As much at home in a dive bar overrun with angry bikers as in the eldritch halls of ancient unspeakable horrors, Blue Öyster Cult are one of the few bands to transcend the trappings of the rock & roll genre while never actually straying very far from it. The Symbol Remains marks the group’s first album of new material in 19 years, and although much has changed since then, this record proves that some things are best left unhindered by the passage of time.
From the onset of “That Was Me” with its descending heavy metal riff, sinister lyrics, and Eric Bloom’s signature snarling vocal, there is no doubt that this is the BÖC audiences remember and love. The same can be said of a song like “Stand and Fight,” with Danny Miranda’s steely bass tone standing out amid the slow and dark riffs leading into the classic gang vocal chants, while Donald “Buck Dharma” Roeser drops the boogie on “Train True,” “Nightmare Epiphany,” and “Florida Man,” all perfect rockers for when the jukebox is busted. Having joined BÖC in 2004, The Symbol Remains marks the first studio output with Richie Castellano, but he’s the band’s secret weapon as he has not only penned some of the record’s best songs, but also demonstrates considerable instrumental skills on guitar, keyboards, and vocals. Songs like the vampire ballad “Tainted Blood,” the epic “The Return of St. Cecilia,” and the whimsically flippant “Edge of the World” and “The Machine” are all filled to the brim with Castellano’s playing perfectly fitting in with the overall tough rocking vibe that defined Blue Öyster Cult throughout the ‘70s and early ‘80s. But the true magnum opus of the album is “The Alchemist,” which in true BÖC fashion references the literary works of H.P. Lovecraft, the classic horror heavy metal symphony segueing into a fast middle section where Castello and Roeser go into Iron Maiden territory with dueling and harmonizing guitar solos. Of course, the album is not without its duds, for while “Secret Road” and “Box In My Head” are enjoyable enough, they don’t quite do enough to stand up to the album’s more powerful tracks, with “Fight” closing the album out in a strangely subdued fashion; oh, it’s angular guitar arpeggios and vocal hooks are delightful, but after the potent hard rocking “There’s a Crime,” penned by drummer Jules Radino and Jeff Denny and punching the same buttons as “That Was Me,” “Fight” feels a bit too inert of an ending to the album.
After the less-than-stellar performance of 1998’s Heaven Forbid and 2001’s Curse of the Hidden Mirror, The Symbol Remains is an overall welcome return to form for Blue Öyster Cult. One could say that after 19 years, it’s almost by default that this is one of the band’s best releases in a long time. But with longtime associates and past members like Albert Bouchard, Kasim Soulton, Richard Meltzer, and author John Shirley making appearances on the record, along with some strong and inspired songwriting, The Symbol Remains does well to measure up to some of Blue Öyster Cult’s best works, and may in the long run be counted among them.