Final Days, the ferocious new album from New York noise-punks Cult of Youth, opens amid the decayed wasteland of "Todestrieb" (German for "death drive") and only ventures into bleaker, more harrowing territory from there.
Final Days, the ferocious new album from New York noise-punks Cult of Youth, opens amid the decayed wasteland of “Todestrieb” (German for “death drive”) and only ventures into bleaker, more harrowing territory from there.
Throughout, singer Sean Ragon sounds spooked by unknown forces — “Some of us are scared to death of things the rest ignore,” he offers cryptically on one tune — and plagued with visions of his own death. “I know the end is coming,” he growls on “Sanctuary,” nine-plus minutes of corroded, Bad Seeds-worthy folk-punk that offers little in the way of safe haven.
“I don’t know how to explain [the premonitions of death]. It was just something I felt in that moment in time that I couldn’t shake,” said Ragon, 33, reached on the road in the midst of the band’s winter tour, which stops at Ace of Cups on Wednesday, Feb. 4. “I’d just gotten married and a few other things, and symbolically death also represents a period of great change. I do think when you’re dealing with lyrics or art … part of it is just dealing with what’s kicking around in your subconscious.”
Unfortunately for Ragon, his doomed visions became reality shortly after he sent off a final version of the album for mastering, when he was attacked and savagely beaten by four men who left him bloodied, bruised and with a leg so badly broken it required extensive surgery and the insertion of a metal rod.
“At the time I was really just paranoid and terrified and I had this feeling that something bad was just around the bend. And it was,” Ragon said. “It’s been months, but I’m never going to be the same [physically] after that [attack].”
Though Final Days walks an undeniably dark, cold path, Ragon, born in Cambridge, Massachusetts to a computer programmer father and a mother who worked with children, doesn’t consider himself a pessimist, noting the band’s previous album, Love Will Prevail, released in 2012, charts a far more hopeful course. Rather, he said, he simply follows his artistic muse whichever way it might lead, describing the creative process as more of a bloodletting or a full-body purge than something carefully thought out. Indeed, if it weren’t something hardwired into the singer’s psyche, it’s doubtful he’d even pursue a career as a musician.
“For most people, playing music ruins their lives,” Ragon said. “It takes away the best years of your life, and gives you a craft that’s unmarketable and keeps you on the road a long time and leaves you broke. I can’t imagine anybody aspiring toward it. It seems foolish … [but] some of us are unlucky enough to have to do it."
Part of Final Days’ mysterious, gravity-like pull can be attributed to the atmosphere established by Ragon and bandmates Christian Kount (guitar), Jasper McGandy (bass), Cory Flannigan (drums) and Paige Flash (cello). Songs like the instrumental “Todestrieb” and the churning, muddy “Down the Moon,” are dense and detailed, layered with everything from clattering percussion and violent acoustic shredding to barely perceptible field recordings that haunt the distant background.
“It’s this thing where you might not necessarily notice it … but if you were to hear it without it and then hear it with you’d be able to pinpoint it has a different feeling,” said Ragon, who has captured field recordings of everything from empty rooms (rustling papers, buzzing air conditioners, humming light fixtures) to dully roaring NYC traffic. “It’s a subtle way of capturing that person or that place and putting their energy in [the song].”
Considering events of the past year, Ragon finds himself in a remarkably good headspace these days. He’s enjoying married life, and noted people are responding to the band in ways they haven’t in the past, saying, “It seems more personal to them now.” Even so, he’s unsure what direction future recordings might take — or if they’ll ever come to pass.
“If you knew what worked you could bottle it and sell it,” he said. “You can’t wake up and assume you’re going to be able to do another creative project ever again, because if you’re not inspired nothing’s going to make it happen.”