When I first heard Cult of Youth’s eponymous full-length debut (22 February 2011), I was not sure what to make of it. Actually, to be completely honest, I originally decided not to review the album. Not because I did not like it, but rather because it perplexed me, and I could not figure out exactly why. Folky but as aggressive as punk, energizing but broodingly dark as goth … I was simply not sure how to approach the album. A few days ago, I was driving (at high speeds) when a song came up on my iPod (“Requiem” by Killing Joke), and all of the sudden something clicked. I flipped through my iPod and played “Cult of Youth” again, this time listening to them on their terms – not on mine, not as a critic, but definitely as a lover of music.
First off, let me say that Cult of Youth is a welcome addition to the world of folk music; they defy, in many ways, the typical aesthetics of folk by incorporating the aggressiveness of punk. For instance, “Cold Black Earth” has the urgency and the anxiousness that is present in all great punk, except that it is done acoustically. Secondly, let’s not call them folk! The band is most definitely more than that label, or even punk; “Casting Thorns” has that broodiness of the goth rockers that hailed from post-punk, as the string arrangement does not only serve for ambience but also to keep the song wallowing in dramatic sadness. And tracks like the epic “Lamb” or the closer, “Lace Up Your Boots,” bring (post)industrial references into the mix. Like the Pogues, Cult of Youth has the ability to deconstruct a familiar genre and reconstruct it in their image. Instead of feeding into any of the clichés that you would expect from folk, this New York band has taken the familiar to create something that is viscerally disarming. If you insist on using the “folk” label, remember this is nowhere close to your parents' folk!
The opening track, “New West,” is one of the most cinematic songs I have heard. Folky, but western, propelled by a “trotting” rhythm (with almost an air of new wave to it), what really makes the song is Sean Ragon’s vocals. Somewhere between a young Morrissey and a young Peter Murphy, the best way to describe the style is “detached but tortured.” This is most apparent in the vocal arrangements of “Lorelei,” which is accented with horns as detached as the vocals. Of course, anyone can get up in front of a mic and be detached while singing, but that usually leads to bad vocals, devoid of conviction, and a feeling of disingenuousness. With Ragon, like the post-punk masters before him, what is conveyed is his sense of contemplation, the feeling that he is thinking (and feeling) through the words as if they were being created on the spot. Not only is the style of his vocals as urgent as the music, his very voice bestows a sense of visceral relevancy to the lyrics.
So what clicked? Simply, as anyone else, I had to put my own expectations aside; just like some other great musicians/bands out there, like Killing Joke or Dead Can Dance, the only way to listen to Cult of Youth is with reckless abandonment. This is an album that deserves that “post” label; beyond folk, beyond punk or industrial, beyond trite expectations, the music on this album may take cues from the past (as all musicians do), but what is created is something so fresh (in terms of folk) that it is bewitching, even though you may not want to be. If that is not enough to convince you to listen to “Cult of Youth,” let me be cliché for a moment, here are two words to define this album: New York – a soundscape that is diverse, riveting, uncompromising, and boomingly urgent and relevant! Take a plunge and be as perplexed as I was when listening to Cult of Youth.
1. New West
2. The Dead Sea
4. Casting Thorns
5. Through The Fear
7. The Pole-Star
8. Cold Black Earth
10. The Lamb
11. Lace Up Your Boots
Keep up with Cult of Youth at their MySpace and Facebook.
Here is a video clip of Cult of Youth playing “Cats” (apparently renamed “Casting Thorns” on the album) and “Monsters” from the unARTigNYC YouTube Channel.