Photo Credit: Mark Weiss
Blue Öyster Cult are probably best known for “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper”, a Top 20 hit in 1976 and now a longtime staple of classic rock radio (not to mention the focus of the popular “I need more cowbell!” Saturday Night Live sketch featuring Christopher Walken). Yet that song – and its repercussions – are only a small part of Blue Öyster Cult’s history, which now spans an uninterrupted half-century.
The band’s mix of hard rock and haunting, almost ethereal, mid-tempo songs coupled with the liberal use of science fiction and fantasy imagery in their lyrics and artwork, made them a major live draw in the late Seventies. Although the AOR surge of 1981 gave them their highest-charting album (Fire of Unknown Origin), Blue Öyster Cult’s distinction soon proved to be their undoing: they were never truly considered heavy metal or progressive rock, and thus never secured the undying loyalty which those genre’s fans are known for. At the same time, they never crossed over into the lucrative adult contemporary market as bands like Styx did. Add to that their failure to ever produce a singular iconic rock figure like Ozzy Osbourne, Angus Young or Steven Tyler, and by the mid ‘80s Blue Öyster Cult was reduced to opening shows for longtime rivals Kiss and have since then been mostly regulated to playing small clubs.
The hook-and-cross emblem has always been another one of Blue Öyster Cult’s most recognizable attributes, so it’s perhaps understandable why it dominates both the cover and the title of The Symbol Remains, the band’s first album of all-new material in sixteen years (and only their third such release since 1989). Founding members Eric Bloom and Donald Roeser (a.k.a Buck Dharma), are both multi-instrumentalists who’ve co-fronted the band since its inception, here they are joined by yet another guitarist and co-lead singer, Richie Castellano (in the band since 2007) along with bassist Danny Miranda and drummer Jules Radino.
It seems as though during their long hiatus from recording, Blue Öyster Cult has become primarily interested in displaying their harder rock side, as is evidenced by both the opening cut “That Was Me” along with most of The Symbol Remains. Results are, at best, mixed. Some of the better conceptual – and thereby more traditionally Blue Öyster Cult – tracks ironically come courtesy of late-joiner Castellano, including vampire tale “Tainted Blood” as well as “The Machine” and probably the album’s best track “The Alchemist.” But too many cuts come off as a bit too non-descript for a band that has always exhibited a fairly distinct sound, such as “Edge of the World” and (as should be apparent from just the title) “Stand and Fight.” “Box in My Head” is musically closer to ‘80s new wave or possibly Todd Rundgren, but then is hindered by the lyrics (“Put the key in gently // Like a lover in bed”)that even Spinal Tap wouldn’t touch.
Blue Öyster Cult’s more mellow side has always served them incredibly well, as evidenced by songs like “I Love the Night” from 1977’s Spectres, the 1984 radio hit “Shooting Shark” or even the aforementioned “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper.” Yet on The Symbol Remains that element doesn’t emerge until ten tracks in, and only then with “Florida Man”, which is about as interesting as its title. Clocking in at just over an hour, The Symbol Remains is also the longest studio release in the band’s history. Classic Blue Öyster Cult albums averaged a length of about thirty-seven minutes, and using just that much of this material might have made for a tighter and more enjoyable listen (though still not anywhere close to the band’s best work).
Closing track “Fight” finishes the album with the words: “Last one, turn out the light.” Is this Blue Öyster Cult’s subtle way of announcing that they’re packing it in, at least in terms of new studio material? With Bloom and Roesner now both well into their seventies, that seems like a realistic possibility. And unfortunately The Symbol Remains really isn’t going to get anyone excited about the prospect of new music from Blue Öyster Cult in the 2020s. Luckily, what also very much remains is the band’s better work, which in turn will assure that their legacy lives on.