Matthew Graybosch
author by choice, techie by necessity

Blue Öyster Cult: The Symbol Remains

I'm not going to lie. I figured that Curse of the Hidden Mirror from 2001 would be the last Blue Öyster Cult album I'd ever get to hear. I enjoyed it, and it had some solid head-banging tunes like “Showtime”, “The Old Gods Return”, and “Eye of the Hurricane”, but it didn't sell as well as the band would have liked and it didn't get a lot of love from fans and critics who probably still think the band's last good album was Fire of Unknown Origin from 1981 or Spectres from 1977.

But I came to the BÖC party a bit late, and without much guidance. The first album by any band that I bought with my own money was 1983's The Revölution By Night, and that was the first BÖC album not made with the original lineup, since drummer Albert Bouchard had been fired during the FOUO tour in 1981. Though this might not have been such a terrible door through which to enter the Four Winds Bar, since one of its tracks—"Shadow of California"—contained in its lyrics (written by Sandy Pearlman) the phrase that would become the title of the BÖC's triumphant return.

Nowadays only two of the founding members are still in the band: Eric Bloom and Donald “Buck Dharma” Roeser. You can make all the “two oyster cult” jokes you like, but I've seen them live with Danny Miranda, Richie Castellano, and Jules Radino filling the shoes of departed members, and they proved worthy successors on stage.

One might wonder if they proved worthy successors in the studio as well, as I did once I found out that a new album was indeed in the pipeline. The cover alone crushed most of my doubts.

Cover for The Symbol Remains used under Fair Use Doctrine

Some bands wouldn't recognize heavy metal if it fell out of the sky and crushed them, but the BÖC are among the Founding Fathers of Heavy Metal, and they know how to crush it. They don't get smeared across the bottom of an impact crater; they make the craters, and the nineteen years they spent “on tour forever” prove it.

The Symbol Remains sounds like an album made in 2020, but every song is both new and reminiscent of old songs. Opening banger “That Was Me” has the gleeful depravity of “Career of Evil” from Secret Treaties, but hits as hard as “See You In Black” from Heaven Forbid. “The Alchemist” sounds like it ought to be a track from Imaginos, but it was inspired by and quotes the story by H. P. Lovecraft.

“Tainted Blood” seems to connect to “I Love the Night” from Spectres and “After Dark” from Fire of Unknown Origin, and features Richie Castellano on vocals. Maybe it's the melodrama, but this song has proved an instant favorite. Maybe it's the refrain:

Put a stake through my heart
Throw me out in the light
Do whatever it takes
To end this endless night
Without her
There's nothing for me

Make the sign of the cross
Wrap mе in silver chains
Do whatever it takеs to end my pain
Without her
Eternity is misery

Even though she dies in the first verse, it's still a better love story than Twilight. OK, that might have been a cheap shot, but I couldn't resist. For some reason the notion of a vampire being wounded so deeply by the loss of a companion they've had for centuries that they themselves have had enough of undeath seems incredibly human. After all, how many times have see seen situations where couples have been married for half a century, and when one partner dies the other seems to follow soon after?

Then we've got songs like “Box in My Head”, which raise interesting psychological questions. How well do you know somebody? Are they showing you their full selves, or is part of it locked away? Or maybe the guy's got a virtual machine running in his head, which in turn is running another virtual machine, until it's turtles all the way down? It also sounds a bit like “Perfect Water” from Club Ninja (a better album than the band gets credit for having released).

“Nightmare Epiphany” sounds like something I'd expect from an Alice Cooper album, and “Edge of the World” reminds me of “To the End of the World” by Alestorm, since the BÖC song deals with conspiracy theories and the Alestorm tune is about the Time Cube. And then there's my other favorite from this album: “Florida Man”, the BÖC's tribute to all of those wacky folks from Florida who do crazy shit to liven up a slow news day. It sounds like “Harvest Moon” from Heaven Forbid, but also a bit like “Then Came The Last Days of May” from the 1972 eponymous debut.

There isn't a single bad track on this album, and there are plenty of brilliant ones. I don't regret buying my copy, though I've got to admit I'm looking forward to the release of Albert Bouchard's Re Imaginos next month.

You can buy The Symbol Remains from Amoeba Records from anywhere in the US.

Further Reading