Over two years ago, in my review of Cult of Youth’s Love Will Prevail, I wrote that it “really is one of those rare ‘next level’ LPs that bands always strive to create,” and I think I also called it a “game changer.” These are words that I still stand by. Love Will Prevail evinced ample evidence of Cult of Youth‘s – who are at base a neofolk band — roots in punk and postpunk, mixed with some interesting influences from seemingly-unlikely places (like Lack of Knowledge of Crass Records, for one). The last song on Love Will Prevail, “It Took a Lifetime,” is a song that would sound perfectly at home on The Damned’s Black Album (as a friend mentioned to me after we were discussing the album – and how right he was). And that’s a major compliment, by the way.
And now comes 2014’s apocalyptic Final Days LP on Sacred Bones, charged with the daunting task of trying to improve upon the winning formula that Sean Ragon and crew struck upon in Love Will prevail (which was also on Sacred Bones) two years before. The opening track of this 9-track album is a somber instrumental with brooding war drums (“Todestrieb”), solemn horns and synths playing ominous ambient tones at the lower end of the musical scale — a gloomy harbinger of things to come. “Dragon Rouge,” the second track, arrives like a breath of fresh, crystalline air: Clean, strummed acoustic guitars and chimes remind almost immediately of the classic neofolk on display on Death in June’s Rule of Thirds LP. The song builds in intensity, adding instrumentation (interesting mid-range percussion, chanted backing vocals, and what sounds like distorted guitar feedback effects) as it goes along. The song builds a steady, tension-creating atmosphere — until its crushing, apocalyptic finale. And then without a moment’s breath, track 3, “Empty Fraction,” kicks in. Which is a devastatingly great song.
“Empty Faction” is one of the stronger tracks on the LP. The vocals are more in line with hardcore punk than singer Sean Ragon’s normally baritone, sort-of-crooning, almost goth-y, singing style. When previewing this track on their site, Stereogum called “Cult of Youth” a “goth-punk” band. I can sort of see what they mean by this in some of the band’s songs. But, to the contrary, and in fact – and I hope Sean won’t kill me for saying this – the song “Empty Faction” reminds me of mid-90s, Red Medicine-era Fugazi! There is a post-hardcore feel to the shouted vocals, furiously strummed clean guitars plus the jangly, postpunk guitar that’s also been placed into the song. The end of “Empty Faction” is pure punk bombast, a galvanizing reach back into Cult of Youth’s energetic punk roots. “Empty Faction” is a good reminder of why Cult of Youth is so musically important and interesting.
Purist neofolk, whose crown trifecta of bands are Death in June, Current 93, and Sol Invictus, like all postpunk movements, had roots in the 70s punk scene. (There are other bands from the early industrial scene that also played a hand in this, but let’s keep this simple for a moment.) Death in June’s own origins in the 1977-era punk band Crisis are well known. All the early Death in June stuff is essentially Joy Division worship-style postpunk. Death in June ultimately unplugged their instruments and then you got what I’ve referred to as “post-post-punk.” That is, dark postpunk “unplugged,” with acoustic guitars and the addition of more traditionally European instrumentation, like if Joy Division had done a guest session on MTV’s “Unplugged” series (viz. “She Said Destroy”). Because folks from founding industrial bands like SPK and Throbbing Gristle also got involved in this stripped-down, back-to-acoustic instrumentation movement, the musical milieu that spawned neofolk has also been called “post-industrial,” and that’s not a term that Cult of Youth disavow, either.
The genius of Cult of Youth is in Sean Ragon’s ability to respect the history of the genre and pull from the same sources of inspiration that all the original apocalyptic folk bands of the 1980s musically cited – the dark postpunk and experimentation of early Factory Records bands, the DIY spirit of punk rock, and the folk roots and themes of a lot of older European music that Sol Invictus and others revisited. Cult of Youth have successfully updated the genre and have in the process brought back in a lot of the original, older,more punk-based elements that more recent neofolk bands all too often forget. The LP name Final Days in fact could be seen as a nod to the “apocalyptic” motifs ever-present in early Current 93 and other dark folk acts. The cover art, reminiscent of Brueghel’s ”Tower of Babel,” is in line with this millenarian theme and provides some nice continuity with one of the stronger tracks off Love Will Prevail, namely “Garden of Delights,” which is itself reminiscent of the title of another apocalyptic Heironymous Bosch work.
Cult of Youth have also performed another important service in helping to firmly establish America as a source of interesting and progressive neofolk music. Neofolk is still more popular on the European continent than it is in the USA, but due to the hard work of bands like Texas’ Awen and Dying and Rising (ex-Gabhar), Chicago’s Et Nihil (ex-Luftwaffe), the Wreathes on Pesanta Urfolk, and indeed Sean Ragon’s Cult of Youth, America has had an increasingly important showing in the genre nowadays. (And Australia’s LAKES (“Blood on the Grove”) insure that that country is also not to be trifled with!) Cult of Youth’s music is basically “acoustic dark postpunk,” which is what a lot of the original neofolk bands (Strength Through Joy, Sol Invictus) started as. (As a sidenote, possibly one of the most American of neofolk projects, The Muskets, featuring members of Awen and Et Nihil, recently released an EP of neofolk versions of traditional American Revolutionary War ballads on Old Europa Cafe, here.)
In fact, the 5th track on Final Days, “Down the Moon,” has a kind of hillbilly blues twang to it that has been a recent introduction into the genre by folks like Thomas Cowgill of King Dude. It’s a good example of how the genre can incorporate seemingly-foreign elements into its ouevre and deliver the end-product successfully. “Of Amber” is a more introspective tune of the kind that Of the Wand and the Moon might make. But the following track, “No Regression,” reveals again the creeping American bluesy style that has been on display on some of Cult of Youth’s more recent stuff. It’s an interesting attempt at combining purist, gothy neofolk with twangy, southern gothic Americana, meriting the comparisons to Birthday Party and “southern gothic” bands like 16 Horsepower I’ve seen elsewhere. The overall impetus and feel of Cult of Youth, however, remains solidly experimental postpunk. The Pop Group experimented with funk, but they were ultimately a postpunk band; in the same way, Cult of Youth’s dabbling in bluesy guitar in a few songs on Final Days just reaffirms how ultimately postpunk, in the truest sense of the word, the band really are.
Track 8, “Sanctuary,” is another rapidly-strummed, aggressive neofolk song that shows Cult of Youth’s best traits on display. The song starts off like the kind of neofolk song one might hear from a band like Solblot or Sonne Hagal, but by the end of the song, the punk elements have kicked in and the track becomes a frenetic, frenzy of percussion and energy. Whereas a lot of contemporary neofolk tends toward the romantic and the nostalgic, Cult of Youth continually inject chaos, energy, and sonic power into the mix, ensuring they stand apart from their contemporaries but also help musically push the movement forward.
Final Days. What can I say? The Brooklyn-based neofolk-cum-postpunk-cum-experimental band Cult of Youth are one the most exciting bands around today. This LP is proof of that. Very highly recommended.
FINAL DAYS come out November 11 on Sacred Bones Records, and you can get it from Sacred Bones here.