The new and third Cult of Youth LP, Love Will Prevail, officially drops September 4. On Sacred Bones, the record showcases Cult of Youth’s relentless desire to drive forward and experiment with new sounds, incorporating a broader swath of instrumentation and influences than were on display on their previous two recordings, which included their excellent — and now seminal — sophomore, self-titled LP. Like Death in June, Cult of Youth are at core a neofolk band — and yet, also like Death in June, they prove with each new release that they are able to transcend the limitations of the genre.
The unmistakable core of neofolk that includes constantly-strummed acoustic guitars remains very much on display on Love Will Prevail. This, however, is couched in an impressive array of ancillary instrumentation. This enables singer Sean Ragon’s band to hit new and impressive tones, opening windows on possible avenues for future sonic experimentation. Strings, wind instruments, and trumpets are utilized tactically and tastefully on this LP, which alternatese between more traditional neofolk numbers and slightly more lush, atmospheric pieces. There’s even a thrashy surprise thrown in here and there, too. Love Will Prevail really is one of those rare “next level” LPs that bands always strive to create.
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The last 7″ that Cult of Youth made, “Devil’s Coals,” contained an excellent cover of Martial Canterel’s “Sidestreets” — and the new LP, Love Will Prevail, forges ahead with that sort of postpunk sensibility in mind. Love Will Prevail‘s opening track, “Man and Man’s Ruin,” shows vocalist Sean Ragon singing in a more classically, disaffected postpunk style. It’s a great opener for the LP. It’s not until the second track begins that one starts to see the broader array of instrumentation that will be put in to play elsewhere in the LP. The Sacred Bones page for Love Will Prevail states: “For this album, Ragon built his own recording studio from scratch in the back of his record store [Heaven Street]. This allowed him to control every aspect of the album and to take his time recording; he plays five different instruments on LWP and also engineered and mixed the album by himself.” And if that is indeed the case, Ragon did a damn fine job here. The production is excellent and suits the music well. The vocals are always nice and clean in the mix, and every instrument can be heard properly. Having said that, there is no annoying attempt at being slick or fancy with anything, either: It all flows together nicely, organically.
The original grandaddies of neofolk, Death in June, I’ve always thought of as “Joy Division unplugged.” And that, to me, was the original template of neofolk: Playing postpunk music like Joy Division, just with acoustic instrumentation instead of electric guitars, with nothing plugged in. In many ways, that still is the model — the “Platonic ideal,” if you will. Europe still has the US sorely beat in the neofolk department: Bands like Sol Invictus, Sieben, Rome, Of the Wand and the Moon, Osewoudt, Strydwolf, Darkwood, Karmen Marata, The Hermeticians — they can simply pull off this style in ways that few American neofolk bands have thus far been able to do.
Cult of Youth may be changing that. The American neofolk “scene,” in contrast to the rather well-organized and tightly-knit Euro scene, is a little more scattershot. The recent act King Dude has brought a kind of Deep South, noir Americana aspect to neofolk here that is hard to imagine existing in Europe. Chicago’s Luftwaffe and Texas’ Awen are the closest things to purely aocalyptic folk that exist in the US (and let’s not forget Gabhar from Austin, Texas!). The new and excellent Wreathes self-titled mini-LP, reviewed earlier on CVLT Nation, is the closest thing there is to a challenger to Cult of Youth’s Love Will Prevail, as far as American neofolk goes. But Cult of Youth are still the American defenders of the throne.
One of the major innovations I always thought Cult of Youth had brought to “the scene” (whatever that actually is), was a kind of DIY punk background and sensibility to their approach. Whereas Death in June ultimately had roots in punk (Crisis), and while some Euro-neofolk bands like Luxembourg’s Rome also claim to have had members that spent time in punk bands here and there, with Cult of Youth the punk sensibility was palpable. Especially on their first LP, A Stick to Bind, a Seed to Grow. This was refreshing, and felt like a much-needed injection of vitality into a genre that was all too often characterized by ex-goth elitists and smug, self-aggrandizing, imperious attitudes. (Von Thronstahl, anyone?) Cult of Youth took the opposite tack, and began a grassroots campaign of relentless touring that was much more in the style of 80s hardcore bands like Black Flag or Minutemen, than anything modern neofolk bands seemed wont to engage in.
Cult of Youth’s DIY punk approach to constantly touring, sleeping on couches or floors, etc., eventually paid off (and is still paying off to this day), with the band winning many crossover fans from the punk and other underground music scenes – folks who probably would have never given this style of music a second chance otherwise. Compare this grassroots approach to the obnoxious elitism that proliferates in a lot of the neofolk/”neoclassical” milieu, where many people seem as obsessed with tracing their hereditary lineage to European royalty as they do making good music. Thank god Cult of Youth happened.
With every new release, Cult of Youth’s production quality has improved, but the DIY ethos has not diminished. Love Will Prevail incorporates a great mass of postpunk, plain punk, and European neofolk into its overall repertoire of sound. Personally, my favorite track is the last one on the LP, “It Took a Lifetime.” This driving, uptempo number actually reminds me a lot of Lack of Knowledge, a postpunk band on Crass Records. Sean’s vocals switch between deep, moody disaffected postpunk stylings (and, am I crazy, or once in a blue moon is there even a hint of Gave Gahan of Depeche Mode in a few of the vocals?), and more angry, aggressive punk styles. Track 4 on Love Will Prevail, “Garden of Delights,” is also a great number; Sonne Hagal’s song “Ragnarok” is a good pint of reference here. “Path of Total Freedom” is an upbeat, more “paleo-folk” shanty that is in line with the types of songs on Cult of Youth’s previous LPs.
Track 8, “The Gateway,” is probably my second favorite song on the LP – yes! This song starts off almost like a more traditional 80s coldwave song; but by mid-song the tone changes, as does the tempo. By the end, the drum pattern is double-timing it, and by song’s end you are listening to a balls-out thrasher. The variety of styles and instrumentation (trumpets, strings, wind instruments and probably others I am missing) on the LP works great. It is dynamic, textured, and nuanced, without being all over the map. I love this album.