Thursday, 12 January 2012

Southern Death Cult / Death Cult

These are some of the only records that survived the great cull of 2005, when I sold pretty much my whole record collection. I was a pretty huge fan of The Cult when I was a teenager, and snapped up just about everything I could find that they'd ever put out, which obviously included these releases featuring future cock-rocking nonsense-babbler Ian Astbury.

As I've gotten older, the appeal of The Cult has pretty much worn off (with the exception of debut album Dreamtime, which still makes my ears perk up), but I still own just about everything they put out until the 90s on vinyl. Hearing the fucking abysmal late-80s 'Sweet Soul Sister' in a metal bar in Germany prompted me to drunkenly babble about Southern Death Cult for a minute, reminding me that I owned these records, but never really gave them a proper listen at the time. Time to rectify that, I reckon.

The name Southern Death Cult is apparently taken from an obscure Native American tribe from the 14th/15th century, which sounds about right for Astbury, seeing as he's always been obsessed with atavistic mysticism and shamanism, even up until his hero-worship-come-true period in the reformed Doors, where he played a karaoke Jim Morrison for a few years. I'm getting off track a bit, but despite how much shit I give him I do still like Astbury. He's just a bit of a ridiculous figure, an easy target for ridicule.

The record opens with Fatman, a slow-starting barn burner of a song which must have sounded fucking great live, with careening, intricate guitars, pounding tribal drums and anti-capitalist, anti-corporate rhetoric lyrics, which always went down a storm with early-80s punks. What sets this post-punk set apart from the lyrically-similar likes of Discharge and other early-80s UK punk is the ear for a real danceable instrumental melody, and soaring sung vocals, as opposed to distortion and barks.
My horrible 'you weren't there, man' comparison would be early Killing Joke, which is obviously absurd, but they have the same tribal, dancey bounce in their sound. I still wouldn't dance to it myself, but this opener is undeniably anthemic in it's own way.

The next track, The Girl, is introduced by a drum circle stomp, closely followed by guitar lines stolen straight from Roland S Howard's skewed catalogue of 'riffs', but played in a much safer, precise fashion. More hoo-hoo-hoo-hoos in lieu of lyrics make up the chorus vocal, but what lyrics he does have actually SAY something worthwhile, a facet missing after the transformation into The Cult. Astbury's voice has rarely sounded better than on this release, real passion as opposed to just wanky vocal acrobatics.

The other side, Moya, is another slow-building exercise in rythm, excellent musically, but lyrically it's fucking excruciating.
'The kids of the coca-cola nation
Are too doped up to realize
That time is running out
Nagasaki's crying out...'
Eh?! But despite cringing every time he squawks the corporation's name, this is still a great track. The bass bounces and drives, the drums rattle like machine guns, the light, chiming guitars take a back seat in the mix, letting the rhythm section march along in anti-corporate protest. The end of the track descends into what Astbury probably thinks is an accurate approximation of some sort of wardance chant. Hmm.

This anthology, released by Beggars Banquet after the Southern Death Cult had disbanded, collects the bands various radio sessions and live recordings onto one record. It's somewhat cobbled together, and it shows. It also features different mixes of a couple of the tracks from the Moya 12" which sound tinnier and more compressed than the versions on that record.
The tracks from the BBC Maida Vale sessions (All Glory, Today, False Faces and Apache) are a little more spacious sounding than the other releases, the vocals are lower in the mix, allowing the rhythmic aspect of the band to shine.
The Crypt, recorded at Manchester Square, opens with a plaintive piano, and the usual frenetic drumming. The piano features intermittently throughout, and is a nice touch to break up a constant drum/bass/guitar assault. Though the effect is somewhat ruined by the whoops and yeehaas in the background. What the fuck were they thinking, some sort of cowboys and Indians idiocy.

The second side is the live stuff, which benefits from being a little looser production-wise, the band rattling along at their usual frantic pace, Astbury's voice becoming a little ragged around the edges in the live setting. Whats weird about these three songs (Crow, Faith, Vivisection) is that despite being live recording, you can't hear the crowd at all, which makes them sound a little... I don't know. It's just weird. Faith in particular sounds way too energetic for a recording that sounds like the band are playing to an empty room. I don't know why I'm criticizing it so much, these are solid as fuck live cuts, the band sounds incredible. They could recreate the complex guitar lines and drum patterns live, thats for sure.

Death Cult's 'Brothers Grimm' EP follows the breakup of the Southern Death Cult, and besides Astbury features an entirely different lineup, including Theatre of Hate guitarist Billy Duffy, and The Cult's first in a long line of rhythm sections.

Opening with the eponymous title track, this sounds like a halfway point between the short sharp needling guitarwork of SDC and the more grandiose sound The Cult would later embrace. Actually, the little vibrato bends from Duffy's tremolo arm on his big white Gretsch make the whole thing sound almost surf-rocky. I can't believe I still remember so much about this band. This is probably why I failed so miserably academically, my teenage head was filled with all this useless shite.
The drums aren't as imaginative and tribal as they were in SDC, in fact they're downright boring.

Ghost Dance opens with some spooky slow picked notes and chimes and bleeps, before transforming into a rumbling, shuddering beast, with a few more of those surf-rock bends thrown into the pre-chorus. More chanting, wailing nothingwords from Ian.
Halfway through the whole thing breaks down into a pretty standard beat, and an amateur geometry lesson from Ian. This is so fucking weird. It never really regains the momentum of the initial sprint.

Horse Nation would later become one of the first songs released as The Cult, and even a decade after I first heard it, it's still fucking great. The guitars open with an ominous few notes, but when that first riff eventually erupts, they're... this sounds so wanky and hyperbolic, but they're fucking blistering. The drums return the more interesting patterns of the first incarnation of the band. The vocals are soaring. The whole thing has structure, it builds and builds, and there are a few climactic moments of tension and release. I still fucking love this song.

Compared to that, final track Christians just can't compare. By this point, you know what to expect, and you get it. Hard-hitting tomtom beats, winding guitar passages and mystic croonings about some vaguely spiritual something-or-other.

The two 12" singles were released on the now-defunct Situation Two, and have all been out of print for decades now, and I have absolutely no idea where you'd find copies these days. I do know that Beggars Banquet put out the anthology on CD a decade or so back, so that might be your best bet. I acquired all of these back when I had nothing else to do but trawl record stores up and down the UK. Ah, the joys of my (incredibly nerdy with questionable taste in Goth rock) youth.

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