Tuesday, June 25, 2019

CD Odyssey Disc 1273: Blue Oyster Cult

Whenever I’m feeling a little down (which I am) this next band always seems to come along like an old friend to give me comfort. Ladies and gentlemen, the Odyssey’s house band returns.

Disc 1273 is… Tyranny and Mutation
Artist: Blue Oyster Cult

Year of Release: 1973

What’s up with the Cover? Bow down before the Ziggurat of Tyranny and Mutation! This is one of rock and roll’s great album covers. Stark, trippy and cosmic. I don’t know what dimension the guys who built this thing are from, but I bet they have good music there.

How I Came to Know It: I grew up with Blue Oyster Cult. My brother had all their records and I played them whenever I got the chance (or he allowed).

How It Stacks Up:  I have 11 of Blue Oyster Cult’s albums. I love them all, and with competition as fierce as it is, “Tyranny and Mutation” could only manage #7.

Ratings: 4 stars

“Tyranny and Mutation” may be the weakest of Blue Oyster Cult’s classic three first records, but that doesn’t make it any less a classic.

In their early career, BOC was heavily experimental, moving across genres with the carefree inspiration of a band that clearly didn’t care what people might think. They were out to make art and push the boundaries of what rock and roll should be. The record is loaded with urgent rock riffs, guitar and bass solos and general Lovecraftian weirdness. It has no business working, but it does, as the band navigates into the land of the strange without losing the churning edge that makes rock and roll what it is.

Because of this, this isn’t the first record I put people on to when I am trying to get them excited about BOC, but I know that given time its impressive musicianship and gargoyle-like beauty will win them over. In pop music, the anticipation of an expected hook or rhythm is what makes multiple listens increasingly enjoyable. With “Tyranny and Mutation” it is the anticipation of the strange turn of musical phrasing that draws you in.

As befits a record like this, there were no hits and nor do fans care about their absence. The single was “Hot Rails to Hell” which is a feverish energy-laden garage rock song, before garage rock was a thing. It is great fun, and the band still plays it in concert to this day, but it isn’t even close to my favourite track.

That would be “Wings Wetted Down,” a song I first remember hearing around the age of 6 or 7 when my brother put it on, partly to freak out his younger brother, but mostly because he wanted to share the magic of a brilliant deep cut he had discovered.

The song begins with a discordant guitar riff bouncing around in a minor key, a drum flourish and then the vocals of bassist Joe Bouchard. Blue Oyster Cult is one of the few bands that legitimately has multiple vocalists, and while Eric Bloom sings the majority of the songs, both Joe Bouchard and guitarist Buck Dharma frequently take a turn.

Bouchard and his brother (drummer Albert) also do plenty of writing, and they are often the strangest songs in Blue Oyster Cult’s catalogue. “Wings Wetted Down” is no exception, starting with the aforementioned disturbia of rock and roll repurposed, an ominous like a beast slouching toward Bethlehem as Joe’s vocals cut in with:

“Flights of black horsemen
Soar o’er churches
Pursued by an army of birds in the rain”

As a kid I wasn’t sure what was going on, but the song’s rhythms and ominous tune told me it was portentous. Years later, I still love it like its my first time hearing it.

There are also bluesy bar riffs, such as on the laid back “O.D.’ed on Life Itself” which has a bar-band swing and a clever arrangement reminding you that producer Sandy Pearlman (who cowrote this and three other tracks) may not have played an instrument but was very much a part of the band.

7 Screaming Diz-Busters” brings in all the elements. Jazz progressions, funky bass lines and proggy shifts of tempo and (I think) time signatures. The song is seven minutes of excess but all it does is leave you wanting more.

All this and I haven’t even mentioned one of rock and roll’s great guitar players, Buck Dharma. Dharma is solid as ever, and once again selflessly letting his brilliance sit evenly in the mix with his band mates. This record has his style sounding rougher around the edges as the band explores a more organic approach to the music, but he still manages to drop some ridiculous solo work, subtly woven into the broader architecture of each song.

I don’t have anything bad to say about “Tyranny and Mutation.” It is very weird, so brace yourself for that, but if you open yourself up to that weirdness, you are in for a fantastic journey through the beautiful, misshapen heart of rock and roll.

Best tracks: The Red & the Black, O.D.’ed on Life Itself, 7 Screaming Diz-Busters, Wings Wetted Down

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