The nineties brought about a plethora of new genres into the world of music. Rave, hip-hop, grunge, and otherwise underground subtypes were springing forth from the ground in a geyser of electric lights and excessive beats. Soon, classic rock ‘n roll was a thing of the past (or at least no longer mainstream). But just a little while before, in the year of 1989, rock had its last hurrah, so to speak. The Stone Roses’ seminal debut, Tom Petty’s multi-million Full Moon Fever, and this: The Cult’s Sonic Temple.
The Cult are a hard rock band – often labelled as ‘alternative rock’ – from Bradford. And though the town of their genesis might not invoke images of pseudo-native Indian imagery and infectious, southern riffs, they certainly did. Evolving from singer Ian Astbury’s previous band, Southern Death Cult, to simply, Death Cult (and later, The Cult), the band originally had an alternative sound, for sure. Dreamtime, their debut, solidified their odd adoration for the native Indian motifs. But soon, their sound went more mainstream – but by no means did it lose its kick.
The Cult struck gold with their second album, Love, released in 1985 and featuring their biggest song by far: ‘She Sells Sanctuary’, as well as the legendary ‘Rain’. Their follow-up, Electric, peaked at number four on the UK chart. But 1989 brought about Sonic Temple, an album that spawned four hit singles (‘Sun King’, ‘Fire Woman’, ‘Edie (Ciao Baby)’ and ‘Sweet Soul Sister’) and went platinum either side of the pond. The production was magnificent, it’s songwriting was at its zenith and the collaboration between Astbury and lead guitarist, Billy Duffy, certainly made for a temple to sound.
The album’s explosive opener, ‘Sun King’, is a six-minute anthem of contagious guitar and non-stop pumping iron. ‘This is where it all ends!’ Astbury announces as the drums crash into you like a locomotive. It’s the type of song that lets you know you were right to buy that old, beaten-up record you found in HMV. It’s impossible not to bang your head and stamp your feet along to the erupting drumbeat. ‘I’m the Sun King, baby!’ Yes, Ian, yes you are.
The almighty roar of hard rock only amplifies, though, as we reach the next big single, ‘Fire Woman’. The opening chords scarcely prepare you for another clattering of British thunder; lead by Duffy’s mastering of the guitar. The chorus latches onto you in a wall of sound, its quality sharp as ever – Bob Rock did an excellent job as producer of this record.
‘American Horse’ never got the single treatment, but it feels like the kind of song you’d listen to as you ripped down the highways of open America, a chugging backbeat to accompany you. Christ alone knows what Astbury is referring to when he chants, ‘He’s gone crazy, completely crazy, tryna train the American Horse!’ but I thank them for this song existing. Without a doubt, one of the best non-single tracks on here.
‘Edie (Ciao Baby)’ is a heartbreaking tale of a runaway girl unable to cope with the world. I think. Either way, its use of violin throughout orchestrates a flawless tone of sorrow and regret. But it just keeps on building, reaching a crescendo of raw emotion. It’s superb. ‘Sweet Soul Sister’ features some of the grooviest guitar yet and proves another example of how much energy The Cult can wring from one album.
‘Soul Asylum’ is a seven-minute tour-de-force of unrelenting rock. Like a storm against the side of windswept lighthouse, it batters at you again and again. It’s a great song, but sadly one of the more forgettable – if possible – of the record. ‘New York City’ provides some faster suspense, belonging in an over-the-top police chase. ‘Hell’s Kitchen is a DMZ…’ is an excellent line.
‘Automatic Blues’ is a great run-of-the-mill rocker that follows the Cult’s leading example of throwing the chorus at you like Duffy himself is launching his Gretsch across the room. ‘Soldier Blue’ is an awesome track too, before ‘Wake Up Time For Freedom’ provides us some rock ‘n roll poignance. It definitely stands out as one of the easiest anthems to headbang to, as well. ‘Medicine Train’ begins with a country western vibe, quickly transitioning into familiar Cult territory, where everything consists of heavy riffs. Sadly, though, it proves to be rather forgettable among the hits and more consistent tracks of …Temple.
Overall, Sonic Temple remains as one of the best, true hard rock albums of our time. The production is magnificent, the choruses are over-the-top, and the riffs are downright dirty. Ian Astbury and co. finessed the golden – nay, platinum – formula when it came down to this, and thank God we still have it all these years later.
But of course, there is another reason why I chose to pluck this record from the vaults. 2019 marks Sonic Temple’s 30th anniversary, and in case that wasn’t already a reason to give this one a spin again, there’s more. The Cult are reissuing the album in a plethora of deluxe formats (whether CD, LP, or even cassette is your bag) and currently on the US leg of their massive A Sonic Temple Tour. They’ll be playing across the UK later this year – where yours truly shall go and return with tales to tell, I’m sure – and if you can, I heartily recommend you get tickets! The Cult are bringing down the house with this album in its entirety, plus all the fan favourites, too.
But if you can’t go, worry not! We still have the album itself, and it’s a bloody good one, at that. Long live The Cult. This is where it all rocks.