Mike McLatchey with Joe Fischer 7-July-2001 Blue Öyster Cult/Tyranny and Mutation/Secret Treaties/Agents of Fortune (remasters)

Blue Öyster Cult - Blue Öyster Cult (Columbia/Legacy CK 85482) 1973
Blue Öyster Cult - Tyranny and Mutation (Columbia/Legacy CK 85481) 1973
Blue Öyster Cult - Secret Treaties (Columbia/Legacy CK 85480) 1974
Blue Öyster Cult - Agents of Fortune (Columbia/Legacy CK 8479) 1976

The inclusion of Blue Öyster Cult in Gnosis is primarily due to the band's first five albums (four studio albums and a double live), although there are moments of magic on just about all of their albums through to the present day. In fact, a large portion of their current live repertoire contains music from these formative years. The following is a review of the absolutely splendid remasters of the first four studio albums, releases with much-improved clarity and lots of bonus tracks.

Blue Öyster Cult are rarely considered to be progressive rock, especially in its most common "symphonic" definition, although their early music is some of the most inventive hard rock of 70s. They pulled from influences as diverse as King Crimson, Steppenwolf, the Grateful Dead and Black Sabbath and combined these threads of psychedelic, progressive rock, boogie and hard rock into a distinct style whose surface bubbles with occult mystery and historical intrigue.

Throughout their early years, Blue Öyster Cult were a stable unit comprised of lead guitarist and vocalist Donald "Buck Dharma" Roeser, vocalist and "stun guitarist" Eric Bloom, drummer and vocalist Albert Bouchard, bassist and vocalist Joe Bouchard and keyboardist/guitarist Allen Lanier. From their first album, the band created an incredibly original rock music, one that contained memorable melodies, a wide range of vocal styles from several of the members and a charged energy. But it was the esoteric miasma this hard rock blended with that set the band apart, mainly due to the lyrical content and the song titles they influenced. Right from the start, Blue Öyster Cult set themselves apart from the usual hard rock groups of the era. The band blended fantastic imagery into their lyrics, due in part to writer and conceptualist Sandy Pearlman, as well as critic Richard Meltzer and songwriter/singer Patti Smith. What could have been the lyrics of just another rock band became the vehicle for a surreal aura of extraordinary subtlety and bizarre mystery.

Despite the anthemic "Cities on Flame with Rock and Roll", a riffing rocker whose guitar parts were influenced by Black Sabbath's "The Wizard" and King Crimson's "21st Century Schizoid Man," Blue Öyster Cult's mythos began to foment right from their self-titled debut, hinting at mysteries, secret history, and nightmare. The band's unearthly brew of fuzz guitars, blues riffs, and progressive sensibility, a strange place where a conventional laid-back boogie could often become something surreal and psychedelic, was the perfect medium for the unusual and intelligent lyrical imagery. "I'm on the Lamb but I Ain't No Sheep", a precursor to a song on their second album, "The Red & The Black," has a mesh of three guitars, a cross between a blues vamp and something a bit more intricate, especially on some of the bridges which are strangely inventive. "She's as Beautiful as a Foot" is a strange, minor key piece sung by Bloom, backed by reverbed electric piano. Later, "Workshop of the Telescopes," a song whose title became the name of a later box set, begins to hint at the strange conspiratorial whispers that would form the lyrical backbone for their next works. Even the album's finale, "Redeemed," strays occasionally from its slightly country-like format (strains of the Grateful Dead here) into a series of key changes and guitar leads that are surprising and unconventional.

The bonus tracks here are a step back to the prior incarnation of the band Soft White Underbelly, a name the band would occasionally use even later in their career. These follow the band's thread all the way back to the rock n roll and West Coat psychedelic influences. Imagine Blue Öyster Cult put through the Jefferson Airplane filter and you're close, except for the Chuck Berry-like "Betty Lou's Got A New Pair of Shoes," a rather pedestrian moment of rock 'n roll.

The superb playing of Buck Dharma, perhaps one of the finest rock guitarists in history, is of great significance on the early albums. Not confined to conventional blues scales, it was Dharma's solos on many of the songs on the band's two follow-up albums that made them both the most consistent of the band's catalog, each outbreak a capsule of passion, intensity and mystique. Their second album, Tyranny and Mutation, was split into two sides, The Red and the Black. Dharma fuels some of the band's most enduring classics here, from the full-tilt throttle of "Hot Rails to Hell" to the complex ballad-like "Wings Wetted Down," both sung by bassist Joe Bouchard. Already the band's influences were undergoing the transformational process into a unique sound, buffered by the evolving lyrical imagery. "O.D.'d on Life Itself" has a T-Rex like vamp on the verses giving way to a fantastic Buck Dharma solo. Tracks like "7 Screaming Diz-Busters" and "Baby Ice Dog" are waist-deep in bizarre imagery, the former containing some of Pearlman's strangest and most menacing lyrics, the latter a lyrical contribution of Patti Smith. The music had continued to wander among the ambiguities of hard rock, bringing in modals, bluesy musing, strong instrumental sections and a compositional succinctness that brought such character to each piece.

The bonus tracks on Tyranny and Mutation are all live pieces except, strangely, for a studio version of a live standard, "Buck's Boogie." The Blue Öyster Cult Bootleg EP version of "Cities on Flame" is certain powerful, although Albert Bouchard seemed to have trouble keeping up with the vocals on this version. The great revelation here is the 14 minute live outtake of "7 Screaming Diz-Busters," an improvisationally stretched version that gives room to some Morrison-like rambling by Eric Bloom. Finishing out the bonus material is a live "OD'd on Life Itself" that demonstrates well the power of the band live.

Secret Treaties was perhaps the peak of the band's early period and possibly the most consistent album of their catalog. The eight tracks explore lyrical conspiracy and intrigue with an amazing array of hard rock inventions. The driving "Career of Evil" with its laid-out organ and malicious lyrics opens up, setting up a beautiful segue into the esoteric "Subhuman," with mystical verse; dark, jazzy bridge and the wonderful rhodes of the chorus. The modals, melodies and melancholy melt perfectly here culminating in another classic Dharma solo before the segue out starts a clock and the urgent cry of "Dominance and Submission." 'Dominance! Submission. Radios Appear' is the chorus, another marvel of band vocal arrangements and a live standard of the group throughout their career. "ME 262" follows full tilt and never lets up, riding a blues riff to the cockpit of a WWII German fighter pilot who wonders 'Must these Englishmen live that I might die?' The musical energy accelerates this one out through bomber sirens to a rousing finale, a culmination of one of the band's finest pieces of music. The last four songs, what was side 2 of the LP, don't let up the energy, "Cagey Cretins" bolts out with a driving riff, harmony vocals and the brooding vocals of Bloom trading off with Bouchard on the choruses. The arrangements are flawlessly handled, building up a sense of foreboding that erupts into the Krieger-like riff of "Harvester of Eyes," another of the band's masterpieces, featuring a strong peak at Dharma's almost symphonic guitar solo. It finishes with a strange musical box melody before seguing into the possibly the album's defining moment, "Flaming Telepaths." Here everything impressive about the band gels into a perfect whole - the pace, progression, lyrics and arrangements. Verses and choruses interchange before flowing into a moog solo and another Dharma modal, a reprise and a build up. 'And the joke's on you' is the final mantra over which Dharma gets another moment before an abrupt cut-off to the piano of closer "Astronomy." This ballad is an amazing dynamic change from the prior tracks, a song that develops in intensity from its piano-led verses, representing a distinct departure for the group. It is the final piece of the puzzle, and the culmination of perhaps one of the very best rock albums of the 70s.

The bonus tracks feature outtakes from the Secret Treaties sessions, and these are so very good, especially "Boorman the Chauffer" and "Mes Dames Sarat," both which feature the same pummeling pace of songs like "ME 262." Likely, had the restraints of the LP not been an issue, these would have ended up as part of the album, and even these rough cuts hold up well to the rest of the album material. Also included is a studio B side version of "Born To Be Wild," a version very different from both the original and the live take on On Your Feet, Or on Your Knees, and a lyrically toned down single version of "Career of Evil."

Of course, the album Agents of Fortune held quite the prophecy, as this was the album that included the band's first top 40 single, the timeless "Don't Fear (The Reaper)." "The Reaper," however, was only one of many styles portrayed on what was their most diverse album yet. With the move away from the heavy rock prevalent on the first three albums, Blue Öyster Cult also opened up the instrumentation with the occasional presence of the Brecker Brothers (such as on the Lanier-penned "True Confessions). However, while not every experiment worked well, it did produce some of the band's most impressive material. Highlights are the absolutely amazing "E.T.I.," a riff-based song that predated the UFO fascination of the X Files by many years, the sultry "Revenge of Vera Gemini," where Patti Smith sings backup as well as writes the lyrics, and the menacing "Tattoo Vampire" with a bizarre vibrato chorus and disturbing atmosphere. At the same time, the album hinted at the band's less impressive future with pieces like the limpid "Tenderloin" and closing ballad "Debbie Denise," a song whose vocal arrangements seem disappointing after those from the prior albums. In some ways the album's diversity is its strength, as the strong moments definitely outweigh the weak. But it also showed a change in the band's compositional techniques, relying on the individual members composing separately before bringing the compositions into the studio, rather than the more group-oriented process of the early years.

In fact, that's where some of the bonus tracks come from, individual demos, of which the original Dharma demo of "(Don't Fear) The Reaper)" is perhaps the most historically impressive. Despite not having a full band arrangement, the original melodies of the music remain quite prominent in the demo. Also of interest is the early version of "Fire of Unknown Origin," a song that would not find its way to an album until 1981 and a very different Blue Öyster Cult, despite the lyrics being virtually the same.

After these four studio albums and the live On Your Feet or On Your Knees, an album that has not had the remaster treatment as of yet (but is a definite worthwhile listen to fans of the first three), the band followed more of the diverse spirit, an approach that produced the disappointing Spectres while still occasionally showing up in brilliant form on albums like Cultosaurus Erectus or Fire of Unknown Origin. However, it is these four, now remastered, albums that represent the foundation of the group, finally with the sonic quality matching the musical.

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