Cult Of Youth
Love Will Prevail
, September 17th, 2012 13:56
The beginning of neofolk is not any one classic album, not any ossified "sound," but a moment of turning or transmutation, the sudden shift through which Crisis became Death In June. In 1980, Doug Pearce and Tony Wakeford forsook their fervent anti-fascism to explore the forbidden zone between far Right and far Left, exchanging realist imagery for mythical narratives and esoteric symbols. Musically, Death In June turned from minimalist punk rock to a barely coherent fusion of gothic post-punk, decadent psych-folk, Morricone-esque arrangements, and industrial beats. It was as if Crisis had died and swam over to the opposite shore.
While many neofolk artists draw inspiration from paradigmatic early 90s releases like What Ends When The Symbols Shatter, Cult of Youth's Sean Ragon looks back to that original transformation, and to the post-industrial ferment that followed in its wake. There has always been post-punk hidden under his folk, and rock energy within his industrial austerity. Last year's Cult of Youth LP, for which he fronted a four-piece band, won acclaim from the indie press. For Love Will Prevail, Cult of Youth is once again Ragon's solo project. He plays a number of the instruments himself, but also relies heavily on contributions from Christiana Key (violin, vocals) and Glenn Maryansky (drums), both members of the last lineup.
Paradoxically, this dis-banded Cult of Youth wrote something approaching a straightforward rock album. A loping minor-key bassline anchors 'Garden of Delights', while a strummed acoustic guitar quickly fades beneath a sinister harmonized riff and a storm of squealing noise that might be a distorted violin. Linear in structure, the song slowly accrues layers of dissonance until, with a triumphant key change at 2:45, it transforms into a chanted affirmation of rebellion. Despite formal similarities to post-punk, 'Garden of Delights' works more like the anthemic American punk rock of Murder City Devils or early Against Me!. 'The Gateway', on the other hand, is straight-up goth. Here, Ragon bellows through shrouds of reverb, leaping from booming bass notes to wailing highs. His self-harmonization on the chorus — "white light, in a dream / cuts through as it bleeds / white light, in our service / we all bow" — is chilling to the bone, and could be the highlight of a lesser band's career. Ragon closes the album with 'It Took A Lifetime', where he works the main riff of Crisis' 'On TV' into something reminiscent of Muhoney or Hole.
The thrashing tracks are standouts, but Love Will Prevail is also Cult of Youth's reinterpretation of psychedelic rock. 'Man and Man's Ruin' opens the album with languidly strummed major chords, belying lyrics that compass "all the sorrows the world has known." It flows into 'Golden Age' where Ragon juxtaposes fast acoustic strumming with an intricate funk bassline played too straight to be truly funky. Stylistically, it recalls Theatre of Hate's proto-neofolk, but emotionally it is sui generis: the abortive groove and singsong melodies are uncanny, even disturbing. Thankfully, the gnarly vibes subside before the beatific freakout 'Prince of Peace'. This is full-on shoegazer rock & roll, powered by shimmering, verbed-out blues licks and a bassline that rolls in like waves on a shore.
While early Cult of Youth songs like 'cmIII' expressed seething anger with modern man, Love Will Prevail is a riposte to neofolk's notorious anti-humanism. On the Death In June track 'Bring In The Night', Boyd Rice declared that "Man has squandered his powers, and our scorn for him has grown boundless." Ragon, in contrast, wants us "To exist alone / In freedom and peace," and this can only be realized through a pure and universal love. Where NON and Death In June call on man to subsume himself within the creative/destructive flux of nature, Cult of Youth challenges him (or her) to achieve true humanity by transcending base impulses. On 'Man and Man's Ruin', Ragon poses a rhetorical question — "Is the nature of man/To be more than a beast?" — while on 'Garden of Delights' he condemns "…cruelty in nature / A fascism pure / A reflection of man / that we're forced to endure."
Nevertheless, Cult of Youth's lyrics continue to channel neofolk's opposition to modern values. Even as Ragon references the peace-punk tropes of Crass and the rebel-rock rhetoric of The Clash, he warns repeatedly that liberty can be a hollow ideal. On 'The Golden Age', a vision of universal brotherhood and moral "progress" gives way to a new Eden crawling with serpents. In the mad dash of 'The Path of Total Freedom', Ragon spits out the story of a questing knight who drinks from a false grail, his vision of Jerusalem fading as he dies. This "total freedom," perhaps a liberation from all boundaries and traditions, is as chimerical as it is deadly. Ragon proposes a different course in 'The New Old Ways', calling on us "to defy their logic / and to step outside" the binary distinction between past and present, regression and revolution, tradition and progress.
The humanism of Love Will Prevail has less to do with Enlightenment rationalism than the mystical zeal of the Italian Renaissance. "Man" is not a circumscribed essence but a line of ascent from the animals to the gods. He must climb this path in brotherly love, but that love is also a terrible thing, bound under the True Will. Nowhere is this clearer than in the final lines of 'Garden of Delights'. First, Ragon sings "And love will prevail / And tend to their flock / And those that oppose us / Will soon be forgot." All very nice, all very John Lennon. But then: "And love will prevail / since hate was a lie / And those that oppose us…" He trails off. By a kind of poetic necessity, one rhyme suggests itself: "will die."
Cult of Youth has never sounded less like Death In June, but Ragon is closer than ever to the origin of his genre. He breaks neofolk down into its earliest rock influences, recombining them at will. He takes up the emancipatory call of Crisis without forsaking the hostile magick of post-industrial music. He enacts a kind of reverse alchemy, the transmutation of a transmutation. If Nada! was the sound of punk rock overcoming itself, passing into its opposite, Love Will Prevail is the sound of it re-emerging once more, irrevocably altered by the journey.