Blue Öyster Cult proves it still holds longtime magic on ‘The Symbol Remains’

Blue Oyester Cult
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Grade: 3.5/5.0

Heavy metal pioneers, hard rock legends — whatever you want to call the band, it’s clear that Blue Öyster Cult is a force to be reckoned with. From the band’s start in 1967 to its latest album, The Symbol Remains, released Oct. 9, Blue Öyster Cult has retained a level of quality despite experimenting with different styles of music. But a 19-year gap between this record and the artist’s last release, 2001’s Curse of the Hidden Mirror, was a well-worth wait, as The Symbol Remains is a roulette wheel of the band’s journey through the years.

“That Was Me” is a crunchy, heavy opener reminiscent of the band’s late ’70s and early ’80s work. The song is noticeably missing the hints of brightness that mark the band’s arguably best era from 1972 to 1981, but it still holds its own as a quality Cult track. Catchy hooks fill the song and find the band staying true to its status as the pioneers of metal, hence the message of “it’s still me, that was me.”

As suspected, Blue Öyster Cult also includes an ominously modern message of concern broadcasted across “The Machine,” referring to none other than the cellphone. Beginning with an all-too-familiar phone ring, the song quickly dives into the band’s classic hard rock meets metal formula: the more recognizable, rich stylings of original guitarist, Buck Dharma, and harmonized choral tones, which have been mesmerizing listeners since the band’s first album. The song’s theme of modern dystopia is almost comforting, however, settling listeners into the cryptic atmosphere they’ve come to expect from Blue Öyster Cult.

What this album shows is that the band has, for the most part, stood the test of time. Lead singer Eric Bloom’s melodic voice has held up marvelously, and Dharma’s excellent guitar skills are still the glue that holds the group together. Former keyboardist Allen Lanier’s passing in 2013 raised some concerns as to whether Blue Öyster Cult’s subsequent releases would be able to capture his essential synth accents, and while there is a lack of memorable synths on The Symbol Remains, it doesn’t detract significantly from the album.

Other aspects of the record lean on the anthemic side, the band particularly returning to its arena rock days on “Tainted Blood” and “Nightmare Epiphany.” The steady riffs juxtaposed with eerie themes highlight that much of the band’s ’80s influence is well and present, like a mix of 1980’s classic Cultosaurus Erectus and 1983’s more radio-friendly The Revolution by Night.

Blue Öyster Cult certainly aims to test — but also please — longtime fans with this record. The strange homage on “Florida Man” to the wacky doings of the song’s namesake is like a time machine, throwing listeners for a loop with the intro riff sounding coyly similar to the artist’s cult classic “(Don’t Fear) the Reaper.” But then the fast, wailing ’80s metal riff found on “The Alchemist” bursts onto the scene in a flash, showcasing the musicians’ genre range and epic storyline-weaving skills — it’s a true treat to hear the band tap into this style of metal.

“Edge of the World” and “Secret Road” are striking tracks, not because they’re more unique or have twists thrown in, but because they capture the quintessential nature of Blue Öyster Cult’s discography. The melodic instrumentals coupled with Dharma’s suave solos and drummer Jules Radino’s take on former percussionist Albert Bouchard’s powerful fills just prove again that the current members haven’t lost the eclectic touch that pulls the band together. Listeners are ushered back to a familiar time, feeling as if they’ve listened to these songs countless times before. 

The Symbol Remains is a triumph for Blue Öyster Cult, a chronicle of the band’s ups and downs, changes in style and unwavering adherence to its identity as a no-holds-barred band when it comes to creativity. It would’ve been nice to see more than just a hint of the progressive rock influences and airiness the band embraced in its earlier albums, but despite these shortcomings, Blue Öyster Cult has shown again that it still has its revolutionary musical touch.

Contact Pooja Bale at [email protected]. Tweet her at @callmepbj.