Rarely does one find dyed-in-the-wool metalheads making concessions in the direction of Blue Öyster Cult as a seminal proto-metal band. Their reluctance is understandable; beyond the radio hits (‘Don’t Fear The Reaper‘, ‘Burnin For You‘, and maybe a few songs off Spectres and Fire Of Unknown Origin), the Cult’s early catalog remains largely neglected among hardcore metal circles. And if one looks outside of those first three albums, then the band’s output becomes a little too saccharine, a little too 80s – if not without a certain delicious sense of dread – for ears reared on more caustic fare. Buck Dharma is patronized as a terrific guitar player, instead of being held as one of the most tasteful musicians in rock n roll history, the band is routinely saddled with platitudes like “the thinking man’s rock ensemble”, and there it usually ends.
But it oughtn’t be so. The self-titled debut, Tyranny And Mutation, and Secret Treaties, represent some of the most adventurous, humorous, poignant, and, yes, intense, encapsulations of rock verging on metal for the time. That two classic songs from this era have been covered by bands as pivotal as the Minutemen (‘The Red And The Black‘) and Metallica (‘Astronomy‘) in ways both frenzied and epic, as befitting the originals, should make curious minds curiouser; this was a musicians’ band, utterly unique, and far from deserving of the dinosaur rock gallery that posterity has unfortunately consigned it to.
Blue Öyster Cult history is the stuff of legend and can be read on many a dedicated website. Formed in New York as Soft White Underbelly by chemical engineering students Donald “Buck Dharma” Roeser and Albert Bouchard on drums, the band line-up eventually consolidated into its most stable and well known version with the advent of Joe Bouchard on bass, Allen Lanier on keyboards, and Eric Bloom on vocals. In the background lurked manager, poet-lyricist, rock-critic and producer Sandy Pearlman, assisted duly in his acid-fueled outre musings by Richard Meltzer. From Pearlman’s fantasy writings entitled The Soft Doctrines Of Imaginos came the band’s name and many a lyrical shard scattered throughout these albums. In the pipeline were also plans to make a full-fledged trilogy based on the Imaginos concept, only one-third of which plan was ever realized, through Albert Bouchard’s demo tapes and then their eventual, “official” reworking after Bouchard’s departure by Roeser and Bloom in ’88, but more on the minutiae of that convoluted transaction at a later date.
The band’s trajectory on the first three albums charts from the bluesy, boogeying West coast psychedelia of the debut, through the spastic speed-drenched terrain of Tyranny And Mutation, finally coming to settle at the completely self-assured tempo of Secret Treaties. The persistent references to older forms of rock n roll in the chord and choral voicings may be distracting for the modern listener of heavy metal; there is a jauntiness to these songs so typical of the 60s, but that seeming “naivete” isn’t naivete at all, for it exists in an uneasy truce with the maliciousness of a quirky nature, borne out in both wordplay and actual riffcraft. Black Sabbath may have been suffocatingly dark (though not without frequent excursions into flowery, God-fearing orthodoxy), Led Zeppelin overbearingly pompous imitations of ancient bluesmen, and Deep Purple streetsmart Romeos with classical predilections, but none, save Frank Zappa, perhaps, matched the sheer playful twistedness of the Blue Öyster Cult of this time.
And it is a progressive twistedness at that. Most impressions of progressive rock from the 70s make allowances for lush, expansive, ambient soundscapes, where songs are led by the nose through a gamut of developmental variations and interactions. This is the natural and proper definition of the term “progressive”, too, but Blue Öyster Cult achieved this effect on a smaller scale, at almost-always breakneck speeds, in much the same manner as speed metal bands in the 80s; intricate, focused bursts of activity – not always within conventional metal parameters – where progression is evident more on a component-by-component level, where individual riffsets build with deliberation to a crescendo before ushering in the next big movement within the song, where narrative and musical lyricism are married in near-perfect union; these are trademarks of the first three albums, markers that most heavy metal fans can identify with, if not always in sound, then certainly in spirit.
But early Blue Öyster Cult can be enjoyed well enough without making tenuous connections to heavy metal, too. Truth be told, it is indeed hard rock captured in its purest, most thrilling essence; and what of it? It carries much the same attitude and spirit as The Stooges and roadhouse-era Motörhead, evoking a gruff biker ethos and the seedy alleyways where it thrives; under that swagger simultaneously lies concealed a consummate intelligence; wit, sarcasm, and innuendo abound, gently kissed by a higher sentimentality that would find greater space in ensuing works.
But the careful planning and more erudite story-telling of those albums, all too enjoyable in its own right, would have to wait. These first albums are fevered, with hardly a stagger in the sound spectrum, where angular phrases are caught constantly jostling with and over each other for equal representation in a schizoid dance of harmony. Shepherded by Dharma’s virtuoso guitar and the Bouchards’ bustling rhythm section, they are timeless instances of American rock craftsmanship, explosive in how they gratify yet replete with a wealth of relevant musical information.