NEW YORK It was 7:30 p.m on a Friday, and Ian Astbury, frontman for the Cult, was weary and more than a tad grumpy.
As he spoke, he sounded groggy and disoriented, as if he'd just been woken up in the middle of the night. He'd been doing interviews all day, and he still had a show to play that evening. And the next night, and the night after that.
Astbury really hadn't had a significant break in two years, he said, between time on the road promoting his band's return, hours spent in the studio working on the new Cult record, Beyond Good and Evil, and more long nights logged on tour with Monster Magnet (see "Cult Line Up Tour With Monster Magnet, Stabbing Westward"). But that's not what was dampening his spirits. He was in a foul mood because he'd been trying to schedule the Cult which now consists of original members Astbury and guitarist Billy Duffy, longtime drummer Matt Sorum and bassist Billy Morrison for the lineup of the next Tibetan Freedom Concert and still hadn't been confirmed for the bill.
"I still think a lot of people perceive of the Cult as some sort of crass hard rock band," Astbury muttered. "We already played the Tibetan Freedom Festival a couple years ago, and initially the board of directors didn't want us on that bill because they felt the kind of music we made wouldn't be in harmony with the image they were trying to portray for Tibet. I had to kick the f---ing door down and say, 'Your piousness and illuminati perspective is totally opposed to Buddhist philosophies and altruism in general.' "
A quick listen to the new Cult album, and you can kind of understand why the board might still be on the fence. The Bob Rock-produced Beyond Good and Evil screams to be heard, lashing out with more blazing guitars, pounding beats and cathartic yowls than the Cult have ever expelled. Within just a few ringing arpeggios and slashed power chords on the album's opener, "War (The Process)," the band reaffirms its position near the top of the alt-hard rock hierarchy, where it reigned between 1985, with the gothic bluster of Love, and 1989, with the melodic firepower of Sonic Temple. The Cult's ammo had run low for Ceremony in 1991 and The Cult in 1994, but now they're back, all guns firing.
While Beyond Good and Evil is sonically turbulent, Astbury insists its intensity isn't any sort of attempt to compete with the throng of voluble nü-metal acts. It's more a reflection of the world he sees swimming outside his grasp.
"Any musician worth his salt is gonna be aware of what's going on around him," Astbury explained. "We knew that we were going to make a heavier record because we're spiritually in a very dark place right now, and it's very troubling."
What's troubling him?
"Where do you want to start?" he asked, grimacing. "Global warming, the lack of the father in the home, the increase in violence among white males. Things like Columbine and Woodstock. It's rampant right now. There's mass consumerism and corporate oppression. Look at the WTO conference in Seattle. That all upsets me, because I lost both of my parents to cancer in Hamilton, Ontario, because of the steel works there. They died directly because of an industrial society. So I've been aware of the damage that industrialization can cause ever since I was young."
There's no disguising the anger and frustration burning through the combustive riffs of songs like "The Saint," "American Gothic" and "Take the Power." But there's a message to the mayhem in Astbury's lyrics.
"It's about trying to provide solutions, not just empty rants like 'F--- you, I'm not gonna do what you told me,' " Astbury said. "I think there are signposts on the record toward ideas that are going to potentially elevate your perception of living. For example, 'Breathe' talks about taking a step back. It's a simple Buddhist philosophy, and just a recognition that a lot of neurotic behavior comes from the mind. If you take a deep breath and realize the actual moment you're in, you find that you're not so caught up in your thoughts about the future or the past or by peripheral stimulus, whether it's television or magazines or emotional things that just build up, and you can actually make wiser decisions."
The video for "Rise," the first single from Beyond Good and Evil, was shot by Gregory Dark and is loosely based on the plot of the film "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." The song itself is about a couple who sneak off into the forest and achieve transcendence by gazing at the moon and getting metaphysical while their peers indulge in chemical pursuits.
"There's something really powerful and stimulating and erotic and dangerous about that," Astbury enthused. "When we find people like that, we tend to treat them like the witches of the old days. We bring them back to the village and burn them. But those are the ones who rise above the pedestrian and the commercial."
He took a deep breath to refocus, then continued. "A lot of people are inherently unhappy, because they feel like they're never gonna get the girl in the billboard. They're never gonna get to drive the big, red sports car. They're never gonna have the kind of wealth that movie stars have, so they never reach their true potential as people. I think that's really sad. When you have different role models like the Dalai Lama, Gandhi, and other Eastern teachers and you simplify your life and develop your mind and your spirit, you can definitely elevate yourself far beyond anything that money could ever do for you."