Sunday, 20 May 2018

Sonic Temple - The Cult

Provenance: I heard 'Fire Woman' on the radio one time and really liked it.

I've always been irked by the very existence of The Cult as it's prevented me from referring to the superior Blue Oyster Cult as anything other than 'B-O-C'. That, and that stupid 'She Sells Sanctuary' song.

Review: Emblazoned on the back of the album, in a typeface barely smaller than that used for the track listing, is notice that Sonic Temple is produced by Bob Rock. More commonly associated with Metallica's breakthrough into the commercial stratosphere, Sonic Temple almost feels like a warm-up to the monster albums Rock would helm (before, latterly, riding the desk for much of Michael Buble's career).

Although Metallica was a massive seller, metal fans are still torn over its merits and demerits. I've heard it dismissed variably as lightweight, mid-paced and aimed squarely at the casual listener, none of which I can particularly disagree with. But, as in the classic job interview scenario, it's exactly those seeming weaknesses that Metallica parlayed into strengths. I still don't rate it much as an album, but I can see clearly why it still pumps out of the car stereos of soccer moms the length and breadth of the Midwest.

But what's all this got to do with Sonic Temple? Well, because to these ears it sounds like a blueprint for Rock's approach with Metallica. A thick sound, big basic riffs, nothing sounding too busy or elaborate, songs all played at a mid-paced tempo. It's as if the lessons about producing an expansive, back-of-the-hall sound from Simple Minds' 'Don't You (Forget About Me)' were coupled with Mutt Lange's insistence that Def Leppard stripped down their riffs to the bones on Hysteria. The result is something that is digestible, radio friendly, chunky and, dare I say it, a touch cynical.

That's not to say Sonic Temple doesn't feature some good music. The opening one-two punch of 'Sun King' and 'Fire Woman' is pretty spectacular. These two songs loom out of the speakers, huge slabs of stadium rock with insanely catchy hooks. 'Fire Woman' in particular is an absolute stomper. This approach is also evident on cuts like 'Sweet Soul Sister' and 'New York City', where any pretence towards sophistication is sacrificed on the altar of simplicity. There's always been a place for big dumb rawk, as AC/DC could attest to, but here the grit and grime has also been cleared away in favour of a polished, layered sheen. And it mostly works. Hell, 'Soul Asylum' even gets away with a single note intro, that sounds like someone attempting to play Led Zeppelin's 'Kashmir' for the first time, and it still works.

However, Sonic Temple is only a qualified success. Let's revisit 'Soul Asylum', because after it actually does develop into a crappy version of 'Kashmir', things get even worse when Ian Astbury, hitherto one of rock's most preposterous popinjays, opens his fucking mouth. "Who - would break - a butterfly - on the wheel?" he emotes, before beginning another verse with "Who - would crush - this woman - underfoot?" Give me a fucking break, dude. I actually like Astbury's voice - it's distinctive, with a bit of yelp and swagger to it, but his delivery can certainly tip over into the histrionic and hammy (which is precisely why he fronted a latter-day version of The Doors, right guys?). But goodness me, some of those 'yeah-yeahs' he uses as punctuation get old fast.

The other big criticism I have is that Sonic Temple is two songs too long. Had the album stopped after 'Soldier Blue', I would've been much more hearty in my acclaim. "It's only two songs, you jabroni" I hear you say and yes, I dig, but in this instance it's more than a minor hitch. Given the absolutely unvarying tempo of the album, that final eight or nine minutes slides the experience over from rather enjoyable to a bit fatiguing. It's not that either 'Wake Up Time For Freedom' or 'Medicine Train' are bad songs per se, (though they both teeter close to the edge of acceptability), but these two constitute the sequencing equivalent of the mid-gig drum solo; you're looking at your watch and waiting for something more interesting to kick into gear, which in this case means putting on another album. Christ, 'Soldier Blue' is perfect to end on; ever since I read Simon Reynolds' (excellent) Shock and Awe I've been listening out for glam's influence on the rock music that came afterwards, and the mighty Glitter Band style drumming on this track is a prime example. Compared to the rest of Sonic Temple it even does something slightly different with the rhythm! Call it a day when you're on top!

Listening to this album for this blog has been fun, yet I genuinely had to blow dust off the CD box. I think I know why. Although I'm the mad king howling on the moor about the devilry of shuffle play, this is the perfect album to be mixed in to playlist. A lone track here and there, especially if it's 'Fire Woman', sound stunning. Two or three together are cool, you can drive to the supermarket to that kind of jive. The entirety of Sonic Temple in one sitting is, alas, a bit too much. It commits a cardinal sin of popular music, which is through precision-engineering and a dearth of variety, it becomes a wee bit boring. Oh, and that hokey blues intro to 'Medicine Train' is so bad as to be funny, worse than the bluegrassy bit that kicks off Warrant's 'Uncle Tom's Cabin', and that's saying something.

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