BLUE OYSTER CULT: THE COLUMBIA ALBUMS COLLECTION – Blue Oyster Cult (Sony)
If you're going to do a box set, do it properly. And so they have with this 17 album/one DVD set by the original sci-fi schlock cock rockers, Blue Oyster Cult.
If you're expecting a gushingly breathless review you'll be mostly rewarded. You see, BOC transcend the boundaries between hard rock, metal, pop rock and straight-up rock and roll, pushing into AOR territory while maintaining an air of mystery throughout. "Harvester of Eyes"? How good a song title is that? "You'll soon be married and you'll want to know where winds come from?" Can't match lyrics like that. If it was good enough for Radio Birdman to suck up early '70s BOC as an influence, it's alright for you to do the same - even retrospectively if you're coming to this party belatedly. Because, make no mistake, the Cult was most certainly as much an influence on the Radios as the Stooges or the MC5. Deniz didn't just cop an album title and a love of red and black colour schemes.
And BOC lives on. Their last new album was 12 years ago but they're a going concern in the live arena. There might be only two old-time members on board these days (that'd be Eric Bloom and Buck Dharma) but they sure as shit still deliver the goods live, if the sheen is a touch shiny. As you'll find out, Australia, if you turn out to the 2013 Dig It Up Invitational or BOC sideshows. But let's get back on track and jump inside that box set…
"The Columbia Albums Collection" is just that, compiled with re-mastered and/or expanded versions of the records in reproduction cardboard sleeves. There's a download code for four more live albums, plus two CDs full of rarities and broadcast gems. Are the made-over versions of the original albums worth the outlay if you have them on LP or CD? Well, probably. "Tyranny and Mutation" was the first course I tucked into from this feast and it comes with a big fat serving of extra presence with a load of aural nuances shining through. Upsize me, indeed.
Even the latter-day stuff (like the synth-heavy "Club Ninja") grows an extra leg when subjected to a bit of mastering magic. My personal take is that BOC got a little ponderous as had some hits and shed members, but you can cut them some slack after the first three studio records. They're so good they make up for the live cover of "Born To Be Wild" and "Kick Out The Jams" (sub-par because it's the sanitised version) on "Some Enchanted Evening". Which, by the way, is presented here in its expanded form, and doesn't feel so much like a hastily dashed-off market satisfier.
The four live shows via download card are a revelation. The purist in me would have preferred a lossless format rather than MP3s but if you can live with that, these broadcasts crackle with energy and include some rarely-heard songs. The DVD is the already-issued companion to the expanded version of "Some Enchanted Evening". It was supposedly not intended for commercial release and suffers frrom the '70s excesses of most concert films of that time (badly lit/framed shots, corny overlays) but it is what it is so live with it.
Real fans will want to know about the "Rarities" and live disc (cutely titled "Radios Appear".) The latter is a selkection from the four download shows so apart from being lossless, it's a touch redundant. The "Rarities" disc, on the other hand, is killer. There's a four-track live EP that eclipses most elkse, some discarded movie soundtrack cuits and two 1969 demos. Nineteen tracks in all.
Time flies. It's the last days of March and I've deliberately avoided mentioning the two albums that spawned BOC's two best-known cuts, "Agents of Fortune" ("Don't Fear The Reaper") and "Fire of Unknown Origin" ("Burning For You".) Why? Because I'm perverse. The former CD has extra tracks while the latter (and more mainstream) one has been re-mastered to sound much chunkier in the bottom end.
If there's a criticism, the 40-something booklet inside is a bit light-on for content. Apart from a hyperbole-laden Lenny Kaye essay and some photos, the bulk of it is album credits writ large (the ones on the back of the reproduction album covers are too tiny to read.) The box set cover also looks like it took five minutes to design. If thee are the biggest bugbears I can whinge about, the compilers are doing well.
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SOME ENCHANTED EVENING (CD + DVD) - Blue Oyster Cult (Columbia/Legacy)
I have to admit that I've been a late-comer to the Blue Oyster Cult party. I used to wonder why bands like Radio Birdman and The Hitmen rated them, when all I'd heard was the atypical 70s pop-hit "Don't Fear The Reaper" and 80s synth-heavy dreck like "Burnin' For You". Studio albums like "Secret Treaties" taught me the errors of my ways – "Some Enchanted Evening" simply reinforced that; albeit with some slight misgivings.
"Some Enchanted Evening" deflated my initial doubts, somewhat. It's an interesting recording to listen to, particularly this extended set, flawed as it is. It presents a band who can tear off amazing riffs and some of the 70s best hard rock guitar-work, courtesy of one Donald "Buck Dharma" Roeser, but at the same time, it presents a band padding their set with unnecessary covers, too (their cover of The Animals' "We've Got To Get Out Of This Place" is utterly redundant, as is their take on Steppenwolf's "Born To Be Wild", on which they sound like a karaoke act, and their take on the MC5's "Kick Out The Jams" is frankly so awful that I wanted to tear off my own ears and eat them, rather than listen to it again).
What I really kind of dig about this release is the fact that the band have released the full version of the album – double length! – their company didn't initially want to release another double live set not so many years after the lack-luster "On Your Feet Or On Your Knees" 2LP live set – at a point when they really were firing wildly. Is every song on this release essential? No. And some of them, like "R.U. Ready 2 Rock" or "Golden Age Of Leather" are…well…awful, hinting at the bloated heavy metal excesses that BOC sadly fell prey to for a few years; can you spell "Spinal Tap"? – in recent years they've made good. But some tracks are absolutely incendiary – "ME-262" (my favourite BOC track, and my favourite version of it) is represented well here, positively searing, as is "Harvester Of Eyes" and "Godzilla".
What you get here are a bunch of great songs (peppered with some you'll fast-forward through) played within an inch of their lives. I think that if you haven't dipped into the world of the Blue Oyster Cult beforehand, this isn't a bad place to start, but I think you'd be better off checking out "Tyranny And Mutation" and "Secret Treaties" first. Still, getting this as a combination CD+DVD at a budget price might be a decent introduction to a band who these days are kind of relegated to the "classic rock" bins in CD stores, when they deserve more. - Mr Intolerance
TYRANNY AND MUTATION - Blue Oyster Cult (Columbia/Legacy)
This US summer's sure brought a bounty of reissue goodies for aficionados of Rock Action - "The Essential Radio Birdman;" the first four Ramones discos, remastered and larded with bonus tracks courtesy Rhino (not being as into the Bruddas as the Barman, I might just take it as an opportunity to cop somebody's cast-off "All the Stuff and More Vols. 1 and 2"); and now the first four Blue Oyster Cult studio albs given the remaster/bonus track treatment (albeit to a much more modest extent than the Rhino Ramones) by the taciturn folks at Columbia/Legacy. Not being as financial as some, I'm compelled to be selective in my purchases, but that's a no-brainer: BOC's second alb was always The One as far as I was concerned.
I remember being distinctly underwhelmed by the first BOC album when it arrived. After following the budding hype in the pages of Rolling Stone, Creem, and (I think) Lillian Roxon's column in the New York Post, I was expecting something like a combination of the Yardbirds, Stooges, and MC5, shot full of crank and exploding off the stage (or out of the speakers in the privacy of my very own teenage room). What I heard was something a little more...sedate and calculated. While it bore slabs of monstrous riffage like "Transmaniacon M.C.," "Stairway to the Stars," "Before the Kiss, a Redcap," and most importantly, "Cities on Flame with Rock and Roll," the band's sound on that first record was controlled, muted, not the guitar-driven sonic mindfuck we'd been led to expect. So I gave it a few spins, tried hard to like it (but not nearly as hard as I'd try to like "Quadrophenia" a few months later), then filed it away and went back to listening to my Alice Cooper albums. (Now THERE was a band that sounded shitty in the studio, although I still harbour a certain retrospective fondness for "Love It To Death," one which would probably NOT be borne out by hearing it again.)
It was in the spring of '73 that "Tyranny and Mutation" arrived, around the same time as such sterling Columbia releases as Johnny Winter's "Still Alive and Well" and Iggy's "Raw Power" (YAAAAAYYY!!!), as well as such less-exalted ones as, uh, Beck Bogert & Appice (BOOOOOOO!!!). I was just a coupla months away from my first ego-destroying exposure to psychedelic drugs and "Dark Side of the Moon." If only I'd known! I bought "T&M" more out of a sense of duty than anything else; surely, no band that Lester Bangs avowed loving as much as he did the Cult could suck as badly as I thought their first album did.
Just scant seconds of dropping the needle in the grooves of the first side, I was totally unprepared to have the top of my head blown off by the chordal blast that opens "The Red and the Black." (Stolen from or imitated by the Stooges on "I Got a Right?" YOU decide!!!) Formerly entitled "I'm On the Lamb," this little ditty was waxed by the Cult boys seemingly everytime they set foot in a studio, annually from 1968 to 1972, first as Soft White Underbelly, then Oaxaca, then the Stalk Forrest Group, and finally as BOC (see Rhino Handmade's "St. Cecilia" release and the bonus tracks on Columbia/Legacy's remastered version of BOC's eponymous debut for most of the good stuff). And a worthy toon it was, featuring a riff derived from the one in the Stones' "The Last Time" and showcasing some of slight but formidable axeman Donald "Buck Dharma" Roeser's nastiest guitar chops. For "T&M," however, they reworked the tune, adding a piledriving riff that elevated it to something entirely Other. Eric Bloom comes across like the punk he was, singing a classic Sandy Pearlman lyric, while Buck shreds the strings on his SG. The remaster restores the cutting edge to the sound that was lost on the abominably shitty original CD. (For that reason alone, I'd be interested to check out the remastered "Blue Oyster Cult" and "Agents of Fortune" - I suspect I'll find all kinds of good stuff in there I missed out on the first time around.)
"American Black Sabbath?" Gimme a fuckin' break. If these guys were Heavy Metal, even by 1973's definition, then I'm ITALIAN. They had far too light of a touch on guitars and drums - Buck Dharma used a clean tone with biting treble but almost no vibrato to shake yer synapses, while drummer Albert Bouchard was an agile sticksman, hardly the kind of hamfisted pounder you generally associate with metal - and their songs were far too complex constructions. (Just listen to "Man With Golden Helmet" or "Love Kills" or "Descent Into the Maelstrom" or, later, "Steel Beach" and tell me young Dr. Tek wasn't paying close attention.) Listen to the Byrds-y vocal harmonies, even on some of the rockers, and you can hear the band that cut "Don't Fear the Reaper" trying to get out.
More than just snot-nosed college kids from Stony Brook, these boys were journeyman musos who'd paid their dues in bar bands up, down, and around the Empire State, playing every rock style from surf to Motown to Beatles and Stones. Some of this comes out in unflattering ways on the bonus tracks included here; the studio "Buck's Boogie" which they wisely decided to leave off the original "T&M" is an example of how they COULD have SUCKED, all musicianly chopsmanship, boring as hell, while the 14-minute "7 Screaming Diz-Busters" abandons the hellfire forward motion of the studio track for clichéd seventies jamming and Rockstar rap. I can almost hear Frank Zappa taking the piss out of Eric's tale of signing a contract "in blood" to obtain Rockstardom from a fella "in a sharkskin suit;" it was tripe like this that convinced me that Big Rock Shows were all a scam back in the mid-'70s.
But back to the good stuff: just like your Original Sound Golden Oldies albums, "T&M" had a "rockin' side" (The Red; methedrine) and a "mellow side" (The Black; Quaalude) - incorrectly labeled on this reish! The first (The Red) side was probably my favorite LP side of all time after the first side of "Kick Out the Jams," and it still sounds damn fine. Highlights: the shifting background on "OD'd On Life Itself;" the layers of blazing guitars on the appropriately-named "Hot Rails to Hell," and that descending "Pipeline" bassline (a device fellow surf nuts Radio Birdman would later appropriate); and "7 Screaming Diz-Busters," which starts off slow (with a riff that sounds like it came from the Allman Brothers' "In Memory of Elizabeth Reed") but quickly gets to frantic (spot the quote from the first Velvet Underground alb). The "mellow" (Black) side, on the other hand, is probably my favorite of its kind, every bit as good as the second side of "Tattoo You" (a great 3 AM listen and the last Stones album I can remotely remember anything from), as well as providing more of a glimpse of things to come from the Cult once they started letting Buck sing lead. "Baby Ice Dog" boasts a cool lyric by Patti Smith (her first recorded composition). There's a fuzz bass line on "Wings Wetted Down" that provides the only valid Sabbath soundalike here, but the vocal is far too smooth and the lyric too cerebral for that comparison to stick (not to mention Buck's crystalline fretwork). "Teen Archer" is a chugging rocker with more Byrds-like harmonies, somber organ washes, and a jazzy break. "Mistress of the Salmon Salt" sounds like what Alice Cooper's "Killer" woulda if the band could play.
This release even gives you the full lyrics, so you can read 'em and laugh at all the silly things you THOUGHT you heard over the years. I like 'em even better this way than on the sheet of multi-part computer paper I got in exchange for my 75 cents way back in '73.An essential reissue. - Ken Shimamoto
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