The Cult, Sonic Temple – Retro CD Review

I reviewed the album Love by this band some months ago, and talked about how the band was still in the process of harnessing their sound. 1989’s Sonic Temple was the apex of the band’s popularity, with the enormous success of “Fire Woman” and “Edie (Ciao Baby)”, although their sound had expanded beyond the psychedelic/southern blues-rock synthesis into the realm of arena sounds, although the still maintained their unique outlook on rock & roll. The process of recording this album and the subsequent touring that followed catapulted this band into superstardom, but also ultimately, combined with a family tragedy with one band member, led to the tearing apart of the two mainstays, Billy Duffy on guitar, and Ian Astbury on vocals. This album, however, serves as notice that they were one of the best rock & roll acts in the world, at one point. I will also admit that one my guilty pleasures, when no one is around, is to strap on my Les Paul copy and play along with this album as if I were playing a show with the band; a bit of embarrassing trivia about yours truly.

The first song, “Sun King”, is a grandiose, sweeping rock-opera-worthy piece of music. Never overly complex, never insipidly basic, it is one of the best album starters from the 1980s. I cannot say anything else about it, as Astbury says it all with the opening spoken words, “This is where it all begins”.

The legendary “Fire Woman” is the second track, and if you don’t know this tune, then you ought to be ashamed of yourself, especially if you consider yourself a rock fan. This was a HUGE hit in 1989 and 1990. “American Horse” contains references of Ian’s love for the Native American culture. The inference here is that the American horse of the title is actually the native peoples, and as much as the white man attempted to subdue them, they will never tame these peoples, and I LOVE his sentiment. This is an impressive undertaking to indulge in the poetry of song lyrics, and Astbury handled it as well as any white man could hope to, perhaps even better.

“Edie (Ciao Baby)” and “Sweet Soul Sister” are just two parts of this arching, sky-high movement of music. BIG, big music. These two tracks go so hand-in-hand that it is nearly impossible to separate them. “Soul Asylum” does the exact same thing: it aims high and big, and does not fail to hit the target. The surprising fact at this point is that, despite the length of the majority of songs to this point (five of the first six songs clock at well over five minutes), it never drags anywhere. The pace of everything is near-perfection.

“New York City” is a high-energy rocker that features the venerable Iggy Pop doing the backing, spoken word vocal in the bridge, and yes, it is one of my favorites. I could do without “Automatic Blues”, not a bad tune, but largely forgettable. However, my absolute favorite song on the album is “Soldier Blue”. If you don’t have this track on your playlist, DO SO NOW. This is just about as anthemic as you can get. What it contains is a combination of one of the best guitar riffs and mid-tempo beats you will ever get from a hard rock & roll band. “Wake Up Time for Freedom” is a call to action and awareness, which Ian Astbury has been prone to in the past, but this one actually lives up to its potential. The final (bonus) track on the CD is “Medicine Train”, and it just flat out ROCKS. For me, listening to this album, whether playing along on my guitar or not, is like getting high for the first time and loving it, except it’s like that every time.

OVERALL: On a scale of one to ten, this album rates a nine and a half. This is hands down one of the best, and most accessible and encompassing, rock albums of the past twenty-five years. If you have not yet owned a copy of this at any point in your life, you should get out and do so. If you used to own a copy, go out and get a new one. If you still have a playable copy of this, whatever the format, good job, now PLAY IT!!!