Blue Öyster Cult need no introduction. Hard-rock heroes who fuse the genre with psychedelia, metal and prog, although their best-known song is ‘(Don’t Fear) The Reaper’, they are so much more than that. Whether it be their hugely successful 1980s period, with hits such as ‘Burnin’ for You’ or otherwise, there’s a lot to dig into with Stony Brook’s favourite sons.
If you’re new to Blue Öyster Cult, there is nowhere better to start than right at the beginning of their career with their eponymous debut album from January 1972. A straight-up hard-rock album than their subsequent efforts, it also augmented the genre. Through engaging dynamic changes and grooves, it’s a meandering journey that’s carried by the spirit of the counterculture that’s adapted for the ’70s.
There’s flecks of Vanilla Fudge, The West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band and Iron Butterfly, and it expands on the fusion of hard-rock and psychedelia that was on the fringes of rock towards the height of the counterculture in the mid-late 1960s. If there was any doubt of the album’s debt to the counterculture, opener ‘Transmaniacon MC’ is a direct reference to the notorious Altamont Free Concert, confirming Blue Öyster Cult as key members of the counterculture’s second wave.
That’s not to say the record is without its aged moments, such as track four ‘Stairway to the Stars’, which hasn’t aged well, and sounds like the sick child of Steppenwolf’s classic ‘Born To Be Wild’. Regardless of the cheese on this track, the crescendo is great, and you can’t resist nodding along to the funky licks. Let’s be honest, in the early ’70s, there was only one song that could reference a stairway without inviting detractors.
Even if it is dated, you can’t argue that 50 years later Blue Öyster Cult isn’t fun. Akin to being on a hallucinogenic trip, it pulls you in and distorts your grip on reality. Track six, ‘Screams’, is an example of this. Following in the same vein as Iron Butterly’s ‘In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida’ it’s a foreboding piece with some haunting keys that drop in and out, and a minor key riff that runs through the whole piece like a worryingly pulsating vein.
This is the dark side of hippiedom at its finest, and the way it segues into ‘She’s as Beautiful as a Foot’ is an unexpected twist. The lyrics to the song are pretty lousy, but the music is exceptional. Carrying on in the same spirit as its predecessor, it’s a mellower, freaky piece of rock, that acts as a foil to its ominous counterpart.
The clearest thing that permeates the album is the group’s technical proficiency. The dovetailing guitars of Eric Bloom and Donald ‘Buck Dharma’ Roser are eminent, as are the dynamic shifts ballasted by bassist Joe Bouchard, drummer Albert Bouchard, and keyboardist-cum-guitarist, Allen Lanier. One of the most refreshing entries in the early hard-rock genre, the band touched on every style that was significant at the time. Showing this, the riff of track two, ‘I’m on the Lamb but I Ain’t No Sheep’, was based on the main riff of the Captain Beefheart B-side ‘Frying Pan’.
The track ‘Cities On Flame with Rock and Roll’ contains flavours of In the Court of the Crimson King era King Crimson and Black Sabbath. Dharma’s lead playing really shines on this take as he emulates Tony Iommi with a sprinkling of Ritchie Blackmore in there for good measure. Interestingly, this is precisely what they were going for. They based the track on Sabbath’s early classic ‘The Wizard’, and it doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes to work it out. It’s done tastefully. It’s not a rip-off but a homage to the rock and roll heavyweights of the day.
The bright key change in the chorus of the song is an interesting compositional choice that keeps you engaged; otherwise, the track would have veered into the monotonous. However, when you place this in the wider context of Blue Öyster Cult’s career, it’s this kind of surprising and left-field structural decision that would make the band one of the most consistently refreshing over their long career. Upon listening, that iconic break halfway through the middle of ‘(Don’t Fear) The Reaper’ starts to make a lot of sense.
In support of the album, Blue Öyster Cult toured with giant acts such as Alice Cooper, The Byrds and Mahavishnu Orchestra. On the final track, ‘Redeemed’, you can clearly hear the influence of The Byrds and their country-rock period. Jangly guitars meshed with a mid-pace country rhythm, this could quite easily be a hazy Allman Brothers Band take. Sunny and emotive, the way it slowly fades out is a fitting closing call.
One of the finest hard-rock albums ever made, Blue Öyster Cult was the first sign of things to come for the band. Although slightly dated, there’s no messing around on the album. Taking cues from a host of the most important acts of the day, this was Blue Öyster Cult laying the foundations for a stellar future.
Listen to Blue Öyster Cult in full below.