I’m going out on an emo limb here, but Finland’s To/Die/For had a run of three albums where they released some of the best goth metal the world ever saw. From Jaded to Wounds Wide Open they were completely unfuckable with for slick, uber hooky sad boy rock, and to this day I’m still all over those platters like a beast. Then came the endless line up conundrums and inner turmoil and the band broke up and reformed several times before dropping Samsara in 2011. It was immediately apparent that all the fussin’ and feudin’ took a heavy toll on the musical end product, and Samsara was a major step down from its mega catchy predecessors. Even the killer, one of a kind vocals of Jarne Peratalo sounded tired, dissipated and disinterested, as if he could barely bring himself to perform. It looked like the end was nigh for the reigning kings of Finnish gloom and my little black heart was both achy and breaky.
Out of left field, a new To/Die/For album arrived in the AMG promo bin this week (along with the 500th goddamn Vardan album of 2015, oddly enough), and to say it filled me with trepidation is an understatement. And while Cult (I’m not using the damn “v”) certainly isn’t up to the level of their golden age, it’s better than their recent aluminum era, and I suppose it’s a step in the right direction, though those glory days seem a million years ago.
Two things will jump out at long-time TDF fans as opener ” In Black” runs its course: the classic sound is more present than on Samsara, and much more noticeably, Jarne’s voice is even more shot now. He seems perpetually stuck in a ragged, throaty rasp and those crisp clean wails and unusual notes he was famous for are no more. It’s quite shocking to hear how different he sounds these days, and his weakened delivery definitely hurts the material, but the writing is much better this time out and at least approximates their beloved era, so it’s a bit of a mixed bag.
Voice destruction aside, it’s definitely good to hear the band back in their Robert Smith approved wheelhouse on glum goth rockers like “Screaming Birds” and “Unknown III” (a callback to a classic track off Jaded). “You” has a bit more punch and muscle and Jarne sounds better here than anywhere else, and “Let it Bleed” is as close to the olden days as it gets with an energetic pace and sense or urgency.
With things going better than expected, the band decides to shoot themselves in their collective foot with a wildly ill-conceived cover of Paula Abdul‘s loathsome pop hit “Straight Up,” and in the process proves you can do something worse than Paula. They’ve covered pop hits in the past, but made far better song selections that fit their style. This one doesn’t fit any hole available, square, round or rhomboid, and leaves a potentially embarrassing “must skip” for you to contend with forevermore. Closing ballad “End of Tears” is also on the poor side, with a weak, languid pace that never really gets going and offers little to remember it by.
The biggest curiosity here is what happened to Jarne’s vocal chords. He’s gone from one of my favorite singers to a guy that sounds pained to sing at all. He either completely blew out his voice, took up a two-pack a day habit or developed a fetish for gargling acid and ground glass. Whatever the case, it’s tough hearing him warble through songs he would have once completely owned. As for the rest of the band, the promo didn’t provide a roster so I’ve no idea who appears here with Jarne. The guitar-work is decent and does a good job of staying true to the band’s old sound, though there are no breakout riffs or jaw-dropping solos. Likewise, the keyboards are capably done, unstated and add a nicely despondent texture to the mix. Sadly, this was always a band carried by Jarne’s distinctive voice, and since he’s no longer capable of that, they needed more musical oomph to compensate and that just isn’t present here.
Though better than Samsara, Cult still finds To/Die/For in the assisted living stage of a once great career, and like visiting a nursing home, it’s depressing to see a loved one age and decline. This is a pale shadow of the band I loved, but there are still flashes of the old magic, and for some fans, that may be enough. Sad boy is really sad now.