The Symbol Remains, Blue Öyster Cult
The record celebrates everything that has made Blue Öyster Cult such an enduring presence — yet it sounds totally in the moment.
Blue Öyster Cult is a freak of rock ’n’ roll nature.
The band has never comfortably aligned with any one camp, yet it is equally adept at creating big hits and generating immense cultural cachet (insert cowbell joke here). Along the way the group has created a rich and diverse catalog that has maintained a legion of diehard fans who attend shows and support the group regardless of how far it drifts away from the headlines and spotlights.
And now there’s further proof of Blue Öyster Cult‘s ability to defy the norm; after a nearly 20-year drought comes The Symbol Remains, a vital album filled with new material. The record celebrates everything that has made BOC such an enduring presence — yet it sounds totally in the moment.
The alchemy springs from the dynamic between Buck Dharma and Eric Bloom, the band’s remaining original members and longtime driving creative forces. Bloom contributes the sinister and heavier tones to the equation, while Dharma, in addition to being a galvanizing guitarist, is an incredibly quirky songwriter who is able to agilely blend smooth pop elements, musical curveballs and utterly twisted lyrics. Both men play to their strengths on the new record. Bloom’s “That Was Me” opens the album with a leather jacket and sneer, followed up by Dharma’s breezy and bizarro “Box in My Head.”
The so-called classic-era Blue Öyster Cult of the ’70s and ’80s featured brothers Joe and Albert Bouchard, on bass and drums respectively. They, along with keyboardist Allen Lanier, contributed songs that always pushed the band’s sonic boundaries. The current version of the band is getting the same kind of of boost from guitarist, keyboard player, and singer Richie Castellano.
Castellano joined the band about 15 years ago to flesh out the sound in concert, and he has clearly graduated to becoming more than an auxiliary player. He has writing credits on half of The Symbol Remains’ 14 tracks, and he handles lead vocals on a few, including the memorable vampire goth ballad “Tainted Blood” and the cellphone cautionary tale “The Machine.”
Veteran bass player Danny Miranda has returned to the BOC lineup following a 16-year hiatus and joins drummer Jules Radino, who has been with the band since 2004.
BOC has set itself apart in the hard-rock arena by being able to address contemporary topics without sounding preachy (“Godzilla” is the original Green New Deal anthem) while also putting an intelligently cinematic stamp on swords-and-sorcery-inspired fantasy songs. Spooky, darker themes of the sort that produced the group’s big hits about the Reaper’s work and Joan Crawford’s return from the grave still give us BOC is at its best. Yet the band has never relied on tried-and-true formulas to get by. On the new album, “Train True (Lennie’s Song),” for instance, carries BOC into honky-tonk turf, and Dharma sounds great picking speedy country-rock riffs.
For rock-solid BOC, you can’t do better than “The Alchemist,” a sprawling tale of a cursed monarchy, palace treachery, and sorcery — complete with dueling guitars. Bloom is at peak harrowing form. And it’s hard to imagine another band cooking up “Florida Man,” a Dharma tune that comes up with a mythical back story for why so many weird occurrences seem to be born in the Sunshine State.
The ever-present hook-and-handle image that BOC has spotlit in all of its albums dominates the cover, and it’s not the only nod to the band’s enduring legacy in the record. “The Return of St. Cecilia” harks back to the song “St. Cecilia,” first performed by Bloom and Dharma’s BOC precursor, Stalk-Forrest Group. This “return” abandons the trippy pastoral psychedelia of the Stalk-Forrest tune and comes in as a brash rocker, transforming the traditionally angelic patron saint of music into a somewhat less than wholesome figure.
Running a little over and hour, the album holds together just fine, with plenty of smart writing, interesting playing, and unabashed rocking to satisfy the longtime followers and entice those who only know BOC from classic rock radio hits and the Saturday Night Live cowbell skit. The Symbol Remains invites fans new and old to stick around.
Scott McLennan covered music for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette from 1993 to 2008. He then contributed music reviews and features to the Boston Globe, Providence Journal, Portland Press Herald, and WGBH, as well as to the Arts Fuse. He also operated the NE Metal blog to provide in-depth coverage of the region’s heavy metal scene.