BLUE ÖYSTER CULT: FIRE OF UNKNOWN ORIGIN (1981)
1) Fire Of Unknown Origin; 2) Burnin' For You; 3) Veteran Of The Psychic Wars; 4) Sole Survivor; 5) Heavy Metal: The Black And Silver; 6) Vengeance; 7) After Dark; 8) Joan Crawford; 9) Don't Turn Your Back.
Seeing as how everybody and their tattooed grandmothers seem to love ʽBurnin' For Youʼ, I won't say anything particularly bad about this song — but I do want to express a little sorrow in light of the fact that, where their first big hit (ʽReaperʼ) sucked up to the Byrds and their second big hit (ʽGodzillaʼ) sucked up to... well, let's say The Move and Roy Wood's Wizzard, among other things, their third (and last) big hit sucks up to Foreigner. And it's written by the band's bestest melody-writer (Roeser) and bestest lyricist (Meltzer), no less! Yes, gentlemen, change is definitely in the air, and not necessarily for the better.
Not that ʽBurnin' For Youʼ is a particularly disappointing spokessong for the arena-rock genre: as a catchy, danceable vehicle to express longing and torment, it is totally on par with the best that Foreigner and Boston had to offer us. Nor would I want to deny Buck Dharma the right to contribute another «serious-sounding» rather than «tongue-in-cheek» song, after he'd proved himself so capable with ʽReaperʼ and ʽDeadlineʼ. But the pop metal riff tone that he generates (or is made to generate by Martin Birch, once again returning into the producer's seat) is so far removed from the classic hard rock sound of BÖC, and the chorus hook is so unashamedly «commercial» (in the not-so-good sense of the word), that even if we «accept» the song, it will still be clearly indicative of the numerous embarrassments to follow.
On the whole, Fire Of Unknown Origin still preserves the basic accoutrements of a typical BÖC product. The original line-up is still intact, Meltzer is on board, and so is Moorcock, contributing the lyrics from another of his fantasy scenarios; and so is Sandy Pearlman, with lyrics for ʽHeavy Metalʼ, a song that, along with several others, was intended to appear in the soundtrack to the animated movie of the same name; and so is even Patti Smith, helping out with the title track. There is sci-fi, fantasy, spoof horror, and campy, grotesque atmosphere a-plenty, starting with the album cover and ending with a song about Joan Crawford as a ghoul that has risen from the grave to keep on tormenting her unfortunate daughter (ironically, the album was released three months before the premiere of Mommy Dearest with Faye Dunaway, so who influenced who?..).
But the music, oddly enough, even though they still retain their heavy metal producer, once again veers off the «heavy» trajectory (as they tried to re-establish it with Cultösaurus). Those pop metal riffs I have mentioned are, in fact, the heaviest element of the sound — which is otherwise very much dominated by synthesizers. Thankfully, they try to use them creatively and in diverse ways, from background tapestries (title track) to doom-laden church-organ substitutes (ʽSole Survivorʼ) to playful, danceable New Wave patterns à la Cars (ʽAfter Darkʼ), and, besides, we have only just begun to knock upon Eighties' doors, so there is a good sense of balance. Additionally, we must keep in mind that the band was essentially a «meta-rock» formation, meaning that they had to present their own quirky take on whatever was currently en vogue, so this shift to an early amalgamation of pop metal and synth-rock was probably inevitable. However, that does not mean that we have to enjoy it, and I would not call this album tremendously enjoyable.
In fact, out of its exaggerated, cartoonish, corny darkness (well fit for the exaggerated, cartoonish, corny darkness of Heavy Metal, for which many of these songs were written, but almost none were used), I would say that I instinctively enjoy only two songs, for different reasons. ʽVeteran Of The Psychic Warsʼ somehow, almost as if against its own will, manages to capture a bit of the war-weary, troubled-paranoid syndrome — forget about Moorcock's fantasy-based lyrics, it could just as easily be about Vietnam — with an impressive build-up towards the ominous conclusion of the chorus ("oh please don't let these shakes go on..." is almost creepy), and its sonic atmosphere, with those booming martial drums, is vaguely reminiscent of Peter Gabriel's ʽIntruderʼ, perhaps not accidentally so. A mini-masterpiece that I would recommend, hands down, over ʽBurnin' For Youʼ as the album's best track any time of day, night, or the interim.
The second track that I get a real kick out of is... yes, ʽJoan Crawfordʼ. It is a silly joke, yes, but a hilarious one, as if the band is spoofing its own predilection for the subject of vampirism and revenants — I can see how some stuck-up admirers of ʽNosferatuʼ could be offended by being offered this parody, but as a (self-)parody, I'll be damned if it doesn't work. Not only is it one of the best-produced tracks on the album (classical Chopinesque piano instead of synths! old-school distorted guitars!), but that little ghostly whisper ("Chrissssteeena! Mother's home!...") gets me every time. Plus, for what it's worth, there might be a glimmer of wisdom to this parody — in addition to sending up their own obsessions, it also sends up the exaggerated «celebrity-bashing» wave after the sensationalist publications of Crawford's daughter had turned the late Joan into a model monster. Maybe the song does not have a great melody, but it has great theater.
The remainder of the songs are tolerable and not without compositional decency or hooks, but tunes like ʽSole Survivorʼ keep getting stuck halfway between «serious» and «campy», not atmospheric or heartfelt enough to overawe the senses and not funny or inventively arranged enough to be appreciated as first-class parody, satire, or intriguing exercise in post-modernism. ʽHeavy Metal: The Black And Silverʼ is the worst of the bunch (Spinal Tap incarnate); ʽVengeanceʼ sounds like it should be the personal anthem of Conan the Barbarian, but would he have liked all those keyboards, really?; and, closing the album, ʽDon't Turn Your Backʼ is a repetitive, syncopated white R&B number that wants to say goodbye to us with a moody, but friendly piece of advice for the road ("don't turn your back, danger surrounds you...") but, in all honesty, sounds about as exciting as The Average White Band — which, all through the 1970s, BÖC never were. White, yes, but definitely above average.
Even so, Fire Of Unknown Origin deserves a lukewarm thumbs up. Its flaws are very much defined by its epoch, and the band's interest in pushing forward the boundaries of their sound and in exploring various alleyways around their main street is still very much intact. By all means, it could have been much better if they had a better grip on the really exciting things that were going on in the musical world around that time (for comparison, one of their chief American competitors in the «glam and satire» market, Alice Cooper, did get a much better grip — his Flush The Fashion was a far smarter and snappier exploration of the New Wave scene at the time). But even the way it turned out, it was anything but a simplistic sell-out, or a betrayal of the band's ideals. They just thought it'd sound more cutting-edge with the keyboards, that's all.