Cult of Youth are out for something big on Final Days, their third long player via Brooklyn’s Sacred Bones. A message is conveyed before the music even begins; the album’s cover is a painting of the Tower of Babel, the fictional structure in the Book of Genesis used to symbolize human arrogance. As the story goes, after the Great Flood, everyone on earth spoke the same language. The people found the remains of bricks, so they decided to build a tower that reached the heavens in order to unite all the people of the world. God wasn’t cool with this because the humans were encroaching on his territory, so he scattered them all across the earth and gave them new languages, eliminating communication between different peoples. The implications of the cover imagery play out on Final Days, as Cult of Youth succeed in bringing up the sorts of existential questions all those misplaced people may have felt when God moved them all around.
Final Days finds Cult of Youth with a new lineup; along with mainstay and core member Sean Ragon, The Hunt-members Jasper McGandy and Christian Kount are also featured. Compared to prior albums, its generally louder and more reactionary to rock ’n roll in nearly all of its manifestations. The album opens up with the tribal-sounding instrumental “Todestrieb”, which is the Freudian term for “death drive,” an articulation of the death instinct. Cult of Youth immediately present a song that sounds like a sacrilegious ritual and evokes human tendency towards death. The track is a morbid, gray and red dirge of hand-struck drums and siren squeals, a perfect introduction to Final Days’ slant towards death and the unknown.
The second track, “Dragon Rouge”, is post-punk stripped bare of its fuzz, down to its core pathos. Ragon sings, “To open up, to conceal/Many question what is real/But when you hear the angels calling/Know which way the answer cried.” While the lyrics may seem overdramatic, there are very few ways to express the same existential quandaries over death while also keeping the words in the realm of the Biblical or spiritual. It soon completely shifts gears, taking on a bossa nova feel before descending into a dissonant vortex of feedback. This descent is emblematic of other songs on Final Days as well, like “Empty Faction” and “Sanctuary”—Kount’s guitar squeals soon become as familiar as Ragon’s Michael Gira-by-80s croon vocal delivery.
Further embracing the “post” genre, “Gods Garden” is just as close to a post-punk radio hit as it is a call-and-response Irish folk tune, subject matter aside (maybe God isn’t the most righteous after all). Another standout is “Down The Moon”, which draws on tropes of rock’n’roll in all its manifestations: the shuffle, guitar solos, guitar vibrato, sing-scream vocals. What separates it is both a sense of detachment from rock’n’roll as an aesthetic and Cult of Youth’s deft combination of acoustic and electric instrumentation, of traditional and more modern sounds.
This can be heard best in “Of Amber”. What starts out as a sloping anti-ballad—“Many men will tell you what to feel/Some of them will tell you what is real”—rises up into a Talk Talk-esque exploration of concordance, melancholy, and transcendence. Essentially the album deals with not knowing what to do in the face of death, and how it affects what you do in the living: “To forcibly dictate the rape of the land/An omission of climax.” What you do in the living is often driven by fear, and we often find ourselves encompassed by a group mentality that sometimes includes religion or other modes of being, as Cult of Youth implicates in their criticism of our attitudes towards life and death.
Maybe the key is in the nine-minute saga “Sanctaury”, or in the beautiful album closer “Roses”. “A cruel of reminder of your sentiment,” Ragon sings, “Just like roses couldn’t care more/And so many men lay broken/Just to permeate the air.” Maybe Final Days isn’t Cult of Youth’s answer to the existential problems they present (what to do in death/what to do in life?), but it is an indictment of everything that makes life bleak or boring and a celebration of the humans who make it bearable through empathy and art. They don’t have the answers because they’re still working through it themselves, carefully considering everything they do as they navigate their way through Final Days.
While conceptually strong, Final Days lacks the catchiness and excitement of Cult of Youth’s previous two releases, especially their 2011 eponymous LP. But maybe that lack of dynamic, anthemic energy is part of the point. The subject matter is bleak, and Cult of Youth are dealing with questions of existence. Final Days is Cult of Youth figuring it out. Maybe we just have to figure it out with them.