BLUE ÖYSTER CULT: IMAGINOS (1988)
1) I Am The One You Warned Me Of; 2) Les Invisibles; 3) In The Presence Of Another World; 4) Del Rio's Song; 5) The Siege And Investiture Of Baron Von Frankenstein's Castle; 6) Astronomy; 7) Magna Of Illusion; 8) Blue Öyster Cult; 9) Imaginos.
What do you mean, it took us nearly twenty years to realize that the true purpose of Blue Öyster Cult was to serve as a backing band for a sprawling sci-fi rock opera, adapted from the wrinkled pages of Sandy Pearlman's school yearbook? Here we were thinking that this band was some sort of high-falutin', acid-satiric, pre-post-modern take on rock and pop culture, and in reality it was just this imaginative young fellow with the hots for Isaac Asimov, Frank Herbert, and whatever cheap sci-fi flicks they were making in the hot-for-outer-space Sixties. Of course, the band very quickly got out of control and started following its own path, but the shadow of Sandy Pearlman haunted them all the way, and in the end, it got 'em.
Actually, as far as I understand, by the time 1987 rolled along, Blue Öyster Cult as a viable project was altogether finished. Their latest albums bombed and sucked at the same time, band members were scurrying away from the ship like rats on speed, and the remaining ones were aging, sulking, and uncomfortable. In other words — the perfect condition (not!) for Sandy Pearlman to try and resuscitate the original idea of a major concept album (at one point, the idea was for a trilogy of double albums — no mean feat indeed, although, funny enough, I think that Ayreon eventually did something like that) about Imaginos. Who is Imaginos, you're asking me? Well, I used to think that «Imaginos» was the fictional name for a band of Mexican rogues, but apparently, it is about this «modified child» born in 1804 in New Hampshire, and there's this group of seven extraterrestrial beings called Les Invisibles, see, and they foster the child's occult and mystical powers, and then he goes to Mexico to search for a magic artefact, and his ship sinks and he is picked up by Les Invisibles and their servants, who call themselves Blue Öyster Cult (with an Umlaut, for certain. How do we know that? Well, they all wear specially designed T-shirts), and they accept him as a member and give him a new name, Desdinova (have you said your prayers tonight, Desdinova?), and he begins to influence world history, and...
...well, to cut the story short, you see now that Pete Townshend's Lifehouse has got nothing on this: Sandy Pearlman takes the whole thing seriously, and, unlike Pete, he actually offers a reasonable explanation to why World War I and II actually happened. (No, not because people did not buy enough Blue Öyster Cult records). I suppose that the story, had it been realised properly and had all the loose ends been logically tied, wouldn't have been any worse than your average sci-fi epic — of which I have never been a magic fan — but ultimately, the only thing that matters in all these mixtures of sci-fi concepts and rock culture is the music. The question is: was this sudden stab at «conceptualization», in an era when «concept album» and «commercial offer» had become antitheses, at least capable of producing anything better than Club Ninja?
You'd think that it could, since, anyway, bits and pieces of the «Imaginos» concept had already been scattered throughout many of the band's albums — ʽAstronomyʼ, for instance, which was a song about Imaginos discovering that the stars are the source of his knowledge of powers — and, furthermore, the album itself had been a long time coming. Within the band, the biggest fan of Pearlman's fantasy concept was drummer Albert Bouchard, and the two had been working on a separate album already in the 1970s, and even more so after Bouchard had been fired from the band: in fact, if you look at the credits, you will see that Bouchard is listed as composer on 7 out of 9 tracks — appropriate, since most of the basic tracks actually date back to 1981-84, when they were produced (along with many others) as potential candidates for inclusion on Bouchard's first solo album. Lots of people guested on those sessions, even including Robby Krieger of The Doors and several members of the Ian Hunter Band. Fun time it was, but Columbia Records refused to release the album. Smart lads.
Fast forward to 1987, and here we are wondering where to now, St. Peter, after Club Ninja turned out to be such a turd. The group is falling apart, but Pearlman steps in with the proposition that Blue Öyster Cult complete work on Imaginos. Since most of the work had already been done, a small budget is allocated to clean up, refresh, and remix the tracks, as well as add lead vocals by Eric Bloom and Buck Dharma. The budget is spent way too quickly, so not too much work is done: only nine songs (some of them stretched to rather absurd lengths if seen in proportion to their pure musical value), mixing different parts of the story in an order that blocks the listener from understanding the concept without a separate digest. The album is then released, left without any promotion (to be fair, I am not certain how it could be promoted in this form), neglected by the public, rejected by the critics, and for a long time, it even remained unavailable on CD.
No wonder then, that Imaginos came to be regarded, under all these circumstances, as something of a «legendary» object — an overlooked epic classic or something like that. Unfortunately, it isn't. Had Pearlman had his way in the early 1970s, and forced the band to fully accept and realize his vision while they were still young, fresh, and unspoiled by the «hit mentality», Imaginos might have had a chance to be the ultimate in «fantasy-rock». This, however, is but a pale shadow of what could have been: enough of a shadow, that is, to genuinely hint at some potential greatness, yet only a shadow nevertheless. Most unfortunately, they chose a very wrong time period to go through with that concept.
For starters, the production on the album is atrocious — most, if not all, of it is realized within the «pop metal» framework: big booming drums, «steroid-powered» riffs, and a deep, cavernous echo on everything. If this really were pop metal, like Mötley Crüe, that'd be a different story, but I do not understand why a concept album about supernatural beings altering the course of world history should sound like a cheap soundtrack to Conan The Barbarian: surely these guys deserve better than taking their instructions from the hairy giants of the day!
Even when there is a moderately interesting riff pattern going on (ʽThe Siege And Investiture Of Baron Von Frankenstein's Castleʼ, for instance), the guitar tone and drum/keyboard overdubs still end up sucking all the life out of it. (And let's not even mention the awful wheezy lead vocals of guest star Joe Cerisano, who used to sing backup vocals on Michael Bolton records, among other interesting details of his pedigree). I used to be disappointed with the original ʽAstronomyʼ, but that was like a total masterpiece next to the complete and utter butchering of the song's melodic and atmospheric potential that they do here. ʽDel Rio's Songʼ is supposed to be about Imaginos' shipwreck off the coast of New Orleans — so why the heck does the song sound like one of Bon Jovi's pop hits? What is this, the only extant rock opera in the hair metal genre?
The only reason why I am not giving this a thumbs down is that I think I sense potential. Many of these songs were conceived at much earlier dates than 1987; Bouchard and the other members of the band do have enough of respect for Pearlman to approach the task with reverence; and even though Buck Dharma's guitar is usually misplaced or misproduced, there are enough scattered flashes of brilliance (check out the lead parts on the final jam part of the title track or the stinging lightning bolts on ʽLes Invisiblesʼ) to make me yearn to have these solos transplanted in a more deserving setting. Fairly speaking, the more you listen to these metallic slabs of sheer bombast, the more lumpy, amorphous goodness you smell beneath them — there are some inspired piano parts, some nice sax solos, some moody vocal lines every now and then. It just never really comes together into anything fully satisfactory.
In fact, guys, as of 2014, it's not too late yet to do the job right. Most of the original band members, with the exception of Lanier, are still alive, as is Pearlman. Now, when anything can be done right even on a very tight budget, is just the time to do it right. Double album (three double albums, if you wish, as per the original plan — if Ayreon can do this, anybody can), convincing guitar tones, completed and polished riffage, come on, you can do it, you got nothing better to do anyway. Make Imaginos that latter day equivalent of SMiLe and Lifehouse that you know it has always deserved to be, at least according to the laws of the universe of Michael Moorcock.