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Monday, October 27, 2014

Blue Öyster Cult: Cultösaurus Erectus

BLUE ÖYSTER CULT: CULTÖSAURUS ERECTUS (1980)

1) Black Blade; 2) Monsters; 3) Divine Wind; 4) Deadline; 5) The Marshall Plan; 6) Hungry Boys; 7) Fallen Angel; 8) Lips In The Hills; 9) Unknown Tongue.

Kind of a confused record, but not without some major points of interest. As the disco backlash hit the streets, Bloom and Co. must have realised that they'd wandered a bit too far off in the back alleys — even if songs like ʽDr. Musicʼ and ʽLonely Teardropsʼ were not without their merits, hearing them in 1980 might make the fans feel as if they'd just caught the band with their pants off or something. Quickly, the boys devised Salvation Plan B — drop all the vaudeville and get realigned back to heaviness. For extra security, they teamed up with famous hard rock producer Martin Birch, fresh off work on Heaven And Hell, the new album by the new-look Black Sab­bath (with Dio) — and once Birch helped them get out their own record, they even went on tour with Sabbath together (an old video, still officially unavailable on DVD, predictably called Black And Blue, actually captured that glorious moment).

Getting back some of that heaviness was a good thing, and, in fact, what with all the advances in technology and all, Cultösaurus occasionally sounds thicker and denser than anything they ever did before (Birch certainly saturates some fat inside Joe Bouchard's bass, for one thing) — but don't let that fool you: this is not an improvement on the first three albums, and, in fact, I'd rather we did not compare them at all, because the poor skeletal beast will not survive the procedure.

With just a couple exceptions that I will save up for a little later, Blue Öyster Cult have finally entered what is commonly referred to as «Spinal Tap territory». The typical song here is a big, bombastic, superhero-style light metal rocker — sometimes equipped with its own riff, but more often not (I'm still trying to locate one in ʽBlack Bladeʼ, but to no avail: most of the time it is the bass that drives the song rather than the rhythm guitar). The first songs start us off in sci-fi / B-movie mode, but as the album progresses, the band moves on to the subject of «Rock And Roll Hero», dedicating song after song to issues of superstardom, rebellion, and fall from grace — and much of this stuff just sounds like parody (sometimes rather pedestrian parody) on rock'n'roll aesthetics. Not deconstruction of rock'n'roll aesthetics, as it used to be in the glory days, more like relatively simplistic parody.

The «epic» number that opens the album is ʽBlack Bladeʼ, another collaboration with Moorcock on one of his fantasy subjects (the «soul-sucking» sword of Elric) — but, unlike ʽSun Jesterʼ, this one has no emotional subtlety whatsoever, and even though its fat chords, Neanderthal vocals, and scree­ching guitar leads do a good job visualising images of Boris Vallejo characters, the melody is not particularly memorable, and the song is neither awesomely impressive nor awesomely funny, so I am not exactly sure what to do with it. ʽMonstersʼ is much more interes­ting, melody-wise, especially the way it manages to combine jazz with hard-rock (the mid-section reveals direct influences of King Crimson's ʽ21st Century Schizoid Manʼ), but... it doesn't sound much like «monsters». More like a passable jazz-fusion piece integrated with some generic hard rock passages. No visions springing up.

The second side is dominated by the shadow of ʽThe Marshall Planʼ, a bombastic saga of a proverbial rock'n'roll hero, peppered with lyrical references to Don Kirshner, quotations of the ʽSmoke On The Waterʼ riff, fake audience noises, and endless namecalling of a certain «Johnny» — good thing the album was released a good half-year before the Lennon shooting. As a glam-rock theat­rical piece, it's okay, I guess, but not particularly necessary after we've had ourselves that lengthy Alice Cooper streak of early 1970s albums, much more powerful on the whole. Again, musically it is the shorter songs that have more pull. ʽHungry Boysʼ is a rare case of a New Wave-influenced pop-rocker here, with electronic effects and slightly robotized vocals that contrast with fully traditional rock and roll guitar leads; and ʽLips In The Hillsʼ is a good showcase for the boys' guitar interplay — nasty swirling arpeggios overlayed with stinging solos, fully redeeming the song for Meltzer's whacko lyrics.

But all of this is merely «decent». The only moments where the album approaches an oasis of greatness are, interestingly enough, ʽDivine Windʼ and ʽDeadlineʼ — two songs credited solely to Buck Dharma, indicating that, at this particular time, he was the most reasonable of the band members. ʽDivine Windʼ is melodically unexceptional — a fairly standard blues-rocker — but, alone of 'em all, it actually sounds serious: Buck's chorus — "if he really thinks we're the devil, then let's send him to HELL!", with heavy threatening emphasis on the last word — occasionally sends a shiver down my spine. Apparently, never mind the actual title, but the song was referring to the Ayatollah and the Iran crisis, and in these politically sensitive days would probably count as warmongering and maybe cost Blue Öyster Cult their place in respectable society and align them next to Ted Nugent, but things were kinda easier in 1980, and besides, regardless of deeper causes, the Ayatollah was one rather sick son of a bitch, so I can empathize. Most ardently, though, I empathize the howling guitar breaks and the doom-laden basslines.

ʽDeadlineʼ, one of the record's lighter tracks, memorizes an incident in which one of the band's booking agents was shot by a guy from whom he wanted to wrestle out a gambling debt — and the memorial is well held, with a chorus that somehow implies that being resolute and determined is not always a good thing ("he missed the deadline / he passed the deadline, darling"), and some moody, echoey guitar leads for atmosphere. Lighter it may be, but ultimately it cuts deeper than anything else on here, and I'd certainly return to the album in the future for ʽDeadlineʼ rather than ʽBlack Bladeʼ or ʽThe Marshall Planʼ.

Unquestionably a thumbs up here, because even the «bad» songs are so obviously tongue-in-cheek that only an idiot could get offended. But I would be lying if I said the album didn't have its problems — the major one being a noticeable disappearance of good rhythm guitar. You can't live on solid Buck Dharma solos for eternity, and the riffs did provide a reliable foundation for the BÖC legend in the past. Taking them out and substituting «theatrical pomp» in their place, hoping that we do not notice, is a bad move, and one that would eventually lead to their downfall. Fortunately, here we are still some way away from it. 

9 comments:

  1. OK, bad things first:

    The Marshall Plan is just a novelty song about Little Johnny (I guess you also have jokes about him in Russia) being dumped by his girlfriend on a concert for the guitar player, and imagining to start playing his guitar and become a star. And all that plotting of his in order to get his girlfriend back. Well, funny for just one listening, but no more.

    Hungry Boys and Fallen Angel don't do anything for me.

    The rest of the album is sheer gold.

    Monsters reveals Al Bouchard's jazz inclinations. It is about a monstrosity that happens in the situation where there are several space smugglers (not unlike Han Solo) on a spaceship and only one female on board. The girl was the only pilot, so...

    Lips In The Hills sounds like a FM-friendly Iron Maiden, and for me it rocks much more than the entire oeuvre of those Limeys.

    Unknown Tongue maybe does nothing to you, but it is a song about some schoolgirl's personal ritual, for reasons that the listener could only guess. The song is both disturbing and emotional.

    Now, proggy Black Blade is the second sci-fi masterpiece here. Yes, it is asymmetrical, syncopated, there is the Buck's shredding guitar, wall of sound that makes me shiver and the synthesized accordion finale is both ridiculous and spooky.

    I've yet to hear another band to have imagery like this on an album.

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  2. Well it's pretty clear who has the reliable taste here. Black Blade is, indeed as I said before, a weak pompous unlikeable irritating song which screams arena rock. BOC always had this tendency in them but as George says they approached it in a deconstructive manner. As this album clearly shows, they cared less and less about this creative approach and decided instead just to Go Big. Not the wrong argument at all, this album is decent but obviously the beginning of the decline.

    Until Imaginos of course. Can't wait for George's review of THAT album...

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    1. Imaginos is a masterful piece of crock, written by the desperate ex-drummer and performed by the band in agony, and a zillion of hired guns. If there are "pompous unlikeable irritating songs" in BOC catalog, it is on Imaginos.

      As I said, your logic in development and decline of this band is lacking if you claim Imaginos to be some masterpiece. It screams "awful" from all directions, and it is a logical continuation of the already lousy Club Ninja, since they already call it quits, but were obliged to make another album.

      Anyone with an ounce of taste and intellect wouldn't think twice about whether is Cultosaurus or Imaginos better album. Only by comparison of the covers and the contents written on them, let alone the music. Black Blade is just that, already witty and grotesque representative of the ridiculous prehistoric sneering monster on the cover.

      So middle finger to your reasoning, an tap on the back to George, meaning 'you could prepare better on this one'.

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    2. "song which screams arena rock"

      Arena rock, my ass. Can you name another 1980 arena rock act that could write this? Come on! REO Speedwagon? Styx? Springsteen? Stones? Queen?

      Maybe Rush, but by golly, there's no way Neil Peart to be tongue-in-cheek, and no way Geddy Lee to play accordion sounding synth.

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  3. Black Blade and Imaginos are both weak Cult but have redeeming elements. There, now we can all get along.

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    1. Oh, hi Anonymous, you again.

      Wrong.

      Black Blade is deliberately cheesy and grotesque, and as a final result is a great song.

      On the contrary, Imaginos, both as a whole, and in particular, aims to high, but as a result it falls miserably.

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    2. What does that even mean, "hi Anonymous, you again"? Anyone who picks the Anonymous option when they comment is called that and plenty of people here choose it, how many people do you think I am?

      Delete
    3. Anonymous: Between his unpleasantly abrupt statement "Wrong argument. Bad taste." and "a middle finger to your arguments", Simplus is proving himself to be nothing more than a typical Angry Internet Manboy. Don't waste your time, he will never agree to disagree. Your opinion is wrong, my opinion is wrong, to people like this ALL opinions are wrong except his.

      Black Blade sucks as George describes, worst song on a decent album.

      Delete
  4. I grew to like The Marshall Plan, when I started to notice references that song does make.
    Smoke on the Water thing is obvious. Don Kirshner thing is also obvious. The pun in the title is obvious.

    But did you notice that the solo section after the Kirshner part is strangely reminiscent of Whole Lotta Love?
    Or did we ever hear any other song about a boy named Johnny who grew up to be a rock star? (Johnny B. Goode, anyone?)

    Being less knowledgeable about music than I'd like to be, I suppose there are some other allusions that flew right over my head. I think it would be fun to find them.

    ReplyDelete