Sunday, January 01, 2006

Tyranny and Mutation

I have always had a difficult relationship with heavy metal music. Part of this is undoubtedly due to growing up when the music was critically despised as being loud, monotonous, lyrically banal and executed by morons.

All of this remains true for huge chunks of the music.

But it is interesting to see the shift in critical opinion over time. Thanks to the punk explosion in the mid-1970s that reminded everyone that loud, monotonous, lyrically banal and moronically executed music was the essence of much of the greatest rock and roll music, it was no longer possible to criticise heavy metal convincingly on those grounds. So, grudgingly perhaps, the music entered the mainstream and almost immediately lost whatever coherency it had, splitting into dozens of subgroups from hair metal, through thrash metal, to goth metal.

But before those days, one band, the 'thinking man's heavy metal group' slipped right through the critical barrier and became hip with those who otherwise disliked metal. This was the Blue Oyster Cult, still around today and making good noise, but whose true heyday was the early to mid-1970s. The first album of theirs that I bought, all the way back in 1976, was Tyranny And Mutation. Originally released in 1973, I spotted this in a record store in Brighton and bought it solely on the strength of the cover, a stark geometrical monochrome rendition of a pyramid against a black and white rainbow backdrop. That, and the title which was strikingly perverse.

The music was not a disappointment, as it so often is after these impulse buys. Thom Jurek has written a very nice review in the All Music Guide that comes closer to the essence of this record than anything I have read before or since. It is, perhaps, the best pre-punk metal/punk amalgamation, and much of the reason for the success of this blending is the clear affection that the band has for 1960s pop/rock music (perhaps most effectively realised in the later Byrdsian masterpiece Don't Fear The Reaper). A melodic sensibility threads through the songs on Tyranny and Mutation that moves them out of the heavy metal mainstream, while still maintaining much of the sound and attitude of the genre as it was at the time. The lyrics are drenched in science-fiction derived obscurities that are difficult to follow, but what is said is much less important than how it is said and singer Eric Bloom really comes into his own on this record with a style that owes much more to Iggy Pop and Mick Jagger than Robert Plant or Ozzie Osbourne. It is easy, listening to this record, to see why The Clash would have sought out the record's producers for Give Em Enough Rope.

Tyranny and Mutation remains as fresh and as enjoyable today as it was then, partly because so few other records manage to pull off the balancing act between heaviness and pop lightness that this record manages with such aplomb. The Cult came close with their prior The Blue Oyster Cult and their later Secret Treaties and Agents Of Fortune but rather lost the plot subsequently.

Nevermind. To have made what they did is reward enough.

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