It’s rather clear to map out the evolution of Cultdreams and how they’ve come to reach this point. They might have moved away from their original Kamikaze Girls moniker out of necessity given the cultural implications of the term, but given how much their sonic focus has shifted alongside it, this might as well be a new band altogether. Their lead singles imply a rather definitive move away from the spiky indie-punk of previous releases, replaced by a more heady, all-encompassing shoegaze sound that’s shown enormous potential even at this early stage. That’s hardly a surprise though; Cultdreams have always been a band for whom change and adaptability has come naturally, especially for vocalist Lucinda Livingstone and her juggling between this band, being a now-permanent member of Nervus and running the successful feminist zine Ladyfuzz. Of course, the knife-edge of modern life remains as precarious as ever, and that serves as an incredibly prescient and necessary driving force behind Things That Hurt and how much of an influence on the change in sound it’s had.
Of course, Cultdreams have never shied away from speaking out on these topics, be that in a musical sense or outside of that context, and in crafting an album like this that operates with so much more weight and force behind it, there’s a level of power that Things That Hurt has that’s genuinely excellent and handily surpasses anything they’ve done before. Because, as easy as it would be to go in all guns blazing and press forward with their more punk-driven side, Cultdreams push such a huge amount of nuance and portentous sadness and anger in a slow-burn approach etches itself in so much deeper. It helps that the creative intent is also fantastic across the board, tying everything together in the sort of emotionally sonorous listen that feels like a genuinely world-class step up.
It’s how natural such a transition feels that pushes Things That Hurt into that bracket of quality as well. This feels like a complete, ground-up overhaul, with huge swathes of shoegaze accented by shimmering emo passages that becomes washed out in monolithic guitars and tremendously rich and detailled melodies. They’d toyed with this before on tracks like Stitches, but on the whole, this is a much more fleshed-out proposition that already feels wonderfully realised. There’s a beautiful hollowness in the ringing guitars of a track like Brain Daze that expertly pairs swirling melancholy with a great sense of tension, and when the formula is opened out with the quicker tremolo riffing of Born An Underdog, Still Living One or the ghostly, minimalist guitar work of Statement, it’s a testament to how good Cultdreams are as musicians that they’re able to circumvent the relative narrowness that can often afflict these sorts of shoegaze pivots. What’s more, this is a remarkably tight album, playing to a sense of expanse and grandeur without ever running long for the sake of it or feeling overly indulgent. There’s a lot to credit the production for in this regard with a clear openness that can be felt in a track like Toxins, but the punk spirit is still there, and that preserves the leanness of the likes of Not My Generation and Flowers On Your Grave to get the absolute best of both worlds. Cultdreams remain a punk band at heart, but they excellently smash apart any possible restrictions or rigid boundaries that could come with that.
But the real star of the show amongst all of this is Livingstone, both in how she presents herself within such a deep mix and in how much more powerful that makes her content feel. She’s far from the most technically gifted vocalist in the world, but it’s not necessary to be for what she’s trying to get across, with a worn-down, ragged demeanour formed from curdled anger, frustration and exasperation at a society that still seems designed to beat down marginalised groups with political myopia and systematic misogyny that only exacerbates existing grief and depression. The clear emotional and thematic nexus comes in Not My Generation with each element brought to the fore against the inspired choice of placing Livingstone’s vocals deeper in the mix to highlight that perceived powerlessness, and while nothing ever quite reaches that same height, Things That Hurt’s richness is able to shine through at virtually every turn. There’s a plainspokenness that only adds to the impact in the stifling of self-expression to withhold homogeneous gender norms on We Never Rest and Don’t Let Them Tell You Otherwise, and the aching, fatigued disappointment at manipulative and abusive musicians still not being taken to task on Statement that’s impossible to fake. And when that’s all set to the backdrop of death on Rest & Reflection and Flowers On The Graves and debilitating mental turmoil on Brain Days, the layers of resonance and reality continue to pile themselves on for a remarkably bleak but unflinching listen.
It’s honestly as good as this sort of leap of faith could turn out, as Cultdreams have not only metamorphosed into something with much greater potential than previous, but they’re already hitting enormously high watermarks right out of the gate. It’s a wonderful coalescence of unbridled creativity and heartbreaking pain that rarely falters in terms of its ambition, and only slightly being held from something truly special by not embracing its wider sonic palette quite as much as it could. That’s the most minor complaint that can be made, though; Things That Hurt is the sort of deep, consistency excellent album that will set up Cultdreams handsomely going forward. It’s the rare reinvention that surpasses its previous incarnation in every conceivable way, and Cultdreams undoubtedly make the most of it.
For fans of: Foxing, Slow Crush, The Hotelier
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘Things That Hurt’ by Cultdreams is released on 16th August on Big Scary Monsters.