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Monday, December 8, 2014

Blue Öyster Cult: Cult Classic

BLUE ÖYSTER CULT: CULT CLASSIC (1994)

1) (Don't Fear) The Reaper; 2) E.T.I.; 3) M.E. 262; 4) This Ain't The Summer Of Love; 5) Burning For You; 6) O.D.'d On Life Itself; 7) Flaming Telepaths; 8) Godzilla; 9) Astronomy; 10) Cities On Flame With Rock'n'Roll; 11) Harvester Of Eyes; 12) Buck's Boogie; 13) (Don't Fear) The Reaper (instrumental); 14) Godzilla (instrumental).

Yes, you have heard all these songs before, and no, this is neither a live album nor a greatest hits compilation. These are re-recordings. That is right, straightforward re-recordings of BOC classics, engineered at several different studios in New York City in early 1994 by three original members of the band (Bloom, Roeser, and Lanier) and the band's then-current rhythm section (Jon Rogers on bass and Chuck Burgi on drums). Not «reinventions» or «special guest mixes» — just really rigid, rigorous, note-for-note re-recordings of the original songs.

Do not ask me the obvious question: I do not have enough information to give a convincing answer. The «polite» version that I have encountered is that the band was trying out those tempt­ing new alleys of digital recording, and wanted to engineer their best songs in a brand new format that breathed modernity and coolness. I myself tend to veer towards the cynical version, though: seeing as how they were dropped from the big Columbia label that must have owned the rights to their old recordings, they simply went to all that trouble for good old financial reasons. After all, if the customer walks into a store and sees an album called Cult Classic and it's got that ʽReaperʼ song on it, how is he going to tell the difference between the original and the copy? He ain't no musical art dealer, he's just a customer.

Therefore, BUYER BEWARE: Cult Classic with all these classic Cult songs is NOT a compila­tion! Others, too, have been part of this fraud program — I vaguely remember Eric Burdon, for instance, re-recording the old Animals classics with a band that had nothing to do with the real Animals — but nobody I know of, at least if you're talking the real great ones, came as close to genuinely duping the consumer as the good old Blue Oyster boys. You have to remember your classics fairly well to understand that something's wrong here.

On the positive side, when it comes to evaluating the material here on its own terms, I would not know where to begin complaining. Re-recordings they may be, but they are surprisingly good re-recordings, and if you ever wanted to have a good case for digital recording over analog, you simply cannot go wrong with Cult Classic. The sound is crystal clear, the mix is as perfect as it could possibly be, and that guitar tone... well, suffice it to say that the opening riff of ʽHarvester Of Eyesʼ simply blows away the original. Thicker, creepy-crawlier, breaking out of the speakers to run you over with its track, leaving behind lifeless pulp with eyes extracted.

I have no idea how they did this, but everything sounds totally authentic, not one bit spoiled by any production excesses — in addition, Bloom's vocals have not deteriorated one bit, and that new drummer guy is every bit as dexterous as Bouchard used to be. It is possible, of course, to prefer the old versions, but it is impossible to deny that they did a fine, fine job copycatting them twenty years later. Oh, and for ʽAstronomyʼ they actually preferred to remake the live version of the song — the one where they added a lengthy coda with a killer solo by Buck Dharma. The one here is not as impressive, but still serves as a very useful tension-builder in a song that I have, until now, tended to underrate.

It is not quite clear how an album like this could merit a thumbs up — but, curiously, I will not recommend it as a representative introduction to the greatness of Blue Öyster Cult for all them youngsters not because it is a «rip-off», but because the youngsters might actually remain un­impressed with the original recordings from the 1970s in comparison, just because of all these vastly improved production values. Originals are originals, and they have their little sonic nuances that, want it or not, probably did get lost in the re-recording process. But it would take us some time to find, properly feel, and describe this, with multiple relistens and stuff — who wants to spend valuable time doing that? I certainly do not — veteran fans of the band, though, unless they believe in such a thing as «desecration», should by all means check this stuff out and try to savor new values quite respectfully applied to the old classics. That said, the band certainly loses points from me if I ever find out that the record, when sold in record stores, did not bear an explicit sticker with the word «RE-RECORDINGS» on it. At least a small one. At least in minu­scule print or something. They obviously handled this whole re-recording business with love and care — so why mix it with customer dishonesty? 

3 comments:

  1. It's 1994, and CBS/Sony still didn't have a proper BOC compilation. Yes, there was the official 1991 'Career Of Evil:The Metal Years', but it had a lion's share from the ETL, and a couple of studio songs, but the impression was somehow incomplete.

    Generally, the cynical version of the answer is valid, CBS held the rights to issuing any kind of compilation, and they did that finally in a proper way a year later, with the 'Workshop Of Telescopes'.

    Back to 'Cult Classic' - I don't own this. From a couple of listens at Grooveshark, I stand totally unimpressed. You can argue that some songs sound better, but some of them sound very disappointing, almost amateurish.

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  2. "that new drummer guy is every bit as dexterous"
    That new guy drummed for Rainbow in 1984 (yup) and would join Blackmore again some two years after this BOC album. You can hear and see him on the Black Masquerade DVD.

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  3. Blue Oyster Cult has put out about 20 "greatest hits" compilations over the last few decades. That number is not an exaggeration BTW. The general formula is, reference a famous song (eg. Don't Fear The Reaper) or "BOC theme" (extra-terrestrials, flaming cities), then add The VERY Best of BOC. It's usually all 70s stuff, mostly the same songs over and over. A few compilations may even have totally identical setlists, just in a different order. And if they add a live song, it's ALWAYS from one of the 3 official live albums (On Your Feet ... / Some Enchanted Evening / E.T. Live). A guy like Frank Zappa would dig up an unreleased early live version of a song with the Mothers, or a later (but also unreleased) version he did with an 80s jazz combo. But BOC simply use the same few concerts ... no surprises, nothing you haven't heard before. The same old albums rehashed in an endless succession of "Greatest Hits." I don't know why they did this (or if it was mostly Columbia's idea or what) but I don't appreciate a band insulting my intelligence with these little shell games. I mean what the fuck? Do they really NEED 20 "best of" albums?

    Which brings us to Cult Classic, the one compilation where they offer NEW versions of old hits. And surprisingly, a lot of them are actually better the second time around. I like BOC, but let's admit a lot of their albums (even in the 70s) are hit or miss. Secret Treaties was not a good BOC album. Its single moment of greatness was Astronomy, the rest of it ... what's the word? ... sucked. So does almost half of Tyranny & Mvtation (hey, that's how they spell it), and more than half of Spectres. Even Agents of Fortune lays sheer brilliance side-by-side with lukewarm banality (seriously, Debbie Denise?!?). I think the only BOC album that's flawless all the way through is their first album. So reinventing the weaker material from Tyranny and Treaties was a nifty idea -- listen to the re-recordings of Harvester of Eyes or O.D.ed on Life Itself, or especially the amazing remake of ME262, and then listen to the lackluster originals and tell me the newer versions don't blow them away. They finally took all those half-assed musical ideas from the early days and breathed LIFE into them.

    The biggest surprise was Buck's Boogie ... I heard the original live version after I heard the studio version here, and as decent as the live 70s version was, the 90s studio version blows it the fuck away. I think the Cult Classic version of Buck's Boogie is probably in the Top 5 BOC songs of all time. I vastly prefer most 70s music to most 90s music, but Cult Classic is that rare exception where newer trumps older.

    Of course, reworking doesn't work for everything ... Reaper and E.T.I. were bound to fall short, because you simply can't improve on perfection. And I still prefer the original Astronomy to the "concert-style" arrangement with the solo (I just think the final section of the original song, where it ends with the howling winds, is more of a mind-blowing epiphany than anything Buck could do with any guitar solo). But as for the rest of this, it rules. At worst they came up with interesting reworkings (eg. Godzilla kicks a different kind of ass, but still kicks ass). And at best, they took dull songs and made them shine. This is one of the few BOC albums where they do justice to the alchemy symbols on the cover -- they really do turn lead into gold.

    Seriously, no thumbs up for this? Seriously? More like BOTH thumbs up if you ax me.

    -- B.B. Fultz

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