One Door Closes, Another One Opens

In 2001, Mark Wahlberg appeared in an eh-okay movie called Rock Star. Based on the real story of a guy who temporarily took over for Rob Halford in Judas Priest, it was a meditation on what happens when someone who dreams big gets a chance at the big time, finds it wanting, and returns to home and hearth (or TV and the local bar, in this case).

Perhaps not so oddly, this scenario proceeded to play itself out more recently with none other than the Doors, when Ray Manzarek and Robbie Krieger decided to give a young singer a shot at replacing the rather-long-dead Jim Morrison in a train wreck of an outfit that, after some initial use of the original name, finally settled on Riders on the Storm for concert billings. Except that said young singer was well into his 40s, named Ian Astbury, and had already had plenty of hits with his band the Cult. Exactly how desperate does one have to be to join a glorified tribute band—and featuring some clearly desperate original members at that—that combined the worst impulses behind INXS' attempt to recruit a new lead singer with the interchangeable "supergroups" of recent years like Audioslave and Velvet Revolver?

Astbury has since come to his senses, and the Cult are back once again, having been touring off and on since last year and with a new album, Born Into This, due in October. But somehow Astbury's quixotic attempt to claim the crown of the Lizard King is part of the often mind-boggling, weirdly fascinating appeal of the Cult, a band that's always revolved around one key partnership: Astbury's bravura halfway-to-Tarzan vocals and guitarist Billy Duffy's worship of the almighty riff. It's the one consistent element in a career that has embraced the sublime and the ridiculous in equal measure. One second the Cult'll be Robert Plant and Jimmy Page in excelsis, the next second they'll be worse than Keanu Reeves backing Corey Feldman. But anyone who's followed them over the years wouldn't have it any other way.

Part of the Cult's on-again off-again spark is how they always seem to be in the wrong place at the right time. When their second album Love was released in 1985, most of the kudos for ringing, post-punk, epic guitar melodies went to U2 instead. Undaunted, the Cult found a champion in producer Rick Rubin for their 1987 album Electric, embracing AC/DC's tautness in an open allegiance with heavy metal—but Appetite for Destruction came out later that year and overshadowed the Cult and nearly everyone else. They went for full-on bigger-than-Zep/bigger-than-God worship on 1989's Sonic Temple—pity that they then found themselves on tour with Metallica. Then when they put out their most overblown and horrific release in 1991, the dead-on-arrival AOR booshwa of Ceremony, they not only had to face the return of both Guns N' Roses (who had already taken their previous drummer) and Metallica, but a little something called Nevermind. Ever since then, not-that-great Cult albums sneak out every so often to lots of hype and general indifference, reunions happen and fall apart, and one more attempt at the brass ring occurs.

And yet. The thing about the Cult is not that they're bad, nor simply that they're unlucky: It's that they're so often great it makes their missteps all the more glaring. When Astbury and Duffy put it together right, they are unstoppable, and any of the band's hits collections provide all the evidence one needs. Their first truly monumental single, "She Sells Sanctuary," is—almost 25 years on—still a swooping, storming masterpiece that packs in everything available at the time: psychedelic queasiness, danceable drive, air-guitar-inspiring triumphalism and straight-up lyrical love and lust. Electric's "Love Removal Machine" isn't as powerful in retrospect as it seemed at the time, but it's still a brisk bit of raunch that packs a lean, wiry punch, while "Fire Woman" essentially rewrites the elements of "She Sells Sanctuary," but gets away with it. Meanwhile, shortly after Ceremony's stumbling punch, "The Witch" surfaced on Songs From the Cool World soundtrack and turned out to be their unheralded masterwork, a frenetic, compressed growl of industrial funk with such a tight groove that it's a wonder nobody's sampled it yet.

Anyone attending this latest version of the Cult is ultimately taking a chance—there are no guarantees with Astbury and Duffy and whomever else is along for the ride, especially not now. But if the stars are right, they'll put on a show so tremendous that that little Doors dalliance will be forgotten—and rightly so.



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