Wednesday, October 07, 2020

Conspiracies and curses: the Blue Öyster Cult's The Symbol Remains, reviewed track-by-track

I've been excited for months about the promise of a new Blue Öyster Cult album, which should be hitting shelves this week; if you haven't already pre-ordered it, you can do so it here. I am happy to report that I love it, as you will see, though (as is the case with every single Blue Öyster Cult album ever), I don't love every song equally. Even when I was a "first three albums" snob - I refer to the concept below, but it's someone who confers near-legendary status on the BÖC up to 1974's Secret Treaties, then gets unduly fussy about the rest of their catalogue - I thought that some songs were better than others. For instance, even though I hold to this day that Secret Treaties is their greatest overall accomplishment, I am not wild about every song on it. I mean, "Cagey Cretins" is fun enough, for example - especially the line about it being so lonely in the state of Maine, which I'd place good money on being Stephen King's favourite BÖC lyric -  but it's not on the same level as "Astronomy" or "ME262," the two masterpieces of rock songcraft on that album, nor as personally appealing to me, say, as "Flaming Telepaths," to pick one of the less popular songs on the album. Their next album, Agents of Fortune, despite being their breakthrough and home to their biggest hits, fares even worse; while "(Don't Fear) The Reaper" is on it, and tried-and-true crowd pleasers like "ETI," "Tattoo Vampire," and "This Ain't the Summer of Love," I am vastly less drawn to the rest of the album, which overall - those hits aside - is less coherent, less powerful than, say, The Symbol Remains. 

Yes, folks, I did just say that: I like The Symbol Remains overall more than Agents of Fortune. Not saying that there are songs on it better than the band's biggest all-time hit, but overall, it's a more solid, consistent, and flat-out rockin' LP than that one. 

More on that later. Meantime, here's my song-by-song consideration of The Symbol Remains

That Was Me”: Well that is one heavy riff. Have the BÖC ever sounded this heavy (or bassy)? The depths and darkness at hand make me think of the uncharacteristically “metal” riffage on “See You in Black” (the opening cut on their neglected post-Columbia album Heaven Forbid) or maybe Imaginos – both of which took a while to grow on me –  but in terms of songcraft and lyrics, this is great stuff, a smart lead single/ opening cut, and I am particularly glad that Eric sometimes breaks out of the past tense to say that “is me” or “is still me,” because I am nowhere near ready to think of the BÖC as a thing of the past. Alas, there are a couple of signs here – also including the legacy-minded album title and the final song, which ends on the suggestion to turn out the lights – that that’s how the band is conceiving things. Still, this album does NOT sound like a band on its last legs, even if the key members (Eric Bloom and Donald “Buck Dharma” Roeser) are now in their 70’s... 

As always, Buck and Eric trade off vocals from song to song, but there are some key differences on this album, where background vocals are more a choral affair than in the past, and there’s a new vocalist and songwriter in the mix, Richie Castellano, who impressed the hell out of me as a guitar player when I caught the current lineup live and who contributes one of the album’s strongest songs, "The Alchemist," adapted from a HP Lovecraft story.  

More on that later, though – back to “That Was Me.” Eric Bloom is in great voice here, and has plenty of his showmanship and charisma on display in the video. It's pleasing to see, because - having caught the band last year at at Ambleside last year - it seems like Buck sings a lot more of the songs these days, live, compared to Eric, and has become the "star" of the band (not just the hitmaker), which was not always the case. The setlist for my one previous live experience of the band is less than complete, but if Extraterrestrial Live, recorded during that 1982 tour, is any index, Buck has tripled his vocal contributions onstage, singing six songs in 2019 compared to two in 1982. That's not a bad thing in any way, but it makes me happy that the lead single off the album showcases Eric so effectively, and that he is such a strong, powerful presence throughout The Symbol Remains. Nice, too, that Buck lets Richie Castellano take the lead solo on their first single! And John Shirley’s lyrics are witty and enjoyable, even if my wife found a sassy, but probably unintentional, double-entendre in the line about seeing a “slowly spreading crack.” MY mind went straight away to a windshield, or maybe a sheet of ice you’re standing on, but hers went… somewhere more anatomical, if you get me...

And hey, is there a bit of reggae creeping in on the bridge? Have I ever heard the BÖC do anything remotely reggaelike before?  Hm. (Note: I have interviewed Eric Bloom since I started writing this, and he points out "Showtime" as also having a reggae edge. Duly noted!)

The second single, and indeed the album’s second cut, “Box in My Head,” has been more contentious with fans – some comments on Youtube have been negative - but it’s plenty fun if you don’t take it all that seriously, and I’m liking it more each time I play it, for the propulsive rhythm guitars, the swirling synths, and the background vocals – which overall seem to be a more pleasurable feature of this particular BÖC album than any other I recall (even songs I don’t like as much on the album are improved when the background chorus rises up). Here, in particular, there are places where the chorus sings just plain ol’ “box!” – which is plenty funny, in a subtle, silly, very-BÖC kinda way, since this is a band that have never seemed much limited by the concept of what makes a “normal” song. "Box in My Head"'could be at home on Mirrors or Spectres or Buck’s solo album – it’s of that era – but it might seem a weird pick for a second single; surely this is not Buck’s strongest song on the album?

The answer to that question is that, no, in fact, it is not Buck’s strongest song here (nor is it John Shirley’s best lyric, which I think I’m gonna give to “That Was Me,” “Florida Man” or “Nightmare Epiphany” – haven’t decided yet), but Buck’s strongest songs on the album are far weirder and more demanding, in a very good, very BÖC kinda way, than this one, and it may have made Frontiers nervous to lead with them. Rest assured, though - if you are at first non-plussed by "Box in My Head," give it time...

It is also true that “Tainted Blood” might grow on me –but  I think it’s safe to say that at the moment it is my least favourite song on the album. Written by Eric and Richie, its a power ballad, and while I guess the band deserves credit for doing something unexpected, I'm really just not a power ballad kind of person. It's a good power ballad, I guess, and has interesting lyrics, with a vampire pleading to be killed after the loss of his vampire love, and I like the background vocals and solos just fine, but power ballads in general are often just a bit on the obvious side, musically: I just don't groove on'em. It's not like I'm gonna ever skip this song when the album plays, unless maybe somehow my life experiences make it easier for me to identify with the feelings at hand here (but I sure hope that doesn't happen!) 

By sharp contrast, “Nightmare Epiphany” – with music by Buck Dharma and lyrics by John Shirley – obliterates in its opening riffs any fear that anything “obvious” is at hand, and lyrically marks the return to that hallmark of vintage BÖC: deliberate and perverse lyrical obscurantism. Shirley - whose novels are mostly unknown to me, but who wrote one hell of an entertaining novelization for the Constantine movie - packs surreal one-liners together with a sort of whimsical darkness, achieving images as weird as anything Richard Meltzer or Sandy Pearlman ever cooked up. I mean, “There were leeches that were spiders and spiders that were flies?” What the sanctified, multi-tentacled fuck is he talking about? While the cascading insanity of the lyrics reminds me somewhat irrelevantly of the Cramps’ much goofier (but more trivial) “Wet Nightmare,” it still makes for a very fun song, which really does have the quality of a dream-narrative to it. And there’s an up-tempo oddness to the song structure, particularly a rockabilly-cum-surf guitar twangy bit that precedes the choruses that will immediately catch your ear. Much nuttier than “Box in My Head,” maybe the sonic equivalent of a David Wong novel, this is a song that I *think* will appeal to those “first three albums” snobs out there, reformed or otherwise, and the second best song on the album so far, after “That Was Me.” (Overall it will prove to be my fourth favourite song on the album, with “The Alchemist,” “Train True (Lenny’s Song)” vying for top spot, and “That Was Me” in third – but these things tend to change the deeper you get into a BÖC album, so who knows where we will be in a week).

Oh, and the solos. I mean, nevermind the actual-official solo itself: magnificent as it is, almost every second line in the song has giddy, tuneful, complex and weird-ass little runs on the guitar, presumably all by Buck. Damn, do I enjoy his playing. (And Richie’s, too, I guess, since I haven’t yet managed to consistently tell’em apart. I am sure there are people out there who will snub me for this failing!).

“Edge of the World:” Richie Castellano gets full credit for music and lyrics on this one, but Eric Bloom sings the lead, and it works much better than “Tainted Blood;” I mean, he’s original lead vocalist Eric Bloom, which is always gonna count for something, and his voice has a bit more character than Richie's. But Castellano’s lyrics are really intriguing on this one, and fit the band’s identity perfectly. While the Blue Öyster Cult have always had an element of conspiracy laced throughout their songwriting, be it conspiracy to commit murder (“The Last Days of May”) to Sandy Pearlman’s The Soft Doctrines of Imaginos, which interprets everything from Frankenstein to World War II as the fruit of an ages old secret history involving extraterrestrials, secret societies, immortals, and Öysterboys, this is (I think) the first time I’ve seen the band actually sing, overtly, about conspiracy theory itself, or use the word “conspiracy” in their lyrics… which further prove that it’s not just John Shirley who can come up with witty one-liners: if you find me a UFO novel that begins with an image as compelling as Castellano’s, “The second time I was abducted,” I’ll want to read it. (I love how Eric phrases that). Kinda takes us back to the days of “Take Me Away,” but with a more sombre countenance. 

Intriguingly, the chorus and lead vocal here seem to take a counterpoint with each other, like skeptics and conspiracy theorists singing at each other, creating a tension that I think all of us feel (especially on social media) these days: “Trusting everything you read/ Lost in your conspiracies,” the choral skeptics sing disapprovingly in tandem, to which Eric retorts, “I want to believe!” Not quite sure what the edge of the world is – some social-media-driven apocalypse? The death of truth? The complete collapse of civilization? But suffice it so say, I like this a lot better than “Tainted Blood,” and have caught myself humming it around the apartment, somewhat to my surprise.  

And what’s that I hear: is that a cowbell? (The press materials I've seen do not mention if it is Albert playing it, but I’d love it if it were).

Next track: “The Machine.” For a few years, I had Pere Ubu’s “On the Surface” set as my ringtone, not realizing that it meant that whenever I would hear that song come up on a playlist, I would reach for my phone. Here, the BÖC kicks things off with an actual, generic ringtone, which may well have the same effect on people, illustrating what it means to be a “slave to the machine.” (I wanted to reach for MY phone when I first heard it, even though it doesn’t remotely sound like my actual ringtone at present).While I do not generally turn to the BÖC for cultural commentary – I want of them horror stories, scary bikers, UFO’s, conspiracies, occultism and vaguely antisocial  high weirdness – I like this well enough, in a very meat-and-potatoes rock song way (again, the chorus is more fun than the verses). Doesn’t really sound much like what I think of as the Blue Öyster Cult, but I've found myself humming it around the apartment, which weirdly enough I haven't done - haven't been able to do - with the album's more demanding high points. It will be really fun seeing people in a live show – if we ever get their chance – holding up their phones to record this song; and fans with a really fine sense of irony can set this song as their ringtone so that the ringtone that begins it becomes, like, their ringtone, if you see what I mean: a meta-level ringtone joke!

No one will do this, of course.

And what’s that I hear, more cowbell? While I was never really big on that whole silly SNL skit, and even vaguely regret that it may have influenced the band to add a cowbell part here, I really, really hope that there will be a credit, when the vinyl arrives, of “Albert Bouchard – cowbell.” (Incidentally, if any of you missed this or don’t know, Albert Bouchard is the original BÖC drummer, the man who played the cowbell on “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper,” the guy with the cowbell who materializes during the “That Was Me” video and the mastermind of the ill-fated but highly rewarding and ambitious Imaginos album. He’s presently working on a revised version of his Imaginos demos, called ReImaginos - first single here - and has been selling a deluxe package with a signed cowbell included: ha! The Bouchard version of that album, which also existed as a bootlegged demo at one point, has a more linear, logical song sequence compared to the full band's 1988 reworking of the album, and a few tunes not included on the 1988 album. The Bouchard version makes Pearlman’s grand-scale conspiracy theory more complete and coherent, if still really quite weird. Lotta good deep-dive net reading on Imaginos and the occult/ extraterrestrial conspiracy theories therein...

Now it is time for one of the two best songs on the album. I am not sure if “Train True (Lennie’s Song)”  will ultimately claim title over Castellano’s “The Alchemist” as the masterpiece on the album, but it will delight people who revel in the sheer oddness of Blue Öyster Cult deep cuts like “Before the Kiss, a Redcap,” and accomplishes the feat of not only evoking classic BÖC, but also Golden Earring’s “Twilight Zone” (near the beginning) and, weirdly, the Reverend Horton Heat (in the delivery of the couplet “you gotta have a brain/ when you’re working for the train” – maybe it’s just me, but I can so hear Jim Heath singing that). Delightful that this has lyrics written by Buck’s son, Zeke Roeser, who is a trial lawyer, we gather (!), but I have no idea what “workin’ for the train” means, to say nothing of the song as a whole. It feels like some sort of urban slang – presumably not “pulling a train,” which is what Google leads me to. But you know, I never understood “Before the Kiss, a Redcap” either, until I started reading Martin Popoff's book on the band. For people who think that that song is maybe the greatest thing that the Blue Öyster Cult ever did – which opinion I have held at different times, myself, especially back in the days of first-three-albums-snobbery – “Train True (Lennie’s Song)” will be a really satisfying experience. 

(I am glad I got beyond my former “first three albums” snobbery, by the by. I have come to like almost every Blue Öyster Cult album ever. I still have some problems with some songs on The Revolution By Night – from whence the title of The Symbol Remains comes, btw, on the song “The Shadow of California” - and I am only half-sold on Club Ninja, but Spectres? Mirrors? Heaven Forbid? Ignored by me for decades, I’ve now fallen in love with them and these days listen to them MORE than Secret Treaties, which I still regard as their pinnacle, but have listened to far too often and now must protect and listen to selectively, lest I start to take it for granted... I never want to be lose the thrill of “ME262,” you know?).

And here’s Richie again, singing “The Return of St. Cecilia,” with lyrics by Richard Meltzer, hearkening back to the band’s Stalk-Forrest Group days – though this is not an updated version of the ethereal pop of the original song, “St. Cecilia,” who, I gather, is known as the patron saint of music, because she was singing shortly before she was martyred, or something. I know nothing of St. Cecilia besides what a cursory glance at Wikipedia has netted me, and probably need to do some homework before I can really dig what’s going on here, but the lyrics are nowhere near as cryptic-seeming as Meltzer usually is. Bears further investigation, I s’pose – tho’ again, the riffage is more generic heavy metal than I want of the BÖC. it’s catchy enough, and the background vocals and solos elevate things mightily. Apparently Meltzer provided this to them as a new lyric - it's not something that has been sitting around in a box since the Soft White Underbelly days...

Moving briskly on: is it weird that “Stand and Fight” could be an Amon Amarth song, or is just me? I mean, I generally go to Amon Amarth for all my Amon Amarth needs – because, face it, no one can Amon Amarth like Amon Amarth - but what the hell, it is curious seeing the BÖC diversifying in the direction of what I take for Viking metal (because even if it doesn’t specifically mention Vikings, it’s a fight song, and the word “north” is in it, and it has a very we're-goin'-to-Valhalla-boys vibe to it, so that’s where I’m locating it). Eric sings it well, and again, if the dark heavy riffage is at the opposite end of the spectrum from the stuff I most love on this album, there’s nothing wrong with it. I personally don’t want to bang my head to the Blue Öyster Cult, or, really, ever – it’s just not my thing; I don’t even bang my head to Amon Amarth! But it’s good to know that if you WANT to bang your head, this album will not disappoint. Maybe some crossover Amon Amarth fans will be drawn here by it? I am sure they will be warmly welcomed.   

“Florida Man” is the “Harvest Moon” of this album – one of the high points on Heaven Forbid, which also speaks of a place in the US suffering from a vaguely Lovecraftian ancient curse, but “Florida Man” narrows things down geographically and has more fun with its conceit, with a curse bestowed on the whole state of Florida by a vengeful Seminole shaman. After that internet game of Googling and posting news stories that begin with “Florida Man” – and as I write this, I see on the news that a Florida man will paint the portrait of the alligator that attacked him, and that a Florida man falsely reported a dead body “to get a ride home” – I guess someone had to write a song called “Florida Man,” and I for one am glad it’s the Blue Öyster Cult. Peak perversity from John Shirley, for this album, anyhow: “High on meth/ there’s little Beth/ The neighbour’s cat is on her breath.” At first I thought, wait, did she EAT the cat? (Blood and fur on her teeth, like). And then I thought, oh, jeez, maybe she, like, ate the cat, like, one might eat, a, like, pussy, as in, a cat’s pussy. Ewww! So there’s two images you don’t want in your head for the price of one; here's hoping Shirley is makin' this shit up, and not drawing from actual Florida Man news stories, because, well, yikes. The song - which I gather Buck suggested he write - ends on a somewhat reflective and compassionate note, all things considered. And yes, it’s true – I too have had my “Florida Man” moments now and then. If only Harry Crews had lived to dig this song. Fifth favourite song on the album? Maybe!

Next stop – and we will linger here for awhile – is “The Alchemist.” As you may have already heard, this is the epic on the album, the song that will immediately grip the people who like “Astronomy” or "The Siege and Investiture of Baron von Frankenstein's Castle at Weisseria" or “7 Screaming Diz-Busters” or such – which locates it in both lyric and sound deep within the belly of the Blue Öyster Cult, even if the new guy wrote it (Congratulations, Richie, for this – and thank you). Again, Eric has the lead vocal – when he sings “I’m the alchemist,” you’ll feel the same chills you get when he sings “hey Lou!” in “7 Screaming Diz-Busters.” “The Alchemist” is based pretty closely on a HP Lovecraft short story, even includes a quote from it, but Castellano inverts the narration of the original story, which is, in fact, told from the point of view not of the alchemist, but the heir to his centuries-old curse. You can read the original story online at that last link, if you like. Any song that makes people want to read HP Lovecraft is all right with me.

Plus maybe, if and when they tour this album, the band will follow it up with their other overtly Lovecraftian number, the magnificent “The Old Gods Return,” which is the song off Curse of the Hidden Mirror – yet another curse-reference! – that I most would like to see played live (it was not on their setlist at Ambleside). May we all survive long enough for that to happen!

Does anyone else think the keyboard part – from Richie, perchance? – kinda perfectly channels the late Allen Lanier? Is it meant to? Nice, if so.

Next up is “Secret Road” – Buck on vocals, John Shirley on lyrics. Mysticism! Okay. Without meaning to be glib (and without intending to get all penile), there is a kind of Blue Öyster Cult song that is a grower, not a shower. “Celestial the Queen” is a perfect example, or “I am the Storm” or “Shadow of California" or such. They’re all beautifully-crafted, enjoyable songs, but they don’t stand out as obvious crowd-pleasers in the band’s catalogue; you might hear people in the audience shouting out for “Godzilla,” but you’re not gonna hear people shouting out for “Celestial the Queen,” I don’t think. Still, sometime around the hundredth time that you listen to Spectres, you realize of "Celestial," “Holy shit, this is a really good song!” and you totally connect with it and fall in love with its songcraft. It just takes some time to grow on you, as does “I am the Storm,” or “Perfect Water” or… anyhow, “Secret Road” is another of those songs – a sort of advice-to-a-young man tune from Buck. Hasn’t quite grown on me yet, ain't humming it around the house, but I’m distracted by the more overt attention-grabbers on the album. Kinda how it goes!

 “There’s a Crime” –Again, a muscular rocker, maybe without as much weirdness as I like of the BÖC, but, like, some of these sortsa songs, like maybe “Damaged” off Heaven Forbid, do put a smile on your face. It’s not gonna be a critic’s favourite, but we “wrist merchants” (as Rob Halford calls us) are overrated, anyhow. Co-written by BÖC drummer Jules Radino and a guitarist named Jeff Denny, who has worked with Radino in other contexts, it boasts another great Eric vocal and, once again, cool choral vocals. Radino’s fills have a particular enthusiasm, too, which I guess makes sense considering he wrote the song!

To return to the idea of contrasting this album with Agents of Fortune. Where the “lesser” cuts on Agents of Fortune ("Debbie Denise," anyone?) are kind of softer-edged, sentimentally sweet, and poppier, compared to the hits, the lesser cuts on The Symbol Remains are total muscle, with very little pop at all. I suspect that people who rate those first three albums way up there, and then maybe Cultosaurus Erectus or Heaven Forbid or Imaginos or such, are going to have an easier time embracing this than people who think the high point is Spectres or Mirrors or Club Ninja, just because of the album's tilt to the heavy side. Go figure, that the BÖC wait until they’re rounding the corner on their sixth decade to make their toughest album.

Which isn’t quite over, because here’s “Fight.” Another Buck Dharma tune, musically, though I have no idea who his co-writers are. J. Wold? I. Rosoff? Dunno. But it’s a good song, gentler, more shimmery, more reflective than most of the other cuts, with lots of texture to the guitars and a compelling lyric and vocal lead from Buck. It’s another tune on the album – fittingly bookending “That Was Me” – that suggests that this may be the final album the band makes, with its observation that “that wasn’t that much of a fight” and the final, rhyming injunction to turn out the light. But that’s gotta all be ironic, because The Symbol Remains actually puts up a pretty goddamn great fight, as have the band as a whole – "on tour forever," neglected by the radio (and the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame), with only a small cadre of loyal true believers standing with them, continuing to make outstanding, thinkin’-persons rock 48 years into their career. I mean, not much of a fight my ass!  

I can’t speak to the rest of the world, but loyal true believers out there are going to fucking LOVE this album, I think. Maybe this time, the rest of the world will catch on, too?

Song by song grades, already re-thought and revised a few times as I listen again and again...

That Was Me: A

Box in My Head: A-

Tainted Blood: B-

Nightmare Epiphany: A+

Edge of the World: A

The Machine: A-

Train True (Lennie’s Song): A+++ (does that even exist?)

The Return of St. Cecilia: B-

Stand and Fight: B

Florida Man: A

The Alchemist: A+++

Secret Road: A-

There’s a Crime: B-

Fight: A

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