Whether it's the result of a karmic quirk or of nostalgic indulgence on the part of rock fans, there's no denying that Astbury's career suddenly and almost inexplicably has more legs than a Catholic girls' school. A founding member of the Cult, a group whose blend of old-school swagger and college-radio cool almost single-handedly kept the sound of electric guitars ringing on dance floors from Boston to Birmingham, Astbury in recent years has apparently overcome the vocal woes and substance-abuse problems that often made his band's live shows less than satisfying. What's more, last year the singer rejoined guitarist Billy Duffy and original Cult bassist Martyn Lenoble for a tour that clearly outshone anything the group did during its commercial heyday, if a somewhat sparsely but enthusiastically attended stop at Denver's Fillmore Auditorium is any indication. What's more, Astbury's once-again full-throated howl can currently be heard on "Painted on My Heart," a song penned by hit machine Diane Warren that's the closing theme of the flick Gone in 60 Seconds. So will this renewed level of exposure catapult Astbury and his mates into a lengthy and lucrative resurgence like that of Aerosmith, another hard-rocking outfit that rose from the ashes of its own excess on the strength of twelve-step recovery and power ballads slicker than the floor of your local Jiffy Lube? Only if efforts like this CD are buried -- promptly and deeply.
Even Spirit\Light\Speed's most listenable cuts -- "Back on Earth" and "Tonight (Illuminated)" -- don't stay that way for long, mainly because of Astbury's limited melodic sense and penchant for noodling extensively with synthesized sounds in a desperate but vain attempt to prove he's still hip. Similar ills drag down "High Time Amplifier," a tune whose rhythm track -- an edgy amalgam of tribal and techno influences -- is wasted under a chorus that makes "Louie Louie" sound imaginative. "Tyger," on the other hand, sports some sinewy minor-key harmonies but ultimately is castrated by Astbury's uncharacteristic crooning of nonsense syllables, to say nothing of his laughable lyrical attempts to pay homage to poet William Blake. Conversely, Astbury's decision to offer up the 1989 composition "The Witch (Slt Return)," herein gussied up with more speaker-panning effects than an entire Pink Floyd album, smacks less of a desire for artistic expression than a too-late attempt to cash in on the success of The Blair Witch Project. The most disappointing aspect of Spirit\Light\Speed, however, is its lack of dynamic variations and song development, problems that are most evident in "El Che/Wild Like a Horse." While classic Cult cuts such as "Edie (Ciao Baby)" rose to compelling -- if lyrically cryptic -- crescendos powered mainly by Duffy's muscular licks, "Che" supplies no support, sonic or semantic, for the singer's assertion that the femme fatale he's addressing is indeed as untamed as the song's namesake. "It's Over," on the other hand, places the guitars solidly front and center, if only to distract listeners' attention from the limpness of lines such as "Life travels faster than sound." Played out over this selection's nearly five-and-a-half-minute length, such shortcomings lend unintended significance to Astbury's mantra-like repetition of the coda: "Say that it's over/So fuckin' over."