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'Sonic Temple' at 30: Revisiting The Cult's Watershed Album

The Cult in 1989.
Andrew Macpherson

The Cult in 1989.

1989 was a momentous year for British rock group The Cult. When it had formed six years prior, singer Ian Astbury, guitarist Billy Duffy and bassist Jamie Stewart were a post-punk outfit flirting with goth on their debut album, 1984’s Dreamtime. The next year, they turned heads with Love, a glimmering collection of driving rock and beautiful melodies steeped in psychedelia. The band was a hit on the college circuit in the United States and overseas with songs like “Rain,” “She Sells Sanctuary” and “Revolution.” Then the Rick Rubin-produced Electric (1987) marked a paradigm shift in the band’s sound to hard rock.   

But the April 10, 1989, arrival of its fourth album, Sonic Temple, marked The Cult’s apotheosis. Helmed by Bob Rock, the band’s most successful recording redefined The Cult as a rock powerhouse. Peaking at No. 10 on the Billboard 200 and spawning four top 20 Mainstream Rock Songs hits — among them the indomitable radio staple “Fire Woman” (which reached No. 4) — Sonic Temple greatly expanded The Cult’s audience. Its cover, bathed in red and featuring Duffy in a full-blown Pete Townshend windmill pose against a silhouette of Astbury flipping his hair, only contributed to the set’s iconic nature. (Stewart appeared on the back cover; however, he retired after the supporting tour for the record.) Bonus track “Medicine Train” — where Duffy simmers like a cauldron of blues vivacity — inspired the album title with the lyric “All fired up, a desolation angel/Shooting from the hip in the sonic temple.”  

Billboard estimates that Sonic Temple has sold over 1.5 million copies in the United States, as the RIAA certified it platinum in January 1990 for 1 million sales, and it has sold 429,000 copies since 1991, according to Nielsen Music. Its songs have generated 17 million on-demand audio streams. Three decades on, The Cult is celebrating the watershed recording by reissuing the album on Beggars Banquet Records (release date TBA), and will traverse North America on A Sonic Temple tour that begins May 2. According to a press release, the set list will pull from the band’s 10 studio albums, “with the centerpiece being a super set that’s focused on the core songs from Sonic Temple.”   

The collection remains exceptional because, with Astbury’s roaring baritone and Duffy’s subdued playing, nothing else sounds quite like it. “Sun King” opens the album with the declaration, “This is where it all ends,” and The Cult makes its presence known with the glorious build of the song’s opening: a shimmering of cymbals and a supple, pulsing bassline before Duffy’s guitar explodes and the track transforms into strutting hard rock. Though the title references Louis the XIV, Astbury, a brooding diabolist, is at the mercy of a dark woman and offers her his light, pleading, “With you, I’ll share my throne.” “Fire Woman” continues this notion, with the singer in awe of a woman who leaves him swaying.

Speaking of muses, it’s notable that while other bands of the era were writing prurient songs about chasing girls and partying, The Cult waxed poetic on Sonic Temple. Their women weren’t ornaments; in fact, in the five songs that feature them, they are luminaries, ideals of beauty that confound and remain unattainable. None of them seem to want anything to do with Astbury, but with great art comes great suffering. “Sweet Soul Sister” follows “a Dior girl” with a “firm, fixed expression” through the Bohemian reverie of Paris, and by the song’s end, it’s unclear if she dances with him. “Soul Asylum” pounds steadily as Astbury croons for a lover, pleading for refuge in the form of an everlasting kiss.

The dark romance of The Cult’s post-punk, gothic psychedelia roots returns for “American Horse” and “Edie (Ciao Baby),” (the latter with a string section), but louder and slower. Astbury’s longtime fascination with First Nation tribes and their suffering takes hold before gliding slowly into his tribute to Andy Warhol muse Edie Sedgwick. His soaring voice depicts an angel partying in “an endless scene” that ultimately ends in the despair of her untimely death.

Sonic Temple is transformed as the mood moves from hymns of praise and longing to tumultuous fury. “New York City,” a tale of ’80s Manhattan, compares Gotham to “a Disneyland trash can” over a ripping guitar that squeals while Astbury is vowing to kick rocks. A spoken-word break from Iggy Pop punctuates the grit of the city he came to hate. “Automatic Blues” is a heavy, Zeppelin-esque start-stop banger with the singer imploring the world to come together, and “Soldier Blue” continues this theme as the album’s “For What It’s Worth,” though it’s decidedly more rocking than Buffalo Springfield. It also features a line from Roy Batty’s Blade Runner monologue “Tears in Rain,” highlighting the singer’s exasperation with the violence in the world.

Closer “Wake Up, Time for Freedom” is a sermon that invests greatly in the repetition of the title/chorus that segues into a coda of a ripping Duffy guitar exploration. It caps a refined collection that gives prominence to the band’s maturity as songwriters, and a sonorous tone that blazes both with turbulence and dazzling serenity, with undercurrents of dark romance.

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