Blue Öyster Cult – Fire of Unknown Origin (1981)
This week on YDCS we’re going to take a look at one of Blue Oyster Cult’s (BOC from here on) concept albums, Fire of Unknown Origin. The album was originally written as a soundtrack of sorts to the parody film Heavy Metal, and ironically the only song on the album not explicitly written for the film, Veteran of the Psychic Wars, was the only one featured in the movie! Fire was also the last BOC album to feature the original band lineup of Donald Roeser, Eric Bloom, Allen Lanier, and brothers Joe and Albert Bouchard and generally marks the end of the band’s most successful commercial era. Albert Bouchard had a falling out with the band while touring to support the album and was replaced on drums before the band’s next album, The Revolution By Night.
This album is a hidden gem of rock albums if you’ve never listened to it before. It was never a heavy hitter in terms of album sales, only being certified gold in the year that it was released, but every song on the album rocks or displays incredible musicianship and lyricism. The album produced one of BOC’s most popular singles, Burnin’ For You, that received increased attention after being played in heavy rotation on the newly created MTV. Burnin’ is still played on classic rock radio to this day, but it’s really a shame that the rest of the album never received the same attention. Give this one a shot, and hopefully you find a hidden gem on this album like I did.
Dad’s Thoughts- The Breakdown
Fire of Unknown Origin: The album starts with its namesake song and it’s a great start! I really like how rough the vocals sound on this song when they interact with well-polished instrumentation. That’s an interesting contrast that elevates the song. The instruments play off of each other really well on this album, with keyboards doing a call and response with the guitar and the bass doing a twiddly number in the back. Dad’s Rating 7/10
Burnin’ For You: This is one of BOC’s most famous songs and it certainly doesn’t disappoint! The transition from Fire to Burnin’ For You is nearly seamless, and I find that’s actually one of the hallmarks of the album. Listening to it, songs just roll from one into another and it helps you get lost in the music. Burnin’ has always had this smooth, driving beat to it that makes it so appealing and easy to listen to. The guitar solo in the bridge and final chorus is worth taking a closer listen to. Oftentimes when songs like this come on in the car, we just jam out and don’t actually actively listen to the music, but sitting and actively listening on this track will really add more depth to it for your next jam session! Dad’s Rating 9/10
Veteran of the Psychic Wars: This is the start of the hidden gems on the album and it’s a little bit out there as far as instrumentation goes. I also view this as the first part of two songs that play off of each other, this and the next song, Sole Survivor. As far as Veteran goes, it’s one of the more experimental songs on the album, adding in a marching drum beat during the chorus and, in my opinion, keeping instruments other than the keyboard and drums fairly toned back. That really gives the song a haunting quality that is hard to forget and amplifies the title, Veteran of the Psychic Wars. The marching drum combined with the eerie keyboard make you feel like you’re listening to the end of a psychic battle, maybe even one where you’re the sole survivor. That’s where I think the link is with these two songs. The two songs are distinct enough to be their own but are similar enough that they could be describing the same event. Don’t skip over this one, I don’t think you’ll forget it for a while. Dad’s Rating 7/10
Sole Survivor: Sole Survivor is a more standard rock track the Veteran that precedes it, but it never got much airplay on radio. This is what I call the second hidden gem on the album and is the second part of how I imagine the Veteran/Survivor song. This is just a great track with a blistering guitar solo over the bridge, keyboards to sound like a spaceship, and awesome vocal harmony through the chorus. Stereotypically early 80s rock, and so, so good. Dad’s Rating 7/10
Heavy Metal: The Black and Silver: Woooooo boy! This is the third hidden gem on the album and when you open with a shredding guitar like this one does, you know it’s going to rock! This song was one of those specifically written for the movie Heavy Metal that was not included in the release. I had never really paid much attention to this song on previous listens to this album, but for some reason I paid more attention on this listen and I’m glad I did because I had been missing a rocking track! Dad’s Rating 8/10
Vengeance: I wasn’t sure how I wanted to rate Vengeance at first because it meanders and is a little odd. It features backing vocals that sing “ha-ha-ha-ha-ha” to emphasize the instrumentation and shifts between typical otherworldly/spacey rock that BOC is known for and something that sounds more reminiscent of stereotypical 80s rock. Vengeance then goes and takes off halfway through the song and speeds up into a heavy metal track. Ultimately, I decided that this was such a good song to actively listen to that I needed to rate it higher. It made me think and analyze how all of these elements work together and I appreciated that. Dad’s Rating 8/10
After Dark: After Dark is a rocker! The bass line almost gives the song a surf rock feeling to it, but overall, the song doesn’t stray from the otherworldly sound that features so prevalently on the rest of the album. If you listen to this, you get shredding solos, great harmony in the chorus that really emphasizes the lyrics well, and so much 80s rock. Dad’s Rating 8/10
Joan Crawford: I was a little unsure about this song when it first came on. The thought was “How is BOC going to open a song with a piano solo and get back to the sound of the rest of the album?” The next question was “How is a tribute song about actress Joan Crawford going to work into this album?” They did it. The album is already quirky and by referencing the revival of the legendary actress, it actually doesn’t feel out of place amongst psychic wars and songs written for Heavy Metal. It helps that the track is so well written and evolves from a piano ballad into a full-on rock track before calming out. Dad’s Rating 7/10
Don’t Turn Your Back: Don’t turn your back on this last song on the album! Firstly, the song has such a funky little groove to it that makes it so infectious. If space-funk were ever a subgenre of music, this song would fit right into it. BOC nailed a song that’s outside of what they normally do (that being heavy metal and rock), and put their own unmistakable twist on it. It really exemplifies what they did with this whole album, they took things that you would never believe could work together and did it through a common sound. Job well done gents. Dad’s Rating 8/10
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