Graded on a Curve:
Blue Öyster Cult,
The Symbol Remains

The Symbol Remains? Make that the symbol returns. I’ve seen Blue Öyster Cult several times over the past decade, and they were loads of fun. But as they went through their paces playing songs from the distant past, I couldn’t escape the sad feeling that I was watching an oldies act. I appreciated hearing such classics as “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” and “Transmaniacon MC,” but there was no escaping the sense that I was in the presence of a band with nothing new and original to say.

And there was a reason for that. Blue Öyster Cult hadn’t released an album of new material since 2001, and over the subsequent years they’d lost all interest in returning to the studio. Unhappy with the failure of 2001’s Curse of the Hidden Mirror, frontman Eric Bloom said the band had nothing to gain by producing a new LP “that nobody was going to buy.” And that seemed to be that. But lo and behold here we are in 2020, and Blue Öyster Cult are back. And not in a small way. I wouldn’t use the word triumph to describe The Symbol Remains, but it’s a damn fine record and milestone in the band’s “career of evil.”

The band that played on The Symbol Remains includes original members vocalist Eric Bloom and guitar legend and vocalist Donald “Buck Dharma” Roeser, along with long-time tour mates Richie Castellano (guitar, vocals), Danny Miranda (bass), and Jules Radino (drums). Former drummer Albert Bouchard also makes a cameo on–you guessed it–cowbell. As for the band’s original keyboardist Allen Lanier, he died in 2113.

The Blue Öyster Cult sound remains the same. As usual, songs vary from “Godzilla” heavy to melodic doo wop pop rock, This duality allows the band to please two very different demographics. The pig farmer crew I hung with during my rural Pennsylvania pot-smoking days dug ‘em because they rocked hard and had a sinister aura. As for your more melodic FM radio types, they loved the Cult for “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” and “Burnin’ for You.”

The LP’s highlights include the Metallica heavy opener “That Was Me,” which begins with Bloom singing, “You see those bullet holes in highway signs?/That was me/When you see a broken bottle of real fine wine/That was me.” Like many of Blue Öyster Cult’s songs the anarchic stance is a nod and a wink to fans who understand the band’s allegiance to darkness is a put-on–shooting up highway signs make you a juvenile delinquent, not the Son of Sam.

“Box in My Head” is another worthy addition to the Blue Öyster Cult canon. Its lyrics may be nothing to write home about, but its infectious pop feel, driving pace, impeccable harmonies, and impossible-to resist-choruses are all hallmarks of the band’s finest songs. “Fight” also stands amongst the band’s most melodic songs, and its lyrics are a howl: ”No one reached into his boot for a stiletto knife,” sings Dharma, “No bodies fell/It was boring as hell.” Fight Club this ain’t.

“Nightmare Epiphany”–which comes complete with great guitar work by Dharma and the band’s trademark heavenly harmonies–is more classic Cult, even if that guitar riff brings “Flashdance… What a Feeling” to mind. “Florida Man” is another winner, despite the horrible title–its hand claps and funky groove are infectious, and its lyrics pass the band’s much-vaunted weirdness test: “Slim sees his face on a moonlit wave/He grabs a shovel and digs his own grave /Lee hates plate glass, he drives right through it/Said Alice’s caterpillar made him do it.” I also love “The Alchemist,” an “I could laugh at it but I choose to laugh with it” slice of mock grandiosity sure to appeal to the swords and sorcery crowd.

The high-velocity “The Return of St. Cecilia” boasts great guitar, organ, and vocal harmonies, but suffers from the lead vocals of Castellano, whose stereotypical tough guy swagger brings Lou Gramm to mind. Nothing wrong with that, I suppose, but when I want to hear Gramm–which I never do–I’ll listen to Foreigner. Castellano also sings on the mid-tempo “Stand and Fight,” which stomps around crushing skyscrapers like “Godzilla” but ain’t half as funny. And Castellano’s vocal performance on the sadly generic “The Machine” is positive proof the guy shouldn’t be allowed within fifty miles of a microphone.

I could go on, but the bottom line is The Symbol Remains is a damn fine record sure to bring tears of joy to the band’s legion of faithful, most of whom had given up hope on a new Blue Öyster Cult record. I’m faintly alarmed by the LP’s weaker tracks–Bloom and Dharma had 19 years to write new material, and you’d think they’d have come up with more than enough top-notch songs to fill an album. But on the bright side, The Symbol Remains promises to garner sufficient attention to justify a future LP, and that is wonderful news indeed.

Are U ready 2 rock? Again?

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B+

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