If the last two editions of Rock Star (a Making the Band-like TV show) are any indication, one thing can be said about the state of hard rock and metal: Talented, charismatic singers are in short supply. Perhaps that may explain the Velvet Revolvers and Audioslaves (and, if you’re my age, the Night Rangers and Asias) of the world. To many rock fans, a good, road-worn lead singer is worth all the guitar and drum virtuosos combined. Up on stage, the vocalist can’t fake that kind of connection with his or her audience. Part ringmaster and part party facilitator, lead singers are what drive the concert experience and leave the biggest imprint on any rock album.
Bands with singers of this status don’t release albums that often, and so The Cult’s Born Into This, out last October, certainly merits a review. While the title is self-explanatory, the first single, “Dirty Little Rockstar,” eliminates any doubt that this is sleaze rock taken to an almost religious experience.
With a back catalog like the Cult’s, there is no need to introduce the band, but let me try for those unfamiliar: Without a doubt, every shortlist of top-10 rock singers of the last two decades includes Cult vocalist Ian Astbury. If you don’t believe me, ask the surviving members of the Doors, who thought Astbury worthy to sing in the band’s 2002 revival. Like Jim Morrison’s, Astbury’s voice is simply iconic — immediately recognizable — but the Cult has been sorely missed these past few years. Label troubles put a quick and sour end to the last album/tour cycle in 2001 for Beyond Good and Evil, after which Astbury went on to front the reunited Doors. Still, the interplay between Astbury and Billy Duffy (Cult’s guitarist) floats along the same lofty clouds as Jagger/Richards or Bono/Edge, and this music is too powerful to stay down for long. I am glad to say it remains as large-sounding now with Born Into This as it did decades ago with Sonic Temple.
On Born Into This, “Holy Mountain” is an acoustic piece that reflects Astbury’s travels to India and the Himalayas, and the song is as sincere and unrestrained as the rest of the album. As uplifting as it is introspective, “Holy Mountain” can be taken as symbolic of the cycle of incline and decline in Astbury’s life and career. “I Assassin” has a beefy groove to it, and “Tiger in the Sun” soars. “Illuminated” is classic Cult, with a beautiful melody, while “Citizens” updates that classic sound, if possible, just holding back as you expect it to explode. Speaking of which, the addition of John Tempesta on drums works surprisingly well. Coming from the metal world — having played with Exodus, Testament, and White Zombie to name a few — Tempesta’s energy fills in the space around the orchestrated chaos that Astbury/Duffy have created once again.
This is an album to love and make love to, and the Cult a phoenix that, while repeatedly burned, continues to rise.