"A rush of almost spiritual ecstasy": Death Cult find joy in dragging skeletons from the closet on 40th anniversary tour

The Cult's Ian Astbury and Billy Duffy resurrect Death Cult, summoning old ghosts to powerful effect

Death Cult
(Image: © Sam Morris/Getty Images)

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This is not for the casual fan. There’s no Lil’ Devil or Wildflower from Electricthe swaggering, riff-packed rock monster of an album that broke The Cult worldwide and saw Guns N’ Roses opening up for them on their first big North American tour. There’s no Fire Woman or Edie (Ciao Baby) and there’s certainly nothing from last year’s rather splendid Under the Midnight Sun. But if you’ve ever uttered those immortal words, ‘I prefer their earlier stuff’? This might just be the place for you.

It’s 40 years since Bradford’s finest post-punk, proto-goth band Southern Death Cult imploded and singer Ian Astbury teamed up with former Theatre Of Hate guitarist Billy Duffy to form a new act called Death Cult. They existed under that name for less than a year before morphing into The Cult early in 1984. Tonight is a celebration of that short-lived Death Cult era, with a couple of tendrils reaching back to the Southern Death Cult Roots and a few more questing forward to the beginning of The Cult.

Before that though, bells and sage usher in the ritualistic looped beats, electronic drone and hypnotic guitar of Lili Refrain. Positioned somewhere between the neo-Nordic noire of Heilung or Kati Rán and the otherworldly warbling of Dead Can Dance, she possesses a timeless quality that could be entirely contemporary but also slots easily into the early 80s vibe.

That’s certainly what the resurrected Death Cult serve up, as they emerge beneath pale blue lights and a waft of dry ice. Duffy lays down the moody, psychedelic layers of guitar as 83rd Dream from The Cult’s debut album Dreamtime sets out the stall. ‘Four crows nailed to a wooden post bleed upon a barren field,’ sings Astbury, as he absolutely fails to add weight to decades-long assertions that his band were nothing to do with goth. The frontman has decided not to go the full ’83 face-paint tonight – that would have been a real Ast from the past – but still oozes insouciant cool in topknot and shades. And for a man who first sang these songs four decades or so ago, his croon-to-wail vocal delivery remains flawless.

The first part of the set focuses on Death Cult deep cuts, with Duffy flanging like it’s 1983 all over the likes of Christians, Brothers Grimm and early single Gods Zoo. The broodingly epic Horse Nation is a standout and one of several songs reflecting the vocalist’s enduring fascination with Native American Culture but, while Death Cult is literally the name of the game tonight, things actually step up as we move into the second half of the evening and they reach towards the early days of The Cult.

Regardless of the name they were operating under, it’s down to the simple fact that they were growing and improving as a band throughout that period. Resurrection Joe breaks out the pointy dancing shoes and Hollow Man shows more than a hint of the hard rock that was to come. Spiritwalker results in a rush of almost spiritual ecstasy and Rain brings the main set to a conclusion in suitably hot, sticky scenes.

They emerge for a brief encore with a heavier, riffed-up Moya reaching right back to Southern Death Cult nights before ending with She Sells Sanctuary - the sinuous 1985 hit from The Cult’s second album Love that Billy Duffy says changed everything for the band. As the lights come on the timewarp starts to fade, but don’t believe anyone that tells you nostalgia isn’t as good as it used to be. Tonight’s temporal slip has been simply magnificent.

Paul Travers has spent the best part of three decades writing about punk rock, heavy metal, and every associated sub-genre for the UK's biggest rock magazines, including Kerrang! and Metal Hammer