The Symbol Remains is the fifteenth studio album from Blue Oyster Cult.
Blue Oyster Cult has long been one of the most underrated of all classic hard rock bands. Although to mainstream audiences the group is only known for a handful of classic rock radio hits, the group has a far deeper-reaching discography with some amazing songs and records. Despite forming half a century ago in New York, the band always had more in common with the British hard rock/metal bands of the day, including Black Sabbath and Uriah Heep. Nonetheless, the quintet has always managed to put their own unique spin on things. The release of the band’s latest album, The Symbol Remains, is noteworthy because it’s their first studio effort in nearly 20 years!
The band has always included guitarist/vocalist Donald “Buck Dharma” Roeser, and not long after their initial formation, has featured fellow guitarist/vocalist Eric Bloom. The current version of the band features Danny Miranda on bass (who’s had a long association with the band on two separate stints plus work with Queen’s surviving members following Freddie Mercury’s passing), keyboardist/guitarist Richie Castellano, and Jules Radino on drums, with the band since 2004.
The band’s “classic” lineup featured brothers Albert and Joe Bouchard, as well as Allen Lanier, and work from producer/songwriter Sandy Pearlman. Lanier died in 2013, and Pearlman died in 2016, but Albert Bouchard does guest on one track here. Bass players who played with the group during the long period between their last album and this one included the likes of Rudy Sarzo (Quiet Riot, Ozzy Osbourne Band) and Kasim Sulton (Todd Rundgren’s Utopia), though these two never appeared on a studio album by the band (aside from some backing vocal contributions by Sulton on this new release).
Two decades on, despite being a die-hard fan of Blue Oyster Cult and most of the material they’ve ever recorded, I certainly had my doubts as to whether a release from the band these days could deliver. Despite that, I remained optimistic, hoping this new release would be one from the group that would show the world they could survive in modern times, still rocking and doing what they do best. Buck Dharma and Eric Bloom, the band’s long-running classic members, are now 72 and 75 years old, respectively. Does The Symbol Remains prove that long-standing myth that age is only a number, or should these two be fearing the Reaper?
One of the things that always set Blue Oyster Cult apart from other bands was that they didn’t really have one consistent sound throughout their records, always trying different and diverse things. For instance, three studio albums released back-to-back; Spectres, Mirrors, and Cultosaurus Erectus, really couldn’t be more different, with Mirrors being more of a pop-oriented album and those bookending releasing being much more straightforward classic hard rock, the latter of which even produced by the late great Martin Birch. One of the greatest strengths of The Symbol Remains is that the album acknowledges just how diverse a band Blue Oyster Cult has always been, with several songs sounding radically different from one another, yet still retaining enough common elements that they work together as a cohesive whole. Listen to the crunching heavy metal riffs of “Stand and Fight,” and the more bluesy sounds and goofy vocals of “Train True (Lennie’s Song).” It’s amazing so many different sounds can come from one band, on one album no less!
There aren’t any overly lengthy epics on the album (the longest song is six minutes long), but the group still manages to pack a great deal of sounds into the 14 tracks to be had here. Despite the long running time, I was never bored with The Symbol Remains. “The Alchemist” is probably the closest thing to one of those epics, and one can’t argue with the strong opening riffs of “That Was Me,” featuring a guest appearance from classic member Albert Bouchard on cowbell and backing vocals. You’ll find faster tunes, heavier tunes, slower ones, and everything in between – it’s an album that needs to be experienced for one’s self, with my personal favorite tune likely being “The Machine.”
It’s been five decades since Blue Oyster Cult started. It’s been two decades since they released a studio album. And yet, for BOC, not all that much as changed in terms of their sound or their approach to music, and that’s a good thing. If not for the more modern-style production, many of these tracks would’ve been at home on one of the band’s earlier studio efforts. Eric, Buck, and all the rest have put out a damn good hard rock record that’s almost certain to land a spot on my Best of 2020 list when the time comes. If you’re a fan, I doubt you’ll be disappointed.
It’s also worth noting that the band is commemorating the year with several new live releases: Hard Rock Live Cleveland 2014, 40th Anniversary – Agents of Fortune – Live in 2016, and 45th Anniversary – Live in London. If you’re a die-hard fan who wants more live material from the band, these releases may be worth hunting down as well – I’ll review them if I pick any of them up.