For a band who haven't put out a studio album since 2001, Blue Öyster Cult have made the very best use of 2020 that they could, putting out no less than eight albums. That's three re-releases, four live albums and this new studio release. If we didn't have enough to thank Frontiers for already, getting BÖC back into the studio adds substantially to that thank you list.
The band has been stable for a long while, with Buck Dharma and Eric Bloom still at the helm. Dharma was a founder member and Bloom isn't far behind, having joined the band as far back as 1969. On bass is Danny Miranda, who spent a decade with the band from 1995 to 2004 and then returned in 2017 for a second stint. Richie Castellano and Jules Radino are the new guys, for whom this counts as a debut studio album, but they've both been with BÖC for sixteen years, so they're hardly that new.
The sound is stable too, these songs walking the line between hard rock and heavy metal that they've done for half a century now.
I liked this from moment one, That Was Me finding neat harmonies and getting all funky a couple of minutes in, while both Box in My Head and Tainted Blood (bear with me) sound pretty good too, but I didn't love it until four tracks in and they really mix it up.
Nightmare Epiphany sounds like Billy Joel on speed. And testosterone. Maybe a little acid. It grows into a sort of hard rockabilly dance number. It's far from the heaviest song on the album but it stands out right away and bores its way into our skulls with layered harmonies and neat guitar runs. And, as of that point, I was totally sold right before the real standout.
Edge of the World is as great a BÖC song as anything I can remember. It's that good. (Don't Fear) The Reaper is so iconic now that it's hard to compare anything to it, but this one's up there with Shooting Shark and Burnin' for You and whatever other personal favourite you might have from their plentiful back catalogue.
There's a lot here to figure out. Train True (Lennie's Song) reminds of archetypal Golden Earring even before the band ratchet it up to southern rock chicken-pickin' speeds and really rock out. The Return of St. Cecilia channels Mk II Deep Purple, while Stand and Fight is much more like Black Album Metallica with some seriously crunchy guitar. Florida Man, on the other hand, is oddly more like a Neil Young song, so the pair together is a little jarring. That one leads into The Alchemist, an old school epic story song that feels longer than its six minutes.
For a while, this is a great album but, even if songs like Tainted Blood won me over on a second listen and then some (how was this one not immediate for me?), the best stuff is in the middle with the bookends a little less worthy. The really key thing to note is that the less worthy material on this album is still pretty good and still worth your attention. In fact, some of the songs at the end are gradually winning me over after four or five listens, songs like Secret Road and especially Fight.
So this is a grower of an album, as good as it is on a first impression. Edge of the World and Tainted Blood make this an essential purchase but the offbeat ones, like Nightmare Epiphany and Train True, underline that. Blue Öyster Cult haven't lost any of their magic and, damn, it feels good to listen to new studio material from them. Please, folks, don't leave it another nineteen years before the next one!