In early 2014, when Sean Ragon was writing the songs that would become Final Days, New York post-punk group Cult of Youth's fourth album, he was struck by an eerie and overwhelming feeling—a feeling that everything in his life was about to go suddenly, horribly wrong.
"I had this paranoia about myself the whole time," Ragon says in a phone interview from his home in Brooklyn. "I couldn't shake this feeling like my days were numbered. I was kind of frightened a lot of the time.
"At that time," he says, "I just consistently felt paranoid and worried that I was on the verge of all kinds of bad shit."
It's easy to hear that pessimism and fear on Final Days, whose title and cover painting of the Tower of Babel very literally evoke Armageddon. But the scary part about Ragon's dark prophecy is that he was right, to a certain degree. During a trip to Montreal, he got into an altercation with four other men. Ragon intervened when the aggressors had threatened his friend, and in doing so, he was beaten severely, had his legs broken and had to undergo surgery.
After a few months of recuperation and finishing up the record, Ragon is in much better spirits and mostly back to his old self. Though while he says he purged most of the dark feelings in the process of making the album, the violent incident last year cast an extra layer of gloom over the release of what was already going to be a very dark record.
"Going through that ordeal was kind of crazy, and then I got married in the middle of it, and all this other stuff happened," he says. "So, it was sort of like, after the record got finished, my world got thrown upside down pretty severely. It was almost a self-fulfilling prophecy.
"In one sense, it was just some stuff that happened," he adds. "But it was pretty severe."
With the fear and paranoia behind him, Ragon and Cult of Youth are finally ready to bring the ominous folk and punk sounds of Final Days to the stage. Though the band began ostensibly as a solo outlet for Ragon's songwriting, it's grown into a full band that features bassist Jasper McGandy, cellist Paige Flash, drummer Cory Flannigan and guitarist Christian Kount. And Final Days, true to its apocalyptic title, is the group's most intense and overwhelming record to date.
However, the album, which was released in November via Sacred Bones Records, is also remarkably accessible, as far as end-times volumes go. The acoustic-heavy "Dragon Rouge" is gorgeous and atmospheric, recalling Love and Rockets ballads in its catchier moments. Meanwhile, the pulsing "Empty Faction" is almost dance-friendly in its persistent, up-tempo beats and catchy guitar riffs, and "Gods Garden" translates the thunderous noise rock of Swans into a much more radio-friendly form.
Final Days' most show-stopping moment is its nine-minute penultimate track, "Sanctuary." Like a freewheeling, hip-shaking permutation of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds' "The Mercy Seat," it's the point on the record at which the band's darkest tendencies and melodic strengths converge, continually rising and intensifying like a fire gathering fuel and consuming everything in its path. In its furious middle section, Ragon repeats the phrase, "Some of us are scared to death of the things the rest ignored," like a mantra.
Ragon doesn't point to any specific explanation for the meaning behind the lyrics to this song, or any others; in fact, he says he doesn't like "the idea of dictating what something means." But he also notes that most of his lyrics come to him in random bursts of inspiration.
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"The lyrics are all pretty much stream-of-consciousness stuff that's organized and put into order later," he says. "If I'm thinking of something, I just grab a Sharpie and whatever paper I can find to write down fragments of thoughts. When dealing with things that are in the subconscious, you can't say what inspired that—I don't know."
Cult of Youth are preparing to embark on two months of touring behind Final Days, marking the first time in three years that they've made such an ambitious trek. In fact, all of the group's members work full-time outside of the band. Ragon owns the record shop Heaven Street in Brooklyn, and Flash is a performance artist and burlesque performer under the name Rev. Mother Flash. But Cult of Youth are also not lining up shows in New York City regularly, simply because that's not how they operate.
For Ragon, taking a lap around the globe once every couple of years is enough.
"We're not a party band. There's no need for us to play once a month. We're not fun," Ragon says with a laugh. "We're fun people. We have a good time, and people are surprised to hang out with us and find out that we like to do fun shit. They think we're all morose.
"But who wants to see us so frequently?" Ragon laughs. "It's just not the nature of our project."