“Cult, in a way, is the Bayside discography without using any old songs.” – Anthony Raneri
If you’re a fan of Bayside and read that sentence before you had the opportunity to hear the band’s sixth album, it’s probably safe to say that you were/are beyond excited. Bayside is the sort of band that sounds even more like itself as time goes on, getting better and better at amplifying its strengths, marginalizing its weaknesses, and finding new parts of its sound that fit so perfectly that it’s like they’ve always been there. The band is consistent. It’s consistently great. Those facts, the promise of a new record embodying the spirit of the band’s discography and involving the producer behind Bayside and The Walking Wounded, and the name of the record itself combined to set expectations for Cult very high. As if there could be any other outcome, Bayside delivered. Particularly once it hits its second half, Cult is worthy of its name and everything it stands for.
Right out of the gate, “Big Cheese” gets your pulse rate up with its pounding drums, mind-melting solo, and monster hook. There are more than a few truly memorable lines to be found on Cult, and this song has one of the best: “They say the soul don’t die, but mine’s been dead for my whole life.” This record’s largely focused on the ideas of mortality and legacy, and that line relates nicely to both concepts. The song bridges familiar Bayside material and where the band is today perfectly. It’s fresh and feels new. On the other hand, the first time I heard “Time Has Come,” I turned seventeen again. This song is where that quote from above really first kicks in, and it kicks hard in the spirit of the band’s self-titled record. I don’t think the track is quite the strongest Cult has to offer, but it takes me back to that precise feeling of falling in love with one of my favorite bands and with one of my favorite records, and man, is that a great feeling. “Hate Me” hits me in all the right places from a musical perspective, with its dynamic and textural shifts, whispered backing vocals in the bridge, and insanely fast solo, even by Jack O’Shea standards. “You’re No Match” finds its greatest strengths in its melodic main riff, powerful bridge, and brief instrumental fills.
Unlike what seems to be the case for the majority of lead singles, “Pigsty” is just about the newest-sounding song on Cult. While the rest of the record’s tracks aren’t dated or necessarily trying to recreate the past, they certainly have much deeper roots in the band’s previous work. Don’t get me wrong, though; “Pigsty” is still Bayside being Bayside. The biting lyrics, impressive guitar parts, and driving rhythm section are exactly what you want to hear out of these guys, but it certainly feels fresher than the preceding handful of tracks. With somewhat cliched lyrics, the mid-tempo “Transitive Property” is the closest thing Cult has to a low point. There’s nothing overly offensive about the song, but it also doesn’t seem to be the best version of itself. Originally written as an apology from Raneri to his then-girlfriend-now-wife, it’s fairly easy to imagine this song in a more stripped-down acoustic form that would better suit the simplicity of the lyrics and allow the emotional undertones to shine through more clearly. If you need any more convincing, check out this video of Raneri performing it acoustic at one of his solo shows.
Kicking off the second half of the record, “Stuttering” is bound to be the overwhelming fan favorite from Cult. It’s self-conscious, honest, and direct in its lyrics, it’s flawlessly catchy, and it’s a complete and total jam. The bass line is killer, and it has perhaps the best couplet of the record: ”Who do I think I’m kidding, like I’m Robert fucking Smith? Maybe I’m trying to convince myself that I’m someone who’ll be missed.” The band executes the bridge flawlessly, and my only gripe is that I don’t particularly love the repeated motive in the chorus. “Bear With Me” continues the energy and comes in with a purpose. It gets in, it gets off, and it gets out. The upbeat tempo is well-suited to the urgency in the song’s lyrics, and the drum- and bass-driven verses provide the perfect contrast to the massive chorus and strong bridge.
Over the course of my two dozen or so listens to Cult in the past two months in preparation for this review, “Objectivist On Fire” has been my favorite part of the record for each and every time I’ve pressed play. While this may be in part due to the fact that it provides one of the album’s few reprieves from the band’s heavier side, I think that, at the most basic level, the song is the best-written piece of the collection and that it succeeds in every aspect where Shudder’s “I Can’t Go On” fell short. The song builds consistently from Anthony Raneri’s exposed vocals at the beginning and goes through a number of textural shifts and dynamic changes, dripping emotion all along. The bridge incorporates a feel that would be at home on The Walking Wounded, and the line “I thought perfection came from practicing” should find a comfortable place somewhere in your brain. The track hits hard in all the right ways, and it’s easily one of my favorites of any album released so far this year.
Although “Something’s Wrong” initially turned me off with its more straightforward structure and overall feel, I can’t deny how much I love to indulge in its hook. I’ve literally woken up with it in my head three to four times each week, every week in 2014. It combines the power of a strong melody with just enough external evaluation and internal questioning to make for the perfect punk-rock earworm. While I previously would’ve heralded this song’s bridge as its apex, I don’t think that designation is so clear anymore. “The Whitest Lie,” on the other hand, is a strong track the whole way through that plays out like a compilation of some of the best lyrics Raneri’s written in the past two or three years. It’s a little disjointed, but the perspective is cohesive and consistent to the extent that it all works out in the way that the band’s best closers do. While it doesn’t have quite the same anthemic repeated lyrics like “They don’t care, they never cared” from “(Pop)Ular SciencE” or “I spent all my life waiting for a moment to come” from “Killing Time,” the song’s most memorable morsel comes earlier in the deceptively blunt “If living is a vice, I wish no virtue. What could go wrong?” I want to tweet the first half of that every time I hear it, and I’ll probably be doing so for years to come. Although the song doesn’t quite wrap Cult up the way I’d like it to, it definitely makes me want to listen to the record more, and that’s hardly a bad thing.
Cult is as dark, as punk, and as rock-and-roll as Bayside has ever been. The record carries forth elements from the band’s past – that particular guitar tone, those harmonies – and applies them to the present. At times, it feels like each track is a sort of period piece from some point in the past dozen years. It’s almost hard to believe that “Time Has Come” isn’t a Bayside-era b-side or that “Stuttering” actually wasn’t the lead single from Shudder. The only glaring stylistic omission is the album’s lack of a “Don’t Call Me Peanut” or an “On Love, On Life.” For a band that put out what is arguably its genre’s best acoustic record, it’s surprising that this collection doesn’t tap into what its members are capable of when stripped down to barer bones. To that point, Cult is almost frustratingly straightforward, in the same way that many greatest hits records are: these songs are good on their own and work in context, but it feels like they’re focused on moving from one to the next as quickly as possible. I saw Bayside fit eight songs into a Warped Tour set two years ago, and the top half and a half of Cult feels a bit like that – they’re firing on all cylinders, but it’d be nice to have them pump the breaks here or there to truly allow listeners to savor exactly what they’re doing with each track.
I know that the preceding paragraph is kind of long, and I know that it’s mostly long because it’s filled with me venting about this record’s flaw(s). The point I want to stress is that, despite these concerns, Cult is of the level of quality expected of Bayside. These guys know how to play their instruments well, and they know how to write solid songs. Anthony Raneri continues to construct fantastic, emotional lyrics, and he continues to make strides in developing more mature perspectives on love, on life, and on whatever doesn’t fall into those two already-overbroad categories. Jack O’Shea is still the most impressive guitarist in punk rock. If you like Bayside and don’t enjoy this record, you’re lying to yourself about one of those two things. With that said, I don’t think that Cult will end up being many fans’ favorite of Bayside’s discography. But, the bottom line is that it doesn’t need to be. When a band keeps putting out albums that are all this great, ranking them is just a matter of splitting hairs.