Mick and Keef, Robert and Jimmy, Steven and Joe...all great rock bands seem to be built around an iconic vocal-guitar duo and this writer surmises that the Cult are no different, as singer Ian Astbury and guitarist Billy Duffy valiantly charge into their fourth decade of bringing the rock with their tenth studio album, Hidden City.
Of course, not everyone is as familiar with the Cult's musical legacy as they are with the aforementioned legends of rock and, well, the loss is ultimately theirs. as Astbury and Duffy are every bit as capable of creating a tumultuous racket capable of shaking even the most immovable ass.
Thing is, while the band has never shied away from cranking it all the way to eleven, the age of grid-based digital recording has served only to shake the band's ramshackle beauty from the proverbial tree, leaving behind a handful of ambitious, but ultimately generic albums that began with 2007's Born Into This, which sounded more like Velvet Revolver than an English goth-rock band responsible for such recognizably iconic cuts as "She Sells Sanctuary", "Revolution" and "Rain".
Thus, remaining a fan of the band has meant doing so while also watching them make decisions that seem to run counter to what are their true strengths. This began on 1987's Electric, where the band abandoned their atmospheric sound in favor of a no-frills heavy metal approach that sounded almost comically thin at the hands of over-hyped producer Rick Rubin.
Rather than abandon that foray into metal and return to what they do best, the band has continued to live by the idiom that if its good enough for Metallica, it's good enough for them. By that, I refer to one Bob Rock, who produced the band's 1989 effort Sonic Temple as well as the band's new effort.
Much like fellow mega-producer Robert John "Mutt" Lange, Rock tends to approach working with a hard rock band as a challenge to see if he can round off all of the band's rough edges, thereby creating an overly-precise final product that appeals to the masses while infuriating the band's hardcore fans.
Rock, truth be told, is much more effective as a producer when he's working with the likes of Tal Bachman or Nina Gordon, whose "She's So High" and "Tonight And The Rest Of My Life", respectively, remain some of his best work.
Here, the producer's first mistake is placing Astbury's vocals so far up in the mix, thereby undoing any sense of atmosphere created by the music. The Cult have always been at their best when Ian's vox are co-mingled with Duffy's ringing guitars and adorned in just enough reverb to make Astbury's high notes just as potent as Duffy's.
Near the end of the album and despite their best efforts not to, the band manages to recall their early goth-rock greatness on "Hinterland", "Deeply Ordered Chaos", and "Avalanche Of Light", but soon runs out of gas.
"Lilies" and "Sound And Fury" close the album in dud-like fashion, completely destroying any momentum the band had built up during its brief return-to-form. As producer, Rock should have talked the boys out of those choices for the greater good.
While not the stunning comeback longtime fans had hoped for, Hidden City isn't a wasted trip by any stretch, but its unlikely to win any new converts to this Cult.