Increasingly, and especially in a day and age where music is so widely and readily available thanks to advanced technologies, when a company or act wants to make a good box set, it had better deliver. To its credit, Beggars Banquet did just that with Rare Cult, an astoundingly comprehensive and entertaining collection that packs in 90 tracks over the course of six discs. Living up to its name, Rare Cult doesn't touch on the familiar smashes, at least in their most well-known forms, that made the Cult a true monster of a band in its '80s heyday. Instead, the focus is on everything from radio sessions and random B-sides to curious remixes and a slew of demo sessions and back again. It's not for the casual fan in the slightest; those content with the Pure Cult greatest-hits set will need look no further. But the fact that enough Cult obsessives still remained to warrant its appearance was justified when the limited-edition run of the set sold out in three months. Not bad for a fairly expensive package. Perhaps the best question about the set at the start is whether it's deserved, or rather if the band deserves it. On balance, the Cult makes for an incredibly inconsistent band, as apt to stumble and collapse as it is to totally nail everything right on the head. Still, for all that, Ian Astbury goes completely over the top in terms of singing and lyrical imagery at points, while Billy Duffy is sometimes content to replicate the past instead of taking inspiration from it, when their partnership is on, it's unstoppable. Given that Rare Cult looks primarily at numbers never meant for regular release, or cuts often judged unsatisfactory for an album placement, the suspicion would be that things would be more of a mess than success. Yet actually what comes through best is the group's quality. Astbury may be dramatic to a fault, but to his credit rarely delivers a half-assed performance, while Duffy similarly wants to rock & rock no matter what, using his skill for concentrated, memorable melodies and riffs instead of pointless technical wankery. The performers around the two kept changing, perhaps most fatally for the group when Jamie Stewart departed after Sonic Temple, but the duo kept going, an off-kilter but productive partnership.
The start of the set captures the band at almost the exact moment of transition from its earlier self, a 1984 BBC session done shortly after Dreamtime's recording that starts with a Death Cult number, the entertaining stomp of "Ghost Dance." A less queasy but still strong version of "Resurrection Joe," with crisp, clear vocals from Astbury, and an inspiring "Go West" also succeed, leading into a brace of early B-sides and remixes from both Dreamtime and Love. The mighty "She Sells Sanctuary" appears in its somewhat notorious "Howling Mix," featuring actual wolf cries, often treated with creepy effects for extra atmosphere (a pity the actual mix itself tries but can't approach the original's sheer power). Treats include the downright sprightly "No. 13," perhaps the closest the Cult ever got to sweet power pop, and Duffy's guitar showcase "The Snake," pumping up the early-'80s post-punk atmospherics with just enough bite to the central melody. Another radio session closes out the first disc; the song choices are good, but the delivery on "Spiritwalker" and "Revolution" is only fair, with slightly slower tempos and Astbury sounding a bit breathless at points. A romp through "Big Neon Glitter," though, improves the mood.
The second disc continues with more Love material, starting with a pleasant but little different remix of "Revolution," which at least isn't laden with the unsuccessful dance grooves of the "She Sells Sanctuary" revamp. The highlight of the remaining Love-era tracks is "All Souls Avenue," a calmer song named after a street in the Notting Hill area of London Astbury lived in at the time. Next up are some early takes on later material: the pretty good original version of "Electric Ocean," as recorded for the Out of Bounds soundtrack, and the balls-out blast of "Go Go Guru." The band's final BBC session follows; the brilliant "Love Removal Machine" got its first public airing here, in a much different, very Love-sounding version that makes for a great contrast to the ultimate take. Even the famous drum/clipped riff start is absent! The other tracks sound raunchier, including the strutting kick of "King Contrary Man" and another take on "Electric Ocean." The remaining tracks on the disc come from the demo sessions of what would become the "lost" album Peace, at points sounding much more like songs from Electric in their simplicity if not their Rick Rubin-produced power. Some numbers are random throwaways or instrumental backing jams, like the slightly surf rock touch of "El Progresso" and the lovely, skipping chime "Untitled (One)," one of the band's most atypical efforts. Others, including the pleasant riff and punch of "Love Trooper," with some fine Astbury vocals, and the harder-rocking anti-hippie slam of "Oink," stand up quite well.
Disc three is a fairly straightforward affair, containing the contents of the unreleased Peace, presented in its originally intended running order. Ironically enough, Peace had mostly been available years before, as the Cult picked many of the recordings to serve as B-sides to later singles from Electric. Put together in one place, though, it's easier to hear what the band was trying to come up with at that time and also why they were unsatisfied in the end with it. Most of the songs reappeared on Electric (and thankfully the abominable cover of "Born to Be Wild" had yet to be recorded), so on that level, Peace is as successful as its eventual descendant. However, one can hear the differences between Steve Brown and Rick Rubin's production styles pretty clearly. Brown adds the overdubs and booming rhythm echo to create a cavernous, almost intimidating sound, sometimes with inspired results but at other points with messy ones, not helped by Astbury's often thrashed, forced delivery. In contrast, Duffy sounds solid, cranking it up and letting it fly, though some of the extra soloing makes for gratuitous moments unsurprisingly missing from the Electric takes. The hitherto unheard recording of "Love Removal Machine" is actually the equal to the final version: it's huge sounding and driving, more expansive than the latter take but just as fierce. Other brawlers like "Outlaw" and "Bad Fun" lumber along, exuding energy to spare but sounding all too often like skull-crushing sonic architecture without direction. There's one hilarious bonus at the end, an unearthed jam, titled long after the fact by Duffy "Walk My Way." It's a lengthy, raunchy, goof, with Duffy, Stewart, and drummer Les Warner all more or less in one piece, but Astbury sounds like he's been gargling Drano, while the occasional backing vocals from the others don't help matters!
The fourth disc collects remaining cuts and session from the Electric days along with the first material planned for Sonic Temple. The first cut is perversely amusing -– a dance remix of "Wild Flower" by disco figure Francis Kervorkian -- combining just about every supposedly unhip '70s influence in one place as a result! It's a good mix, though, letting Rubin's blunt punch set the mood. Other cuts provide some curiosities, including another, brusquer blast through "Go Go Guru" with Rubin at the helm and an early, somewhat half-hearted version of "Soldier Blue," recorded as a possible standalone single (and produced by Mötley Crüe boardsman Tom Werman, of all people). "Down So Long" takes a slower, blues-touched strut to things, while "Wolf Child Blues" make it even more clipped and minimal; both good efforts, Astbury and Duffy give it their all. Half of the disc consists of selections from the earliest Sonic Temple demos, concentrating on material that didn't make the final cut or only surfaced later in much different form. Many of the cuts were understandably left behind -– the performances show the band, with temporary drummer Eric Singer, having a good time, but the songs themselves were generally nondescript. A few winners stand out, though: "The Crystal Ocean" is an easygoing number that benefits from toning things down all around, while "Lay Down Your Gun" tells a Western-themed story with a solid slow burn. As with disc three, this one ends with the Cult having a laugh in the studio, though this cut, "Messin' Up the Blues," surfaced as a B-side. Astbury throws in all sorts of references to friends and inspirations while Duffy plays loose, engaging acoustic twang, and Stewart sounds almost rockabilly; call it the Cult goes T. Rex for one nutty moment. There's also a bonus track, a U.K. radio ad for Sonic Temple with an unintentionally hilarious narrator.
The fifth disc captures the band at its arguable peak, with a slew of Sonic Temple-related material. Mickey Curry proved to be an excellent studio drummer for the recordings, able to mix subtlety and punch, while Stewart's bass playing in his last hurrah with the band was equally strong. As for Astbury and Duffy, they clicked like nobody's business; even the overwrought "Edie (Ciao Baby)," featuring in an acoustic version recorded a couple of years later, had just enough dramatic sweep to carry itself through. Starting with a less moody but strong enough "NYC Rock" mix of "Fire Woman," featuring some good tribal-touched drum work in a nod to the group's earliest days, the disc unearths a variety of intriguing rarities, including the dreamy "Bleeding Heart Graffiti." Perhaps most interesting in context are early acoustic demos of "Indian" and "Spanish Gold," featuring the group's 1989 touring drummer, Matt Sorum, in his only studio recording with the Cult before joining Guns 'N Roses (ironically, Sorum later rejoined the Cult for its late-'90s revival). Another great find is the earliest version of the underrated highlight "The Witch," here titled "Northern Man" in explicit homage to the Happy Mondays, from whom the Cult clearly borrowed the funky drummer attack. Some other demos riff along in rough, loose fashion, like "Medicine Train." Toward the end of the disc things shade into Ceremony-era recordings, and as Duffy freely admits in the liner notes, the band found itself in an unproductive rut. Some highlights crop up, though, including a fun treat that closes out the disc: a live, in-the-studio smash through "Love Removal Machine," with Curry providing the drumming attack.
The set as a whole concludes with the remainder of the Ceremony-era songs and scattered recordings from the self-titled album sessions and beyond. One of the group's only two recorded cover versions kicks things off, namely the Sensational Alex Harvey Band's glam classic "Faith Healer." It's good but not great, a description for the Cult in general at that point. Those tracks immediately following similarly suffer from the general Ceremony disease -- the parts are all there, but memorable songs aren't -- but all this is made up for by the nearly seven-minute-long rampage that is the full version of "The Witch." Produced by Rick Rubin in a smart reuniting of forces without simply trying to redo Electric over again, with its blasting fuzz bass, screaming funk guitar from Duffy and Astbury's charismatic, killer singing, it's worth the entire Ceremony album and then some. The remaining cuts come from the Bob Rock-produced sessions for the self-titled record, featuring ex-Sisters of Mercy/Mission bassist Craig Adams in the lineup. While the album itself was a muddled attempt at a more garage/MC5/Stooges focus crossed with hip-hop and techno touches, ironic considering the slick metal power of Rock's earlier work on Sonic Temple, the varying selections here include many winners. "Breathing Out" has a slow, ominous crawl to the rhythm and delivery, while "Down on Me" is both a slow, T. Rex-style groover and a sharp, passionate rocker, thanks to Astbury's grand delivery. One great number from the vaults is "North," with guest guitarist -– and fellow Manchester-born and raised, one-time Morrissey collaborator -– Johnny Marr, a longtime friend of Duffy's. The lyrics slyly celebrate being from, indeed, north London –- well north –- while all concerned turn in a sharp, smart performance.
To top everything off, even though the set was a limited edition to start with, the earliest numbers in that run themselves had an extra bonus, a separate disc of additional remixes from throughout the group's career. Organized chronologically as the set is, aside from being framed by extended mixes of "Resurrection Joe," it's a fun catch-all for those utterly obsessed with the band, with a few fun tracks to recommend it. A couple of the mixes were never released, including an extended version of the Tom Werman-produced "Soldier Blue" and a searing, ten-minute long rip through "The Witch" that just confirms how utterly amazing song, band, and producer were on that effort. As for the rest, some are utterly of their time while others hold up pretty well in retrospect. "Assault on Sanctuary" wins the best title award, being indeed one heck of a revamp job on "She Sells Sanctuary" that even makes the other remix on the set proper look like a clone of the original. Everything from mock sitars and squirrelly synth lines to a full countdown at the start of the song goes into this particular demolition and reconstruction job. One interesting curiosity is the "Small Soldiers" mix of "Love Removal Machine," so named due to its appearance on the soundtrack to the film of the same name. The band itself was on hiatus, so hearing one Mickey Petralia turn the tightly wound buzz of the original into a dark, charging tech-rocker, not quite industrial or techno but borrowing from both genres, makes for a different listening experience.
Rare Cult deserves notice on a technical level as well. The sound throughout is fantastic, on par with the label's laudable work with its catalog, while the appearance of the set, a smartly packaged black box containing a liner note booklet and the discs, two per fold-out case, is simple and effective. The liner notes themselves, meanwhile, redefine exhaustive, a good case for the abilities of longtime Beggars employee Steve Webbon, who has done similarly inspired work for Gary Numan reissues. Full technical details regarding where and when items were recorded, the performers and folks behind the desk, and where they were originally released if at all are provided for each song, while interview snippets with Astbury, Duffy and others appear throughout the text. The end result is a good canned history of the band, accompanied by a slew of photos from 1984 to 2000 (the final shots are of Astbury and Duffy holding photos of their nearly 17-years-younger selves, a fun coda).