Crashing into a very difficult year with power, style and grace, comes a great new album from Blue Öyster Cult (BÖC). Fans have waited 19 years for new material from the legendary American rock band and thankfully The Symbol Remains (9 October, 2020; Frontier Records) does not disappoint; in fact, Guitars Exchange believe it is the comeback album of the year. And in case you were in any doubt about BÖC’s intention, the front cover features the band’s symbol - the inverted question mark - smashing through the ruins of now-demised civilizations.
One of the special aspects of BÖC’s music, apart from the sheer irreverence, is how they have shifted and embraced pop, psychedelia, prog rock, metal, ballads and, of course, heavy. ‘Don’t try and put us in a box’ they seem to be saying, ‘because we’ll only jump straight back out and bite you!’
When Curse of the Hidden Mirror’s eclectic mix of tracks failed to ignite in 2001, however, it was clearly a big blow to the band and, at the very least, contributed to this long hiatus. "It costs money to make a record," said singer Eric Bloom in 2017 “[it’s better being out on the road] than making a record that nobody’s going to buy."
Bloom and Buck Dharma’s vocals still sound great, but a welcome surprise on this album is long-time member and guitarist Richie Castellano also being given the chance to showcase his vocal chops. Sadly BÖC have lost their manager, Sandy Pearlman, who died in 2016 from a stroke, and original member Allen Lanier, who passed in 2013, but with the continuing presence of bassist Danny Miranda and drummer Jules Radino they do more than deliver the goods.
Ex-Blue Öyster Cult member Albert Bouchard also makes a ‘special guest appearance’ by adding some perfectly-judged cowbell on the outstanding opening track That Was Me, featuring Bloom on vocals. This catchy barnstormer should please just about anyone who loves driving rock, and it also features devilish lyrics: “You see those bullet holes in highway signs? That was me […] When you come across a burning shack […] That was me.” Next up is the second single release Box in My Head, which features Dharma on lead vocals and playing his distinctive white guitar, made to his specifications by the last Nashville incarnation of Steinberger Management: "Buck had this custom made to look like swiss cheese, thus creating the first and only playable "Cheese"berger... [it has] a custom GM7 body. It is a one of a kind," says Equipboard.
Living dead actors play a key role in the hugely entertaining video for the next track, Tainted Blood, which for this critic is the standout song on an extremely strong record. Featuring Castellano on vocals for the first time, some BÖC fans might not feel altogether comfortable with that change, but that would be unfair as this power ballad delivers exactly the kind of melodrama and pathos that anyone who has ever been hurt in love needs. Put in on, crank it up, and sing out loud: “Do whatever it takes to end this endless night, Without her there's nothing for me, Make the sign of the cross, wrap me into the chains, Do whatever it takes to end my pain… Without her eternity is misery.” Other top cuts include the seriously heavy Stand and Fight; the wonderfully ominous The Alchemist; and the more classic sounding Secret Road.
Last up, Fight, is a great song to end with, in large part because it captures BÖC’s unique sound and sardonic sense of humour. In sum The Symbol Remains is a great return to form for a band who always bring with them something original; it has been far too long guys… welcome back.