Review Summary: The Cult had a challenge to build on the enormous success granted by 'Love' and 'Electric'. They accepted that challenge with 'Sonic Temple', and consequently released one of the best Rock albums of the late 80's.
When an album as successful as 'Love' is followed up swiftly by an album as excellent as 'Electric', it's probably hard for the band that released those two albums to create anything that builds up on that performance, or indeed exceeds the mark that was originally set. Especially if you were a chart-bothering 80's Rock band in the same form as The Cult. However, it's generally well known that 'Sonic Temple', what most fans of the band like to refer to as the final of a powerful trio of albums, contained some of the band's best work to date. 'Electric' opted for a bigger, 'ballsier' and perhaps better sound than found within the sometimes melodic passages of 'Love'. However, its follow-up, 'Sonic Temple' ended up granting the band commercial success, more so than 'Love' ever gave them, and consequently granted them a pleasantly high ranking of #10 on the Billboard 200.
It's no surprise just how this came to be either. Ever since 'Sonic Temple' was released, at least three of the ten songs has been played frequently enough at every one of The Cult's shows, giving off the impression that whereas 'Love' catapulted the band into the mainstream world, it was actually 'Sonic Temple' that made them the memorable band they are today. Even the cover of the album itself, which showcases a young Billy Duffy in one of his famous Rock stances alongside an enlarged background image of Singer Ian Astbury, hints at the band's ever lasting victory and success.
Musically the album continues in the same way that 'Electric' did, but this time focussing much more on songs of love ('Sun King'), 'Americanized' society ('Sweet Soul Sister'), and even homages to prominent figures within the film industry ('Edie (Ciao Baby)'). Billy Duffy still uses his guitar to the full effect, purposefully weaving his well executed solos in and out of every song, and also having the talent to make those solos fit. Just listen to fabulous opener 'Sun King', which in its somewhat laid back and 'cool' presence, introduces the album (and predictably enough, Duffy’s guitar work) in an outstandingly successful way. Even those who hated The Cult's musical changes still admitted that 'Sun King' still managed to get their heads rolling. This excessive talent continues on throughout the album, more specifically so than on the band's earlier records. Softer numbers such as the solemn yet perhaps too-long-for-its-own-good 'Soul Asylum' and unreleased bonus track 'The River' show Duffy's more melodic side to his own talent, rather than aiming purely for a rock vibe.
However, 'Sonic Temple' is not all about Billy Duffy and his beloved instrument, as the album cover misleadingly suggests. Astbury's vocal talent, Mickey Curry's suitably effective drum work and Jamie Stewart's groovy bass lines all flow together so very well. Unfortunately, this was Stewart's last album with The Cult before his untimely departure, leaving the band the year following 'Sonic Temple's release. Listen to the excitement of 'Fire Woman', the powerful AOR overtones of 'Sweet Soul Sister' and the brilliantly placed closer in 'Wake Up Time for Freedom', and you'll see just how well refined the band are as a unit. The latter of these aforementioned songs even features every member of the band solemnly singing the title over and over again, until it hypnotizes the listener so that they don't even know how far into they song they are.
What is perhaps the true highlight of the band in general though, is the nature of the lyrics themselves. Astbury stated in an interview following the release of 'Sonic Temple' that “...with all my lyrics I like to leave them open for people's interpretations and hope that people find themselves within my songs”, and on this particular album, that statement couldn't be any more true. It's the poetic nature of 'Soul Asylum', the mischievous descriptions of the 'Fire Woman' or the sense of realistic American lifestyles in 'New York City' that really show Ian Astbury and Co. to be an intelligent as well as an ambitious group of musicians. This aspect of The Cult's performance has rarely let down the band's most devoted fans, yet it is partly the cause of 'Sonic Temple' being as timeless as it is.
If you want me to go through perhaps the only minor flaw in the album itself, then I suppose I have no choice. Even alongside the brilliance of every one of the songs listed above, the somewhat repetitive and unnecessary nature of 'Automatic Blues' seems to cut the flow slightly in an otherwise near-flawless album. The guitar work is groovy and the other instruments generally follow on as best as they can, but with the album running at almost an hour in length, one can't help but feel if 'Automatic Blues' was purely added as a filler.
That said, 'Sonic Temple' does not let up at any other point on the album, and thankfully, it even justifies it's presence in the charts. With a strong sense of lyrical content, an equally as powerful feeling of co-operation and the fact that the band had already seemed to release their most successful album in 'Love', 'Sonic Temple' was a huge leap in the band's performance and progression. Even today, in the year of 2012, the album sounds like it could have been release yesterday.