The 26 Biggest Cult Bands In Rock!
Whether they regularly sell out stadiums or tiny shoebox venues, loads and loads of bands have hardcore fans. But that doesn't make them a cult band. No, a cult band and their fanbase have something much more special going on. From secret handshakes to special clothing to beyond-obsessive gig attendance, these are not your normal bands or followers. It’s time to lift the veil of the cult acts who put the ‘fan’ into ‘fanatic'…
My Chemical Romance
Hmm, MCR and cults? That sounds a little too familiar. Back in 2008, The Sun and Daily Mail ran stories naming the band as leaders of the ‘sinister’ cult of emo. Yet, ignoring how laughably wide of the mark those reports were, if you take the definition of a cult band as one that reminds you that the word ‘fan’ derives from ‘fanatic’, MCR certainly qualify. They had a profound link with their fans, and when they announced their split it triggered feelings of genuine grief. What the tabloids missed, though, was the fact that they were so life-affirming. Yes, they touched upon some very dark places, but their message was one of positivity, unity and love. And, of course, it helped that they were one of the most vital bands of the century.
There’s no such thing as a part-time Tool fan. Theirs is an obsessive fanbase who pour over every last lyric, riff and piece of artwork, forever trying to unravel the mysteries within. It’s this level of zeal that has miraculously helped the prog-metal titans release chart-topping album after chart-topping album, despite the fact they only release an album once every other blue moon. The appeal? There’s just so much to unlock. Tool sing about third eyes, alien abduction and being violently rogered in prison. And as for their artwork? It may or may not require 3D glasses built into the case and require hours of study to comprehend. Hence, whole websites exist trying to solve their time changes, their riddles and song meanings. And you just don’t get that with Sleeping With Sirens.
How many other bands can you name who have their own God? Exactly. And how many other bands have custom dance moves? And their own version of the horns? Again, exactly. Some say this is ridiculous, but BABYMETAL’s fans know better. And 12,000 of them all went nuts for the Fox God at Wembley the other week. Synchronized, choreographed nuts that they learned from copying dance moves off of YouTube, but nuts all the same. And when you’ve seen that in full flight, it actually makes total sense.
During the Toronto prog trio’s 48-year career – yep, that’s 48 – Rush have released 20 studio albums despite rarely being on nodding terms with the mainstream. Their frontman, Geddy Lee, may possess the sort of voice that makes dogs look restless, yet they continue to sell out arenas across the world at the drop of a hat. Their bookish drummer, Neil Peart, writes lyrics inspired by science fiction, philosophy and mythology, and even penned The Trees in the late ’70s after imagining what would happen if maples and oaks got into an altercation. But for that reason alone, we – alongside the likes of Metallica, Foo Fighters, Biffy Clyro and the South Park team – love them for it, and will gladly take on anyone who disagrees. But only in a game that involves 20-sided dice in a poorly ventilated room.
twenty one pilots
No band since My Chemical Romance has galvanised such a HUGE cult following like twenty one pilots. Beyond just making genius crossover rock/pop/hip-hip songs, they've made an entire world for their fans to inhabit. Members of the 'Skeleton Clique' have a dress code: skeleton onesies, black body/face paint, smeared red eyes and balaclavas. It has its own hand symbols. It has its own logo: I-/ used in Twitter handles across the globe. It has a ludicrously complex secret handshake to signify its membership. No wonder fans sleep on the streets overnight outside venues just to get on the front row.
30 Seconds To Mars
Let us be grateful that Jared Leto isn’t the sort of bloke who would use his powers for evil. Because he could tell The Echelon to do pretty much anything and get results. Fortunately, we’re not close to the edge of a 30STM dictatorship. Instead, Jared has marshalled this insane devotion into his band’s creative works. For 2009’s This Is War, many of the backing vocals were recorded at a fan event called The Summit, while fans had the chance to appear on the album cover by sending in their photo. As far as devoted fanbases go, 30 Seconds’ would quite literally follow them to Mars.
Devin Townsend says: “I don’t really know how I developed a cult following. Maybe the fact I’ve been relentlessly uncool for so long and with such force I’ve duped people into thinking there’s something worth following there?! A lot of the people I’ve known have been following what I do for many, many years, and proactively help me with my career, whether buying a shirt or coming to a show or whatever. I want to make those people happy, I have respect for the people who continue to support me and vice versa, and I think that makes for a good long-term relationship. There’s really nothing about me that’s particularly special or unique, but my process of trying to become a regular functioning human being comes out through music. I don’t have answers for anyone, but maybe the by-product of that process – the music that I make – can perhaps help others with their process.”
Sixteen years, four albums… and what does anyone really know about New York’s Brand New? They’re a band that famously shun the rockstar spotlight, only infrequently granting photographers access to take pictures at their live shows, let alone journalists access to their minds, hearts and their inner circle. Such staunch commitment to their privacy continues to cast a mysterious shadow across the quartet, while heightening the connection fans feel with songwriter Jesse Lacey, as they cling to every word that oozes from his acid-dipped pen.
Black Veil Brides
If one mark of a cult band is that they divide opinion, Black Veil Brides deserve the mantle far more than most. In 2011’s K! Readers’ Poll, the Brides won gongs for Best Album, Best Song, Best Video… and Worst Band. When they were subjected to a hail of missiles at the following year’s Download, Andy Biersack remained defiant, presenting his bare arse as a target for the haters. “It’s important for us, that when someone is giving us grief onstage, to show our fans how important it is that they stand up and feel confident in themselves,” he said later. Love them or hate them – and members of the BVB Army really, really, really love them – it’s difficult to disagree.
Rocket From The Crypt
If you put Elvis Presley, Dennis Lyxzén from Refused and a fire-and-brimstone preacher through a blender, you’d end up with a bloody mess. Sift through the smoothie, though, and you’ll find Rocket From The Crypt’s John ‘Speedo’ Reis screaming into your face. RFTC were sharply-dressed punk soul brothers from San Diego who torched venues around the world with their ass-shaking rock’n’roll and a swivel-eyed intensity. To this day, their disciples are easily spotted by the band’s black ‘rocket’ motif inked on their arms, which, in the ‘90s, would even get you into their gigs for free.
Tribal ’S’ logo tattoos? Check. Fans dressing as the band at Download? Check. A charming name for said fans (Maggots)? Check-check-check. Slipknot were built to be a cult deal. We knew it from the first time they roared out of Iowa in 1999. But it wasn’t just the look and the art that did it – Slipknot’s rage was toxic, but easy to digest for an army of metal fans ready to ‘fuck this world’. For the alienated, for the outcast, for anyone who felt ‘odd’ compared to others, here was a band you could not only love, but believe in as well.
Jacob Bannon says: “I’m thankful for the fact that we have people that appreciate our band. I feel that people connect with our music – and rightly so – because it’s honest music. It’s free of a lot of the posturing that a lot of metal and hardcore bands have. We write about our lives, we play music that moves us, and write for us specifically. We do it free of any predetermined character. We constantly evolve as a band and as people, and we connect with people that also do the same in their own lives. We don’t make the type of music that people just casually listen to. I think the same probably goes for most aggressive bands. It’s a fanatical community. People are fanatic about their artist. For them, the relationship is always an intense one. Everyone’s story is different, about why they connect with your band and how they connect with the music. It’s always unique and it’s always special, because everyone’s lives are special and different.”
Kiss invented cult rock ‘n’ roll. In the ‘70s, literally all anyone, anywhere knew about them was that they were four comic book superheroes with guitars and make-up, who, incidentally, could put their name on anything money could buy. They even ran a contest to win unmasked pics (which were in sealed packs and faded almost immediately when removed). We’ve all seen their faces now, but the legend of KISS is still mythical to the rabid KISS Army.
Very few bands can lay claim to having shaped an entire musical movement and subculture, but Black Flag helped spawn at least three, and influenced countless individual musicians and bands (as well as a million ‘bar’ tattoos). Alongside Bad Brains and Minor Threat, they’re widely seen as the godfathers of hardcore punk, though latter periods of the band introduced a tortuously slow side that would be used as the basis for sludge metal and the noisier side of grunge. In short, if you like heavy, ugly music, you probably owe Black Flag a pint.
Manic Street Preachers
There was already something that set the Manics apart before February 1, 1995. Their anti-everything stance, flamboyant statements and guitarist Richey Edwards’ nihilistic poetry saw fans dressing in similar style and daubing Richey’s lyrics anywhere. But on that fateful day, when Richey – who had once carved ‘4 Real’ into his arm to prove his commitment to his art to a journalist – disappeared near an infamous suicide hotspot, the Manics became more than just a rock band. Richey was never found, but fans still yearn for him, and follow his example with feather boas and tattoos of his genius lyrics.
Most people know Brit space-rock lords Hawkwind for their hit Silver Machine from 1972 (on which a pre-Motörhead Lemmy sang), or for the bass-tastic Masters Of The Universe from that Ford ad. But Hawkwind’s acid-packed freakouts about inner space, outer space, and what’s beyond space have developed into a subculture of their own, where volume, peace, love and LSD rule, bringing together bikers, punks, hippies, ravers, metalheads and anyone wanting their mind blown. Gigs at Stonehenge for the solstice? Yep. Own festival? Yep. A far-out communal live experience unlike any other? Yeah, maaaaan.
The God Of Fuck. The Antichrist Superstar. Public Enemy Number One. The man who struck fear into middle-class America to such a degree that he was even blamed for inspiring the ‘Trenchcoat Mafia’ to commit the Columbine school shootings has had a lot of names in his time. And they’re all labels the man himself has happily played up to on his ascent to the top of the controversy podium. Yet while the freak-show imagery added to the myth, Manson’s analytical intelligence has always provided more than mere stilts-over-substance thrills.
Mikael Åkerfeldt says: “I never really reflected on us being a cult band. I think, first of all, we’ve been around a while, so we’ve certainly not had any kind of overnight success, and we’ve always done our own thing, I like to think. We never played it by the rules. We’ve continued to make music the same way we always have, and nobody has ever told us what to do or what would be the ‘good thing’ to do. We were catapulted into a version of the music business that, until then, we were unaware of, but it worked out for us. It seems that we hear ‘sell-out’ with every release, though (laughs)!”
So, what we said about BABYMETAL and their own God? Well, Ghost have their own religion and their own pope-figure, Papa Emeritus (three have come and gone since the band’s inception). And they have anonymity. At one point, it was assumed that the clergymen under the smocks were members of fellow Swedish bands Watain and In Solitude having a laugh. But realising the three bands' tour dates made this impossible – it’s a difficult thing, being on two continents at once – Ghost’s congregation simply shrugged and didn’t care. Such is the power of Ghost’s mystery, it’s far cooler not to know, and keep listening to Papa’s satanic sermons as though this was the most normal thing in the world. Oh, and they bought Ghost wine by the gallon, incense by the kilo, and whatever unit of measurement you use to count Ghost butt-plugs. Amen.
LA band X don’t figure as prominently in the history books as contemporaries such as the Sex Pistols, but they were still a vital force. It wasn’t just because they were one of the few punk bands fronted by a female singer, although Exene Cervenka’s strident delivery and vocal dynamic with bassist/singer and one-time husband John Doe was one of their defining elements. They were also fearlessly inventive, expanding punk’s boundaries with blues, country and roots music, inspiring the likes of Bad Religion and Pearl Jam to follow in their wake.
Nine Inch Nails
You may think Nine Inch Nails are just a very popular band, but they are, in fact, a cult. And not just because they inspired a generation to indulge the darker recesses of their personalities. Rather, the cult of NIN has grown over time via the internet. Yes, Trent Reznor is very much a man who assembles the masses behind their computer screens. He’s released free download albums. He gets people to remix his tracks. And, for the tour of 2007 album Year Zero, he even left codes hidden around venues that led fans to secret online content. Hell, Trent even hired fan Rob Sheridan to be a long-term collaborator on the strength of a NIN fansite he’d designed. Clearly, it pays to be in this cult.
Every cult needs a symbol. Something recognisable, simple, but loaded with meaning. And Ville Valo came up with a doozy when he created the Heartagram – a mash-up of a heart and a pentagram – to represent HIM’s ‘love metal’. You couldn’t move at Download for the things tattooed on fans, while Jackass’ Bam Margera put it on anything he could find, and then-Killswitch Engage vocalist Howard Jones had one on his wrist. Look around next time you’re stood at the bus stop, and you might just be surprised who you see sporting one…
And now for the band often referred to as the spiritual successors to psychedelic rockers The Grateful Dead, whose ‘Dead Head’ fans would literally follow them wherever they played. It’s not uncommon to see Pearl Jam fans at gigs holding signs that say ‘This is my 157th show!’. Yes, their fans will put their whole life on hold to travel around countries and continents in pursuit of their heroes. There's even a Pearl Jam Stat Tracker for fans to tick off all the shows they've been to which hands out achievements and tells you exactly which songs you've got left to hear them play. This devotion is largely because, aside from being a phenomenal band, Pearl Jam give zero fucks about anything but their fans. In fact, they once fought to reduce ticket prices, while regularly treating them to three-hour sets!
Aside from a couple of gigs in their very early days, Swedish black metal enigmas Bathory never played live. They did interviews, but not many, and what videos and photos that did exist of the band showed mainman Quorthon as a fire-breathing Viking from deepest Scandinavia. In the ‘80s, before the internet made bands’ real identities easy to track down, it was hard to believe that Quorthon didn't live in a cave in a Swedish forest, that he didn’t just wander around in a loincloth with a sword, or that Heavenshore studios, where he recorded, wasn’t just a petrol-stinking garage. But in the minds of a generation of metal fans and musicians – from Watain’s Erik Danielsson who sports the band’s iconic ‘Goat Head’ logo on his arm, to Lamb Of God’s Randy Blythe and Marilyn Manson – the raging thrash of their first three albums, and the epic Viking metal that followed is not just to be heard, but worshipped like the work of a Norse god.
Weezer fans are hardcore. Seriously hardcore. They remortgage their houses to take a trip on the Weezer Cruise. They spend all of their downtime tracking down every last B-side or live recording Rivers Cuomo ever put his name to. And, of course, they squabble with each other over which album/era is best. While it must be said that Weezer have not always been entirely comfortable with the adoration/expectation that their fans shower upon them, that's all changed lately. 2014's stunning album Everything Will Be Alright In The End was not just a marvellous return to form, it was also a love letter to their fans. Right now, with Rivers often arranging to meet with fans via the net – even taking them to plays! – Weezer have finally seemed to start enjoying being the heads of their own church.
Every good cult needs a logo. For U.S. horror-punks the Misfits, they had the Crimson Ghost – a skeletal head that looked like it had been cut from a classic Hammer Horror poster. Late Metallica bassist Cliff Burton had it tattooed on his arm, while it became the de-facto emblem of every bunch of dark-hearted reprobates that followed, from AFI to Fearless Vampire Killers. “The Misfits were one of the first bands where the music matched their image,” Rob Zombie once told K!. “I’d see metal albums and think ’That must sound fucked up’, but then I’d hear it and go, ‘Why’s that guy singing in a high voice?!’ Misfits and The Ramones sounded like they looked."
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