By JAY ROBERTS
The Cassette Chronicles is a continuing series of mini reviews and reflections on albums from the 1980’s and 1990’s. The aim of this series is to highlight both known and underappreciated albums from rock, pop and metal genres from this time period through the cassette editions of their releases. Some of the albums I have known about and loved for years, while others are new to me and were music I’ve always wanted to hear. There will be some review analysis and my own personal stories about my connection with various albums. These opinions are strictly my own and do not reflect the views of anyone else at Limelight Magazine.
THE CULT – SONIC TEMPLE (1989)
Before popping in the cassette to give The Cult’s Sonic Temple album a listen so that I could write this article, I had to think back to my recollections of the album from when it was first released and the subsequent tour opening for Metallica when I got to see the band perform live.
The album eventually spawned four singles and I actually did quite enjoy them all on their own. Whether on MTV or the radio, each time “Fire Woman” started playing my ears perked up. The other singles put out had a similar effect. But the strange thing is that I remember being more than a little disappointed when I actually got my hands on a copy of the album. I remember thinking that the rest of the material just didn’t really do much for me.
Now that I’ve given this now thirty year old release a new listen, I’ve had a pretty drastic change of opinion about the album as a whole. But there was a 2nd reason why I kind of gave up on The Cult after this album and that goes back to when I saw them live.
I’ve told the story to people before so anyone that knows me in real life will likely already know what I’m about to write here. Frankly put, singer Ian Astbury was the LAZIEST live performer I’ve ever seen. When I saw them open for Metallica, I noticed that something was off with the vocals and then I started doing that damn counting thing I sometimes do. Sure enough, Astbury was fudging his vocal performance. No, not faking it or anything, but he was actually skipping every third word of the lyrics. Didn’t matter what song, I counted them all as soon as I noticed. He would skip every third word because the crowd was singing along and filling in the vocals for him. For some reason, this just really annoyed the crap out of me and it soured me not only on the band but the album as well. I still liked “Fire Woman” but I ended up getting rid of the album over my probably unreasonable attitude about the lack of full vocal performance in a concert.
Yes, it is special kind of dumb reasoning on my part, but that’s how it was for me then. However, like I said earlier, I’ve had a big change of opinion about things now.
The first side of the album is top heavy with all four of the released singles being on it. I mentioned “Fire Woman”, which remains a purely powerful ball of energy that continually punches you in the gut as it blazes a rocking path. The music strikes fast and hard (Billy Duffy’s guitars on this song and the entire album are outstanding) and Astbury’s vocals were and remain a huge hook for the song.
The song “Sun King” was more of a rock radio type of single so it might not be quite as well remembered but I was struck by just how much I enjoyed it this time around. As for “Sweet Soul Sister” and “Edie (Ciao Baby)”, they are just those earworm kind of songs that always key memories back to the first time you heard them.
What did surprise me a bit with Side One was the only non-single track “American Horse”. The song is rocking but I was kind of floored with how much I ended up liking the phrasing of the vocals/lyrics from Ian Astbury. It left me wondering why I didn’t hear that when I first had the album.
Side Two was a slightly different mix of songs for me. I wasn’t all that sold on the opening “Soul Asylum” or “Wake Up Time For Freedom”. Both songs just didn’t quite get over the hump for me. But the good news is, the rest of the songs really worked well. The cassette version of the album contained a bonus track called “Medicine Train” and it was a killer rock track that ended up closing the album out on a high note, but it was the middle of Side Two that did the really heavy lifting. “Automatic Blues” and “Soldier Blue” were both straight up rock songs. Start to finish, each really knew how to find its way into a listener’s blood and get them fired up.
But what really did it for me and is probably the second best song on the entire album (behind “Fire Woman”, of course) was the song “New York City”. There’s just something about this song, a hard driving rocker fueled by storming guitars and a thrilling vocal performance that drove it home for me. It’s a song that probably should’ve been at least considered for being released as a single because there’s just no reason that more people shouldn’t have heard this at the time. Which is a bit ironic coming from me since I completely missed out on all these songs the first time around because I was apparently unable to “hear” what was going on then.
So despite my decades old misgivings about the album, I can honestly say that I’ve had a huge change of heart about Sonic Temple as an album in full. I didn’t like the album tracks that much when it first came out and now I just want to pop the tape back in and play it all over again. If you are reading this article, you should probably think about doing that as well.
NOTES OF INTEREST: The album is celebrating the 30th anniversary of its release this year. The limited edition reissue of Sonic Temple came out in October 2019 and it has 5 CDs that includes a remastered edition of the album, rare tracks, a live album and more.
Iggy Pop sang backing vocals on the song “New York City”.
Sonic Temple was the last album the band recorded with bassist Jamie Stewart. He left the group in 1990. He appeared on stage with the band to celebrate the 25th anniversaries of the Love and Electric albums, but is otherwise retired from the music industry since 1994.