everything about it pulls you into the band’s world, as Astbury’s heat-seeking howl and Duffy’s echoing riff give you that feeling of unabated hysteria.
Part orchestral/part diesel-powered post-punk, Astbury continues to unfurl otherworldly imagery during Outer Heaven (“Embrace the outer heavens/ In a wilderness dreaming”). Together alongside Give Me Mercy, this is Under the Midnight Sun’s finest moment.
And the sea of strings continues on Knife Through a Butterfly Heart and the closing title track. It’s always a great risk when riffs and strings combine, particular for a band of The Cult’s stature, but this is no grandiose exhibitionism. Astbury’s majestic call more than enough quells doubt, and in the case of the title track, it’s a beautiful curtain call to the album.
Whenever there is new music from The Cult, while curiosity may outweigh anticipation, that’s not to say there isn’t some form of expectation. With the amount of new music released every week, it’s not exactly a sin for those happy enough to remain firmly entrenched in The Cult’s past glories.
However, with an album like Under the Midnight Sun, it will no doubt shift this line of thinking, as the band capture a similar vigour that made us fall in love with the likes of Electric, Sonic Temple and, indeed, Love. It’s this reason alone that Under the Midnight Sun stands as is one of great surprises in 2022.
Under the Midnight Sun is out now via Black Hill Records. Purchase here.