On Flame Again
by Julio Diaz
Blue Oyster Cult Return and Avoid the Reaper
Blue Oyster Cult
Tyranny And Mutation
Agents Of Fortune
Curse of the Hidden Mirror
Incorrectly branded a heavy metal band, due more to their own doomy album graphics and dark song titles than their actual sound, Blue Oyster Cult had a jumbled inception. Emerging from the late ’60s Long Island scene as the relatively tame yet racy sounding Soft White Underbelly, the core of the soon-to-be quintet cut a never released 1969 album for Elektra. After adding lead singer Eric Bloom, they recorded ANOTHER unissued project for the same label as the practically unpronounceable Oaxaca, finally squeezing out a doomed single as the Stalk-Forrest Group in 1970. Changing their name yet again and hooking up with manager/guru Sandy Pearlman who helped streamline their sound, they finally released their official debut on Columbia in 1972 as Blue Oyster Cult.
All that wood-shedding paid off as the self-titled disc introduced a band influenced by the poetic imagery of The Doors, the vroom-vroom keyboard-laced boogie of Steppenwolf, and the pretensions of a less abrasive Black Sabbath. Lyrically ambitious, the songs were steeped in a sort of sexual sci-fi netherworld that thankfully was presented — at least initially — with a tongue firmly implanted in their cheek. How else to explain titles like “She’s as Beautiful as a Foot” and “I’m on the Lamb, But I Ain’t No Sheep”? The disc was tentative in spots and didn’t really gel successfully (although it did find some FM radio play at the time with the now classic “Cities on Flame with Rock and Roll”), yet the groundwork was laid as they toughened their instrumental, lyrical, and songwriting chops over the course of the next four years. This culminated in 1976’s platinum selling Agents Of Fortune, featuring the now timeless “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper,” BOC’s only hit single and ultimately their defining moment.
Now given the primo reissue treatment by Sony Legacy arm, BOC’s first – and arguably best – four studio discs have been re-released with remastered sound, scholarly liner notes, snazzy pics, and extra tracks. While there are at least two excellent if not quite comprehensive single and double anthologies available, this group worked more effectively in the album format. Even though none of these is without its weak moments (they were recorded quickly between gigs, as BOC was a tough touring unit during these years), the best way to get the full Cult treatment is to hear the band as they steadily hone their skills, gradually closing in on the pop/rock of Agents without selling out their more ambitious lyrical and musical conceits. NYC poets Jim Carroll and Patti Smith sometimes contributed their talents, adding an edgy and often challenging experience for anyone ambitious enough to read along with the riffs.
They stuck it out with Columbia for seven more extremely spotty studio releases, but by 1988’s conceptual six-year-in-the-making Imaginos, their fourteenth (including three live discs – two of them double albums!) album, they sounded tired, drained and ready to call it a day.
Which they did, until the core reformed a decade later on CMC’s Heaven Forbid, a tentative stab back at the contemporary metal mainstream they helped create. With cover art so obnoxious it makes Iron Maiden look like Andy Warhol, the album didn’t so much redefine their sound as seem like a desperate attempt to prove to the metal world that they were in fact the spiritual Godfathers they never got credit for being. 2001’s Curse of the Hidden Mirror, complete with dreamy Pink Floyd-ish cover art, doesn’t quite pick up where Agents left off, but it’s a solid, completely credible example of a defined, well-rehearsed unit comfortable in their skin. Original members Buck Dharma and Allen Lanier’s guitars intertwine with effortless precision and the tunes are some of the most intricate and rocking of their extensive career. Anyone who loved Agents‘ more sublime melodies will find “Stone Of Love” their best song since “Reaper.” The closing track, “Good to Feel Angry,” even adds a jazzy tinge and the disc’s opening blast “Dance On Stilts” rocks with jangling energy. An entirely convincing and unexpected comeback, the album refines and even elaborates on Blue Oyster Cult’s most intriguing aspects without sinking into self-mockery or Spinal Tap-ish long-toothed bombast. Not bad for a bunch of graying geezers in their fifties. Sign me up for their upcoming 30th anniversary tour.
As long as they play “Godzilla” of course.