Sound: Blue Oyster Cult - Spectres (1977).
Eric Bloom - Vocals, guitar
Donald 'Buck Dharma' Roeser - Lead guitar, vocals
Joe Bouchard - Bass, vocals
Albert Bouchard - Drums, vocals
Allen Lanier - Keyboards, guitar
4 years of a relentless cycle of tour-record had paid off for BOC in 1976 as Don't Fear the Reaper (Agents of Fortune) gave them a genuine hit. For a faceless and album-oriented band such as BOC, it would change the internal and external complexities and expectations of the band in a way they or the fans probably would not have guessed.
Many bands use live albums as demarcations in their career, and for BOC this was no different. Their first live offering, On Your Feet Or On Your Knees (1975), emphatically closed the band's so-called black-and-white era (describing the cold and stark album covers of the first 3 albums - Blue Oyster Cult, 1972; Tyranny and Mutation, 1973; Secret Treaties, 1974). That stage of their career, and practically all musical output, had been under the guidance and tutelage of Sandy Pearlman. While not a musical director per se, his production oversight and the voluminous lyrical contributions made BOC for what they were received on when they first arrived on the scene - mysterious, Gothic, crypto-occultic, and perhaps somewhat revisionist in their historical views (Secret Treaties alone is worthy of treatise in that regard). BOC - the band - had tired of the neo-Wagnerian aesthete Pearlman wanted them to follow (lyrically, if not musically) and with Agents of Fortune, they stepped away from Pearlman in the form of lyrical/song themes (while still utilizing his production skills) and wanted to make the songs more personal in nature.
Taking advantage of advances in home recording technology, the band members were able to create full demos on their own and present their songs as more complete ideas, rather than just hammering out a riff on a guitar and letting the others' imaginations dictate the demo's fate. As a result, the songs themselves took on a more distinctive and individual feel whereas in the past compositions had been more democratic and had been hammered out in hotel rooms and buses over the course of the band's eternal tours.
Agents of Fortune sprung forth from this new approach and the resulting hit single and exponential increase in sales, exposure, and concert attendance gave the band members the impetus and confidence to say, See, 'we' can do this. The real test would be to see if this new approach could be sustained.
Flush from their Reaper-momentum success and with plenty of backing from Columbia, BOC headed into the studio to make their most expensive record to date, at one time commanding all four main rooms in the industry-leading Record Plant recording studio. As with Agents of Fortune, the individual band members brought forth their individual material, while Pearlman's contribution would be in the form of production (he would only have one lyrical contribution on Spectres, just as he did on Agents of Fortune). Additional side-note, Spectres' originally was going to be titled The Big Hurt.
Godzilla (D. Roeser) Lead guitarist Donald 'Buck Dharma' Roeser continues to display his Midas touch with this iconic song. Never was a hit single as far as chart success, but its own type of popularity provided the band with a recognizable and humorous concert staple that, 30+ years on now, still elicits a positive response. The power chord riff is undeniably epic, but the layered vocals is what gives the song an almost majestic, overpowering feel. Albert Bouchard's slick, shifting drumming is masterfully understand and does much to create the song's smooth rhythm so the listener doesn't tire of the relentless chording (see any of the numerous live offerings not featuring Bouchard on drums, the dynamic of the song changes from finesse to pummel, and is much less pleasant). The stereo-panning break, complete with an emergency Japanese broadcast warning of Godzilla's imminent approach, and the lyrical tag admonishing man to treat nature with respect lest they wish to deal with the unpleasant consequences are indicative of BOC's ability to constantly provide the listener with subtle, but recognizable, additions to the audio landscape while the emphasis of the main idea remains at the forefront. The true genius of Godzilla (the song) is its efficient succinctness and its enhancements not frenetically changing the song's focus.
Golden Age of Leather (D. Roeser-B. Abbott) The first of a series of multi-sectional, almost progressive, songs that would eventually populate the BOC catalog (The Vigil from Mirrors, 1979; Black Blade from Cultosaurus Erectus, 1980, are others that come to mind; Your Loving Heart from Roeser's solo album Flat Out, 1982, would also apply). Roeser creates a fluctuating, but flowing, musical landscape utilizing band acquaintance Bruce Abbott's futuristic lyrical tale of a time where the last remaining (outlaw) bikers, shunned/pursued by 'proper' society, are pushed out to the edges of the world. In celebration, or societal defiance, hey engage in a final ritual, possibly suicidal (shades of Reaper) or maybe sacrificial rite, forever to disappear, yet with some evidence of their existence left behind... Or (in typical BOC lyrical tradition) did one or two escape from the dreaded vow that was made? The music, which starts and ends with the Newark Boys' Chorus (an idea of co-producer Murray Krugman; this same chorus was also featured on Van Morrison's Snow in San Anselmo) at the beginning brimming with camaraderie and confidence, and at the end, forlorn, segues from power-chording to slick, vocal harmony-dominated up-tempo sections to slow, deliberate segments. Unlike progressive rock where instrumental sections tend to dominate and are cobbled together, GAoL not only manages to successfully meld the distinctive instrumental aspect seamlessly but does so while highlighting the vocal/lyrical segments; the lyrics matching the music in its peaks and valleys of intensity. GAoL might very well be BOC's most cinematic tune in terms of the successful matching of musical and lyrical landscapes.
Death Valley Nights (A. Bouchard-R. Meltzer) Drummer Albert Bouchard's collaboration with long-time band lyrical contributor Richard Meltzer continues with Spectres' feature of big harmonies and huge dynamics. Starting out gently with a dreamy vocal by the composer and Lanier's ethereal piano, ABouchard creates a warm atmosphere, the lyrics focusing on a love just out of reach, and a yearning for a past warmth in a relationship that seems to have gone cold. Roeser provides a wonderful, warm solo and provides wonderful melodic accompaniment on the fade-out.
Searchin' For Celine (A. Lanier) Keyboardist-guitar Allen Lanier's sole contribution on Spectres continues his tradition of a piano-featuring composition (True Confessions, from Agents of Fortune, 1976), flirting with spooky atmospheres (Tenderloin, also from Agents of Fortune) as well as BOC as a whole touching on pop-disco as a sign of the times. Originally presented to the band in demo form as 'All the Hipsters Come From Puerto Rico' for Agents of Fortune, Lanier resubmitted the song with a different, and much more BOC-like lyric. Suitably shadowy in nature, BOC faithful have attempted to decipher the lyric as either a love song or as a nod to influential, yet controversial, French author Louis-Ferdinand Celine, or maybe both. Featuring a somewhat jagged, non-chordal verse and smooth chorus, the listener is treated to an extended Roeser jam on the fadeout containing some sparkling, spiraling solo'ing.
Fireworks (A. Bouchard) Fireworks (originally titled Blazing Red) is a unique song in the BOC catalog for several reasons - it is drummer Albert Bouchard's only solely-penned song in the BOC catalog (he co-wrote numerous ones, possibly the most of all band members) and does not contain a riff; instead, it seems to play on Reaper's arpeggiated chord stylings. Whereas Reaper's riff did focus on basic chords, its highlight was a pedal point throughout, whereas Fireworks just has the basic chords arpeggiated. Heavy on vocal harmonies, Fireworks is a solid song of love and yearning containing a Boston-inspired harmonized guitar break and, luckily for the listener, another tasty Roeser solo appears on the outro.
R U Ready 2 Rock (A. Bouchard-S. Pearlman) A lyrical nod to Karel Capek's ground-breaking science fiction play R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots) with a somewhat plodding riff that, like several BOC studio cuts, didn't really come to life until it was performed live. Musically the song has a bit of a throwback to the eponymous debut and Secret Treaties with its heavy piano use. The song title is somewhat misleading in that it appears to be rote performer-audience dialogue, but as what is often with a Pearlman lyric, further investigation reveals things aren't what they appear to be. R.U.R.'s story line is that of a society where robots - in this case, more human/biological than mechanical/android/automaton - are prevalent in society and ultimately rebel against their human masters, killing them all save one. A male and female robot central to the story line develop human feelings and fall in love; the remaining human being recognizes that these two remaining robots are the new Adam and Eve. Pearlman's lyric, according to ABouchard, was influenced by the movie 'The Greatest Story Ever Told', the life story of Jesus Christ from the Nativity scene through the Resurrection. The lyrics reveal possible parallels between these 2 sources of Pearlman's inspiration. The lyrical line - Everybody's waiting... With the signal in sight... There's a new tune playing, could be a reference to the Star seen by the Wise Men and the resulting birth of Christianity as well as the Jew's non-acceptance of the Messiah (the interesting sub-plot is that Capek realized later that R.U.R. Was a modern-day version of the Jewish Golem legend, an animated being created from inanimate matter). This is in turn reflected in R.U.R. Where the change in society has occurred once all the humans have been killed. The next line - Come on, come on, to the cities of night... Everybody's praying... For the wonder of light... There's a new day breaking, has all sorts of obvious connotations - the religious aspect of praying, the wonder of light (is it the Savior's birth? ), a new day breaking (the dawn of Christianity). In R.U.R. Is this reflected in the disappearance of humanity, the dawning of a new era where the robots now rule? Then the bridge contains the repeated lines - I ain't gonna catch those countdown blues... I only live to be born again, possible references to the vanishing old era, or perhaps one's own life, and the born again reference is the Christian spiritual rebirth/acceptance view/perspective, whereas in R.U.R. It signals a possible surrender to the robotic era as well as the 'born again' robots who have undergone (counted down) their spiritual/soul morphing into that of a human at the story's conclusion (which could be interpreted as the Word/God becoming flesh when Jesus was born).
Celestial the Queen (J. Bouchard-H. Wheels) Bassist Joe Bouchard's first contribution using band friend's Helen Wheels lyric. A surprisingly poppy sounding number (considering the heaviness of Joe's previous compositions, Hot Rails to Hell, Wings Wetted Down, Screams, among others) with a repetitive chorus, everything drenched in reverb, and prominently featuring Lanier's piano and various synthesizer swoops and zooms. CtQ is probably the loosest track of Spectres, with ABouchard's boomy drumming and open hi-hat combined with JBouchard's somewhat unsure vocal it's a stark contrast to the razor-like precision of the album's other tracks.
Goin' Thru the Motions (E. Bloom-I. Hunter) Lead singer Eric Bloom's only contribution on Spectres is a collaborative effort with Ian Hunter of Mott the Hoople fame. Undoubtedly the poppiest number on the album (it was released as a single in several countries, including the Netherlands), it shows a drastic change in direction for Bloom compared to his previous co-compositions (the Subhuman, Red and the Black, Dominance and Submission, just to name a few). Forsaking the heavy or mysterioso approach, a cheery string synth opens followed by the tried and true descending bass-line motif which leads to a repetitive chorus complete with handclaps (and, for the last chorus, in true pop-fashion, the song jumps up a whole step to complete the quest for Top-40 aspiration). The song has a true Brit-pop bridge (and actually borrowing a lyric line or two from Stairway to the Stars from BOC's eponymous debut), complete with a choir of 'aaah's', heavy on string synthesizer, with Bloom sounding downright soulful.
I Love the Night (D. Roeser) Roeser's epic vampire tale of the ages, swirling in reverb and highlighting a cinematic lyric of vampire seduction, it is a musical relative to his dreamscape Then Came the Last Days of May from BOC's eponymous debut. Featuring a smooth vocal, layers of guitars and multitudes of harmony vocal lines, it is the perfect follow-up single to the Reaper in aura, while not clumsily duplicating it (unlike what BOC would do later with Dancin' in the Ruins, Club Ninja, 1986, in attempt to reel in fans of Burnin' For You, Fire of Unknown Origin, 1981). The song has a secondary riff which is uneasily close to Reaper's bridge introduction, but it comes across as more of a nod due to the overall song's distinctiveness (in comparison to the Reaper). Another special note must be mentioned of the bass line which is actually doubled, one by electric bass and the other by a synth line which creates a very warm-sounding bottom end. That Columbia did nothing to promote this song as a single, is in and of itself, a mystery.
Nosferatu (J. Bouchard-H. Wheels) Unlike the cheery CtQ, Joe Bouchard closes Spectres on a creepy note with this ode to the classic German expressionist vampire movie courtesy of another lyric by Helen Wheels. Heavy on the mellotron-like Freeman synthesizer and rolling piano, the band successfully creates a symphonic, but claustrophobic (coffin-like?) atmosphere with a simple but hauntingly effective melody line and guitar line Arthur Brown would have approved of. Joe's vocal is much more assured on this and the layered horrortorio choir on the chorus is very effective.
Bonus tracks (demos) included on the 2007 remastered version: Night Flyer (J. Bouchard-M. Krugman) A solid mid-tempo rocker featuring plenty of Lanier's piano, but lyrically a bit weak compared to the material that made the album.
Dial M For Murder (Roeser) A quirky up-tempo rocker that hearkens to the Secret Treaties era in sound and production (drums sound a bit thin), Lanier's Hammond is prominent and, unlike many demos, this one has a finished lyrical feel to it. This song is best described a cross between Career of Evil, Cagey Cretins, and Sally (bonus track/demo from the Agents of Fortune remaster) in execution.
Please Hold (A. Lanier) Very rough demo featuring a rare vocal by Allen Lanier and probably the weakest of all cuts. This track sounds much too derivative of Lanier's other recent contributions (True Confessions and Searchin' For Celine) and is lacking in anything notable musically or lyrically.
Be My Baby (J. Barry-E. Greenwich-P. Spector) A cover of the classic 1963 Ronettes' tune, an indication of the commercial aspirations the band would fully reveal with Mirrors, 1979. A demo, supposedly done in one take, they covered during their bar band days; Bloom effortlessly hits the high notes. // 9
Lyrics: Lyrically, Spectres continued the separation from Sandy Pearlman they initiated with Agents of Fortune and, with the exception of R U Ready 2 Rock, are more personal/story telling in nature rather than the crypto-conspiratorial/historical and esoteric bent the first three albums followed. Displaying a wide range from cheesy monster movies to love songs, the band was firing on all cylinders, confident and original. A weakness - or strength - of BOC, during this era was the diversified approach the band took to presenting its studio material. While they had a lead singer in Bloom, the composer usually handled vocal duties which gave the band a hydra-like image. 4 of the 5 band members handled at least 2 lead vocals on the album (excluding the bonus tracks), with Bloom handling Lanier's composition and R U Ready 2 Rock; while this certainly offered the listener a diverse approach, it did not provide a solid focus on the band and continued their original image as a somewhat faceless band. While Roeser and the Bouchards maintained their vocal stylings (Roeser, smooth; the Bouchards, grainy), Spectres continued to demonstrate Bloom's maturation as a lead singer that began with Agents of Fortune. Gone were the days of the mumblings that permeated the early albums, and he began to display a form that would propel him to the top of his game that culminated with Fire of Unknown Origin, 1981. Goin' Thru the Motions shows his ability to display a smooth pop mode, while Searchin' for Celine and R U Ready 2 Rock show him alternatingly gritty and at ease; live he still would go for the shout/growl which would unfortunately wreak havoc on his vocals years down the road. // 9
Overall Impression: While lacking a chart topper a la Reaper, Spectres did further to continue their separation from their early days as they followed the musical and lyrical paths that Agents of Fortune blazed for them: personal songs, more emphasis on melody and harmony, and a conscious step away from the Gothic thrall that was Pearlman's vision, which - once they had tasted the benefits of commercial success - they then unfortunately took too far with the following studio album Mirrors, 1979 (see this reviewer's overview of Mirrors on this site). With their pioneering laser light show at the time, an album of this nature is what they had to make. As part of their overall maturation process and the recognition that to support the machine that was BOC, they recognized the need to become more mainstream while still maintaining their artistic integrity. Spectres displayed BOC's maturity as artists as well as professionals as they maintained their core base of support while successfully broadening their appeal, a rare achievement amongst contemporary artists. // 9