The Symbol Remains – BLUE ÖYSTER CULT

At this point in time’s inexorable trudge, it seems unlikely that there are too many people currently chewing their own limbs off in excitement at the prospect of a new BLUE ÖYSTER CULT album. Few would deny the Americans’ significance to the evolution of hard rock and heavy metal, and that early catalogue of albums speaks for itself, whether you came to it via the ubiquity of “Don’t Fear The Reaper” or, maybe, FU MANCHU‘s legendary cover of “Godzilla”. One way or another, BLUE ÖYSTER CULT deserve a lot more recognition than they generally receive for being among the proto-metal architects. Unfortunately, decades of meandering underachievement has led to a creeping sense that Buck Dharma and his cohorts were drifting into hits-circuit obsolescence. More accurately, perhaps, nothing that the band have done since the late ’80s would make you think that they were capable of producing an album as good as this one.

“The Symbol Remains” certainly has its faults. At times, it does sound like a very skilled but unremarkable party rock band playing some rather basic rock ‘n’ roll. But when it’s good, it’s really fucking good, and BLUE ÖYSTER CULT suddenly sound transformed anew, into a slightly slicker but no less thunderous version of the band that brought us such seminal cornerstones as “Tyranny and Mutation”, “Agents of Fortune” and “Spectres”.

It begins with a big, fat riff and some straightforward, balls-out rocking: “That Was Me” is symptomatic of everything that’s good and bad about “The Symbol Remains”, but thankfully that riff more than compensates for a lack of imagination. Things really take off with “Box In My Head”, a dreamy but propulsive radio-rocker with a slightly trippy sheen and some neat vocal harmonies that will have classic rock fans drooling. “Tainted Blood” is the album’s first overt dive into AOR, but it’s pompous and melodramatic enough to sound more like MAGNUM than TOTO. Those harmonies are deliciously on point. “Nightmare Epiphany” is an absolute joy, an eccentric country rock shuffle, it’s blessed with several sweet melodies and lashings of twangy guitar. Similarly, “Train True (Lennie’s Song)” revels in harp-drenched GEORGIA SATELLITES vibes, and it’s a style that suits this current BÖC lineup perfectly. Meanwhile, “The Return Of St. Cecilia” is a simply brilliant hard rock tune, with tasty power-pop undertones.

Of the rest, it’s probably “The Alchemist” which will end up on people’s playlists. The song is a six-minute riff monster that makes no (slightly chewed) bones about its metallic intent, painting a vivid picture of man’s descent into madness, while also sounding like it could rock the piss out of any Broadway musical.

Not everything on “The Symbol Remains” hits the mark, but with at least ten hits and only a handful of misses, this is easily the best BLUE ÖYSTER CULT album since 1988’s “Imaginos”, and a worthy entry point for anyone refusing to acknowledge the last fifty years. Which would be insane, obviously, but you know what people are like.

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