LP Review: The Cult, ‘Under The Midnight Sun’ – A Sublime Listening Experience

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I can’t believe it’s been six years since the Cult’s last album, Hidden City. As Dylan sang, “time is a jet plane, it moves too fast.” When a band I really like waits that long between LPs, and they all seem to wait that long between albums these days, I worry that my anticipation will get the better of me. Sometimes when we let our anticipation run wild we can be disappointed. I know that happens to my buddy Arkansas Joel every time U2 puts out a new LP, but then they did hit a rough patch there for a while so that’s understandable. The Rock Chick was disappointed with Unlimited Love from the Chili Peppers, released earlier this year but again, that was anticipation fueled by Frusciante’s return. I actually liked that album… But for every LP we’ve been disappointed by there are many albums that utterly satisfy – Ozzy’s Patient Number 9 or Billy Idol’s new EP The Cage were both wonderful recently released albums.

And yet, even knowing the Cult would likely deliver, I too was worried about that old monster, anticipation. My excitement for the new album was given a shot of jet fuel only a few weeks ago when I saw the Cult live here in KC at the Uptown Theater. It was a great, great show. I feared that anticipation would somehow cloud how I felt about the album. Then I saw that the album was only eight songs long. That’s what, barely over a song a year since the last record. I heard rumors that it was all pretty “midtempo” or “monochromatic.” Critics were a bit “meh.” And yet as I’ve spent the last four or five days listening to nothing but Under The Midnight Sun – a title inspired by a show they played in Finland where the sun was up all night – all I can think about the Cult (Ian Astbury, vocals; Billy Duffy, guitar; John Tempesta, drums; and I’m unclear who played bass… Grant Fitzpatrick may have played on the LP, Charlie Jones is touring with them) is “My God, they delivered.” The Tom Dalgety produced Under The Midnight Sun is a wonderful, nuanced, spiritual listening experience.

Inevitably when folks talk about the Cult, they’re thinking of their late 80s heyday when they released a trio of iconic albums: Love (1985), Electric (1987) and of course, Sonic Temple (1989). But back in those days, toward the end of my college party experience and the beginning of my corporate, first job exile in Arkansas, I wasn’t paying any attention to new rock n roll. I was immersed in the past. I was listening to stuff from the 60s (the Beatles, The Band) or the 70s (Aerosmith, Led Zeppelin, Faces, and the Allman Brothers). It’s like I felt I had to catch up on all the music that had passed before I started listening to rock n roll. And admittedly after my corporate masters exiled me to Ft Smith, Arkansas – something I’ve never forgiven them for – my main conduit to new rock was MTV. All hard rock bands basically made the same video so I became numb to the then current music… I should have been paying attention, especially to the Cult.

It wasn’t until I met the Rock Chick that I was turned onto the Cult. The first LP they put out in the new millennium, while I was actually paying attention, was Beyond Good And Evil. My main experiences with their music have been with their latter career. Don’t get me wrong, I love those late 80s masterpieces. I saw them on both the recent tours for Love and Electric when they played those albums in their entirety. But beyond that I have really enjoyed everything they’ve put out since Beyond Good And Evil. To gear up for the release of Under The Midnight Sun I put on Born Into This, not Electric. And so because of that, shall we call it, delayed perspective on the Cult I tend to look at their new albums in the perspective of what they’ve done since 2000 vs what they did from ’85 to ’89. And frankly I think 1991’s Ceremony deserves to be in the conversation as well – it’s a super album but Kurt Cobain and grunge killed everything that came before it including Ceremony.

Yes, I will admit I was disappointed we only got eight tracks on the new album. It is, as advertised, a mostly midtempo experience. There are two wonderful ballads that serve as great change of pace moments. And yet despite any hard rock anticipation I was fostering, I find this music utterly captivating. While the music is immediately identifiable as the Cult it only has echos of stuff they’ve done in the past. I feel like this is new ground for them. I’m like most Cult fans, I’d have loved a screaming rocker like “Dirty Little Rock Star,” or “Rise” to pump things up a bit… or yes a “Fire Woman” would be nice. But that’s just not where these guy’s heads are at. I would have thought they could have pulled a few more tracks together – at least two but I’d have loved four more to get us to 12, the standard CD length – and had they done that and made those additional tracks screaming rockers this album would likely rank amongst their best. In my mind, it still does rank quite highly.

There is a passion and urgency to the songs on UTMS. Billy Duffy is really the hidden star here. His guitar is less aggressive than what I’m used to but his playing is shimmering, smokey guitar riffs and solos. Maybe because half the band was in England and Astbury was in New York there’s a yearning in this music. Although it’s mostly a spiritual or universal yearning. A hope that we can come together on this planet. “Give me mercy, a new language.” That line, “a new language,” really resonated with me. It’s like we’ve forgotten about compassion and love and this music is a spiritual touchstone to guide us back. There is a certain majestic quality to this music that bores into my brain. Lyrically it’s as if Astbury – whose baritone is in fine form, what a voice! – is looking at the universe and needs to express the existential angst. And did I mention his voice? One of the best in all of rock n roll.

There were two songs released prior to the album coming out. I reviewed “Give Me Mercy” already so I won’t beat that horse but the more I hear it the better I like it. As mentioned, the lyric “Give me mercy, a new language, give me mercy, love will find you” is like a lost Buddhist mantra. The second track they put our prior to the album release was “A Cut Inside” which is probably the heaviest riffing, hardest rocking song here. Even I’ll admit it’s more of a simmer than an explosion but I still really connect with this song. It was both great in concert and in the car… some tunes just have to be cranked up while you’re speeding on the parkway… “A Cut Inside” has a soaring chorus, “Caught in a lie, tears in my eyes…” I love Tempsta’s drumming on the track. He now may be the longest tenured drummer in the Cult.

“Mirror” is the opening track and it sets the sound palette for much of the rest of the record. Duffy’s plaintive guitar weaves in and around of Tempesta jungle drumming. Billy plays a great solo on this track as well… Ian’s baritone is sensational, “Love, love, love, forget what you know…” “Vendetta X” may be my favorite track here. It’s got a slightly, dare I say, funky riff/drums thing going on. It’s got a low key intensity and kind of reminds me of some stuff on Dreamtime (for you really long time Cult fans). Astbury keeps singing “Sucking on a dirty blade, fighting over Love and Hate,” and you believe him the way he spits out the words. “Impermanence” is another great track in that midtempo vein. “Outer Heaven” is slightly mellower, but I wouldn’t call it a ballad. It starts with a nice wash of strings. Billy works up a bit of a squall on the track over Tempesta’s now galloping drums. That one ends as almost a religious chant. It’s another highlight here.

As mentioned there are two ballads on the record and they’re some of my favorite moments. “Knife Through A Butterfly Heart” ranks amongst their best ballads ever – right up there with “Edie (Ciao Baby)” and “Nico,” two of my favorites. It’s all haunting acoustic guitar – which we don’t get to regularly hear on a Cult album – and strings. Billy does lay in some nice electric notes weaving around the edges of the track until the end when he delivers the killer solo. It’s another personal favorite on this record. The title track, which ends the album is also a highlight. It’s a very cinematic track. It has strings that had me thinking about James Bond and the Rock Chick thinking about the show Dexter. It also has a lot of acoustic guitar. I’ve heard it described as a “spaghetti Western of a song,” and I get where they get that description. I just think it’s a cool. “Under midnight sun, with creatures of the wild, lost in love’s illusion, all will fade in time.” Damn, that’s some heavy stuff right there.

This is a really great album. Don’t let any of your expectations or anticipation get in your way on this one. It maybe a grower for some people. Put this one on and turn it up, pour something strong and let the lyrics and guitar was over you. It’s not going to rattle your fillings but it may just move your heart. I’m just happy we’ve finally got some new Cult to listen to.

Namaste!

Review: The Cult, Live In Concert At The Venerable Uptown Theater, Kansas City, MO September 27, 2022 – Sensational Show!

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*Photo above of Ian Astbury (vocals) and Billy Duffy (guitar) of the Cult taken by your intrepid blogger

I wish I could capture the elation I feel after a great, great rock n roll concert. I felt like I was walking on clouds as I left Kansas City’s venerable Uptown Theater after last night’s show by the Cult – Ian Astbury (vocals extraordinaire), Billy Duffy (guitar), John Tempesta (drums), Charlie Jones (bass) and Damon Fox (keyboards). I felt even more pumped up than I did after recently seeing Starcrawler live in August and that says something.

I do have to admit, I couldn’t help but turn to the Rock Chick last night and say, “What a difference 4 or 5 months make…” We had seen the Cult previously on this tour, in Denver in May, and it was not like last night. The band was awfully sluggish that night although Ian Astbury worked his ass off to get the crowd into it. That wasn’t the case last night. When this band is on and they all lock into a groove – as they did last night immediately – it’s like watching the Bill Russell led Celtics in the late 50s… (not that I’m old enough to have seen that, I just like the metaphor). Championship play indeed! I was thinking it’d had been a while since I’d seen a band twice on a tour. I used to try and catch the Stones twice or more on their big U.S. tours. I would always try and see Van Halen in both KC and Wichita. I saw Springsteen twice on the Born In The U.S.A. tour. But that was all long, long ago in a galaxy far away. But then I realized I did see Depeche Mode on the Spirit tour in 2017 in both Denver and Tulsa. I am so glad we decided to see the Cult again, it was so much better last night.

I don’t know what it is about the Uptown Theater that seems to bring out the magic for the Cult. It’s where I saw them the first time on the Beyond Good And Evil tour in 2001 and it was one Hell of a show as was last night’s concert. Last night may have been so much better than the show in Denver because admittedly I had much better seats – the 5th row – and that always makes you feel more a part of the experience when you’re that close. The Uptown is a slightly smaller venue than the cavernous Mission Ball Room so that gave it a more intimate feel and maybe the band picked up on that. The stage was smaller so maybe that made them play so tightly. Or perhaps it’s just as Billy Duffy said when he got on the mic after the show, when the band was taking bows, “We’ve got a lot of history in this room.” Billy, I’m just glad to have shared some of that with you!

Make no mistake, this was a great show last night. The Cult, as my friend Stormin’ used to say, “brought down the sky” last night. I don’t know if that was the best Cult show I’d ever seen – it’d be hard to pick just one – but it certainly ranks up there. I really liked the Love tour where they played that entire LP. And yes, I also dug the Electric tour. My first time seeing them, which is always special, at that very same Uptown Theater also ranks up there… While I criticized Billy Duffy’s guitar playing at the Denver show as sluggish, I have to say last night he was on fire. He didn’t miss a note. His solo’s were incendiary.

The Cult climbed on the smokey, incense laden stage a little after 9pm last night. Astbury had a long, baggy black jacket on with a black bandana tied around his head. The bandana was so low it was hard to see his eyes. As the Rock Chick said last night, “It felt like he was always looking directly at me…” The first track of the night was one of my all time favorites from the aforementioned Beyond Good And Evil, “Rise.” While the setlist was very similar to the setlist in Denver, everything just sounded “on” last night. The crowd immediately had their arms in the air. I will say, that was one of only 2 tracks they played that weren’t on their best known trio of 80s LPs Love (1985), Electric (1987), and Sonic Temple (1989). I was late to getting on the Cult bandwagon – it was the Rock Chick who turned me onto them – so if I had any complaint I’d have liked to hear something from this millennium – “Dirty Little Rock Star,” or maybe “For The Animals.” They’ve put out some great LPs over the last 20 years. It’s a shame they skipped over that. Or I’d have been happy for maybe even “Dreamtime” from their debut.

After “Rise” they went into a great 4 song run from Sonic Temple. “Sun King” has always been a favorite and last night’s rendition was sublime. I was thrilled to hear a deep cut in “Automatic Blues,” a real crunchy rocker. Again, Duffy’s playing was on fire. It became apparent to me right off the bat that the rhythm section of Charlie Jones and John Tempesta may be the best the Cult has ever had. I could feel the drums and bass through the sound waves rippling through the legs of my jeans. For “Sweet Soul Sister” they let Damon Fox lead it off with his keyboards and then in the middle of the song he had a keyboard solo that reminded me vaguely of the Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” Ian went on a rap and I could swear he was quoting the Doors’ “Horse Latitudes.” I’m not convinced that having a keyboard player adds much to the Cult – I liked it when they had a second guitarist on stage, but then I like guitar. But admittedly “Sweet Soul Sister” was a cool moment in the show.

After a soaring rendition of “Edie (Ciao Baby)” the band launched into a series of tracks from Electric. “Li’l Devil” is always rocking good fun. They followed that with “Wildflower,” and then another deeper cut in “Aphrodisiac Jacket” (a personal favorite), and finally “Peace Dog.” “Peace Dog” was a real highlight as it turned into a sing along toward the end with everyone flashing a peace sign high above their heads, yours truly included. After the Electric tracks they played one of the new songs from the upcoming Under The Midnight Sun album, “A Cut Inside.” I had only heard it once but will admit I was surprised they didn’t play “Give Me Mercy” which has been out a little longer. Hearing “A Cut Inside” makes me that much more anxious to hear the whole new LP! I will say I feel like “A Cut Inside” is an “ok” track but it didn’t hit me like “Give Me Mercy.”

After an incendiary version of “Fire Woman,” Ian stood up on the riser at the front of the stage, held out his long braided hair and said, “Why the short hair bro’s?” I laughed out loud. Hey, I’d grow my hair long too if it looked like Ian Astbury’s. They then launched into “Revolution” a great deeper track from Love. They ended the main set with two more tracks from that LP, which were both absolute highlights from the night, with “Rain,” and then “She Sells Sanctuary” (my all time favorite Cult track).

The encore was only one song but they made it count with an AC/DC-esque version of “Love Removal Machine.” They stayed on stage to sing Happy Birthday to John Tempesta… they even had a cake for him. Then they announced the band. They seemed genuinely touched by the crowd’s reaction, especially Billy. Billy asked if any of us had been there for their first show at the Uptown… and went on to say it was a GA show, and only 4 people were there… It just felt like a really special show for these guys.

If you’re out there somewhere and the Cult is coming to your town, as I always say, “Buy the ticket, see the show.” It’s worth it, trust me.

Cheers!