Most people familiar with late 80's hits like "Love Removal Machine" and "Fire Woman" might be surprised to hear about The Cult's early roots as a Goth rock band (or "Positive Punk", as it was originally called). But the fact remains that by the time the band was first formed, its founding members Billy Duffy and Ian Astbury were already well versed and battle hardened post-punk warriors, with stints in Theatre of Hate and Southern Death Cult under their respective belts.
It was from the ashes of this latter outfit that a new band was born: indeed, after sharing the stage on several occasions, Ian (then using his mother's maiden name, Lindsay) had been impressed by Billy's playing and that, coupled with his growing disillusion with SDC's path, convinced him to jump ship and start anew. They discovered that they shared a powerful chemistry, with Ian finally finding in Billy's ferocious yet innovative playing the perfect foil for his talents, something that he had lacked while in SDC. Very soon they were coming up with the first songs and they wasted no time in recruiting color drummer Ray Mondo and former guitar player Jamie Stewart (both from the band Ritual) to play bass. In order to capitalize on the groundwork done by Ian's previous band, they adopted the Death Cult moniker and they entered the studio to record 4 tracks that were released as the "Death Cult EP".
These tracks form the backbone of this release, now expanded and renamed "Ghost Dance", and they include "Brothers Grimm", "Horse Nation", "Christians" and the title track. And for the most part, the band still shows its goth/post-punk influences, especially in "Brothers Grimm" and "Ghost Dance", which sound like a more aggressive, more cohesive, more rounded version of SDC, featuring Ian's continued fascination with all things Native American, a pinch of western inspired music and Mondo's tribal drums, which are truly fantastic and steal the spotlight at times. But just as these tracks could have easily been written for a potential SDC album, a song like "Horse Nation" already suggests an evolution towards a more straightforward kind of rock: the song would be re-recorded for the band's debut, "Dreamtime", and while I enjoy Mondo's playing quite a lot, I believe that the final version is the superior choice, featuring a more passionate performance by Ian as well as some added vocals.
The next step in the evolution of the band came after a few months of touring, when Mondo was replaced by Nigel Preston, who brought a slightly more straightforward style to the band's rhythm section while retaining the tribal element. Again, the band wasted no time and cut the single "God's Zoo", which continued the trend started with "Horse Nation". The band continued touring and was featured in a BBC session, the source of 4 additional tracks that were included on this release:
"Flowers in the Desert" makes its first appearance in a wonderful acoustic version, a song that had been originally written by SDC with a faster pace, different lyrics and the original "Flowers in the Forest" name; this was probably the one song that more clearly hinted at SDC's potential, but it wasn't until it was re-written that it finally came into its own; this version lies somewhere between SDC's original take and the final recording included less than a year later in The Cult's debut, "Dreamtime", keeping a faster tempo closer to the original, but changing many of the vocal melodies and allowing them more space to breathe. I personally find this take to be fascinating, perhaps even more than the final studio version.
After a complete lyrical overhaul, "Too Young" eventually morphed into "Rider in the Snow", also included in Dreamtime, and while both tracks are musically consistent, the change in lyrics and vocals was definitely for the better, as it is my personal favorite track off "Dreamtime".
"Butterflies", which would also wind up in "Dreamtime", makes its debut here, and not much changed for it other than being slightly shorter. It is a great track that slowly builds up and gains intensity and clearly shows the increasing focus the band was achieving. And finally "With Love" is an early incarnation of "Sea and Sky", which would eventually be released as a b-side from "Dreamtime"'s leading single, "Go West". Again, the music is fairly consistent, and the biggest change is in the lyrical content and once again, the song would greatly benefit from the rewrite.
As an added bonus, this compilation ends with an extended, remixed version of "God's Zoo (These Times)", which is interesting but not great: in all honesty, I'm not a big fan of extended/remixed/alternative takes, and this particular one is a good example of why.
That minor quibble aside, this compilation is great, deserving no less than 4 ½ stars (my actual rating is 5 stars): it features all the recorded output from that early stage of the band, which would shortly rename itself The Cult in order to shed any possible negative connotations that could be associated with their name and shoot for the limelight. It may not appeal to everyone, especially to those unaware of the band's beginnings, but it is a must for any and all fans who love both "Dreamtime" and "Love". I myself am a total Cult maniac, and I love each and every single piece of music they have ever released, musical direction changes notwithstanding, so this is a great addition to my collection.
But just because I am a self professed fanatic it doesn't mean I can't be objective: quite the opposite, actually. I'll be the first to say that The Cult's most unique music, the one that had the biggest impact on me, is the music from their first 2 albums. That's not to say that "Electric" or "Sonic Temple" are lesser albums, but simply that in both "Dreamtime" and "Love" The Cult forged a path of their own, offering a true alternative to all the music that was available at the time. For those of you out there who agree, this collection is for you, but newcomers should probably save this one for later purchase.
How relevant is it? Well, just to give you an idea, out of the 10 songs included here, 7 still featured regularly into the band's set after their name change, as reflected on their "Live at the Lyceum" performance. Bottom Line, this collection will allow you to have a fuller picture of the band's roots and evolution and hopefully, with the added insight, it will allow you to enjoy their later output all the more.