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Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Blue Oyster Cult

The Essential Blue Oyster Cult (Epic Legacy)

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The entire Blue Oyster Cult catalog was reissued on CD circa Y2K and since then, the iPod has enabled anyone to amass their own ultimate BOC mixtape. So why an Essential Blue Oyster Cult? There is always the pleasure of letting someone else curate a collection and, afterward, arguing over what was included and what was left out. How dare they deem the band's collaboration with the still little-known Patti Smith, “The Revenge of Vera Gemini,” as unEssential!

But for some of us, the appearance of another “best-of” will prompt a reexamination—a close listen after years of benign neglect. The Essential's first track, “Cities on Flame with Rock and Roll” (1971), stands in hindsight as a road mark for things to come. Its Godzilla-heavy riffs, sepulchral vocals and lurid vision brought rock's demonic dimension into high, cartoon relief—perhaps more sardonically than their British contemporaries, Black Sabbath.


Although The Essential Blue Oyster Cult lacks any unreleased tracks, it boasts an insightful essay by Lenny Kaye, Patti Smith guitarist, longtime rock critic and probable Cult associate in the long-ago New York of the '70s. He perceptively identifies their roots in the transition from their psychedelic origins to the Long Island biker bar where they finally sharpened their teeth. A dark cosmic vision pervaded their lyrics; their music became hard as steel while retaining the expansiveness of the '60s. Echoes of blues-rock and even jazz can be heard.


No one was more surprised than the Cult itself when the spine-tingling “Don't Fear the Reaper” (1976) climbed the singles chart and lifted them from cult status into arenas. Kaye wisely passes over their post-“Reaper” career in a few paragraphs. There were good moments as the '70s slipped into the '80s, but the best recordings (1971-76) occupy all of The Essential's disc one and the first few tracks of disc two—a time when their spooky, hard-pounding but loose-jointed rock occupied a narrow zone between the emerging camps of heavy metal and punk. Nostalgia? The best of their music escapes its era, yet I can't help but chuckle at a reference from 1971's “Before the Kiss, a Red Cap” to something being “cheap as gas.” Those were different times, indeed.
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