Blue Öyster Cult might be my favorite band, hands down -- beating out Black Sabbath and all the other flagstar metal acts simply by virtue of being so uncompromisingly weird. Even if their most-played radio hits were more straightforward, they came from albums that were anything but. Shifts, surprises, and a predictable lack of predictability make every record of theirs formidable, though the first five are the most timeless.

As a band whose hits landed entirely within the 1970s and early 1980s, they could have been shaped by the trends of heavy metal or pushed into commercial rock, but neither happened: while a significant portion of their discography has always been direct, classic rock-'n'-roll, it was simply the music they wanted to make, like their excursions into progressive music and heavy metal that gave inspiration to so many bands in those spaces.

That's probably why their last album Curse of the Hidden Mirror crashed and burned. The southern rock stylings on display there weren't exactly in popular demand, nor were they what fans were hoping for: it was just what the band wanted to make.

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Fast forward to 2020: we're under assault by a raging pandemic and the oyster boys, helmed by longtimers Eric Bloom and Buck Dharma, are back with a new album about 20 years later. As much as my experience with comeback albums by classic rock acts told me differently, a part of me was optimistic about The Symbol Remains. I'd say it wasn't a completely meritless hope -- in recent years, it seems like the band has been warming up more to their continued and well-deserved legacy, one that's derived from more than just their radio hits. They've made headlining (or just about) appearances at major alternative festivals like Psycho Las Vegas to hordes of fans who can, like me, attribute their love of heavy metal to the band. Just this year, were it not for certain difficulties, they would have been playing the fest alongside Emperor, Mercyful Fate, Danzig, and The Flaming Lips -- that's a hell of a title card.

So, then, perhaps the knowledge that there was a fanbase still ravenously consuming their b-sides would give the band a reason not to play it safe?

Realistically, I doubt that or any other external force shaped the album, but that nostalgic, innocent part of me deserves some credit: The Symbol Remains is an interesting, heartfelt contribution to Blue Öyster Cult's discography that's worthy of continued acknowledgement. It's not their heaviest album ever, but that's not what makes the band's music so special. The incorruptible, irreverent nature of a band that's existed through every possible rock and metal trope in history shines through on this album. And true to its name, the symbol remains: the iconic inverted-question-mark-cross symbol that adorns this cover is depicted smashing through ancient civilizations with just as much force as it deserves.

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The singles for this album happen to be the first few tracks: "That Was Me," "Box in My Head," and "Tainted Blood." The trio serves as a multifaceted introduction to the album: "That Was Me," which employs ex-member Albert Bouchard on cowbell duties in its music video, is fun, sardonic and rocks pretty handily, even if the main riff is a bit overused. "Box in My Head" and "Tainted Blood" are more nuanced and emotional, with the latter also showing off new member Richie Castellano's strong vocal chops -- true to form, this album features rotating vocal duties and plenty of backing vocals, which feel much better done here than on Curse of the Hidden Mirror. Bloom and Dharma's vocals are still in top form -- the grit that the years have added only pile on more of their inimitable charms.

The Symbol Remains doesn't sound like an album from the 1970s, I suppose, but it's not overengineered either -- apart from some pop-focused vocal bits here and there, like on "Edge of the World," the production avoids heavy-handed spotlessness. As the songs range from soft ballads to literal heavy metal, it sometimes feels inconsistent from song to song, but never arrestingly so.

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Some of the tracks in the mid-section of the album did, however, pull me out of the album's flow: the biggest offender being the overly-topical "The Machine," which is effectively just the "phone bad" trope stretched into a four-minute southern rocker. On repeat listens, I began to appreciate its nuances a bit more, but combined with the similarly-styled follow-up "Train True" and the middling "The Return of St.Cecilia," the middle part of this album is probably the weakest.

Fortunately, the tail end of the album holds a lot of interesting surprises, including the two songs on this album that blew me away -- I was, at best, hoping for a record that felt like Blue Öyster Cult, even if I wasn't going to listen to it again, but at many points The Symbol Remains feels like a match for their classic works. On "Florida Man," we have a sublime pairing of nuanced, groovy rock with lyrical retellings of the American state's most egregious examples of Herculean idiocy; a combination that perhaps only Blue Öyster Cult could pull off without resembling self-satire.

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Photo by Mark Weiss/Courtesy of Frontiers Music

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The band's likely heaviest album and one of my all-time favorites, Imaginos, perhaps veered a bit too much towards sheer heaviness and esotericism versus keeping with the band's spirit (in part due to its lengthy and piecemeal production). "The Alchemist," though it comes decades later, strides down the same path and finds the ideal balancing point -- packing some big ol' doomy riffs, an uptempo ending and a memorable story of revenge, it's brilliant from start to finish, and ranks in the band's best works.

While not every song is aligned with the prog-rock/proto-metal side of Blue Öyster Cult that I love the most, that aspect is present and in excellent health, accompanied by the many other interesting facets of the band. To reiterate: the symbol absolutely remains, a lengthy 48 years since the band's self-titled be damned. It's incredible to see a group that helped inspire and influence enormous swaths of our musical community still producing such clever and fun music, and it's a lucky turn of fate that this album came to fruition after such a long wait (and in 2020, to boot).

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The Symbol Remains released today, October 9th, 2020 via Frontiers Records.


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