Imaginos is the best Blue Oyster Cult album you’ve never heard

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Despite the tortured history surrounding this release, something that ultimately mangled its original, rather Lovecraft-ian storyline, Imaginos might just be the most complete full-length Blue Oyster Cult ever did.

Thoughtful, yet very heavy, this major-label swan song ultimately makes almost no sense as a story. Initially intended to follow the exploits of a 19th century dream traveler who shows up at key historical moments to turn things for the worse, the long-delayed Imaginos had been through so many permutations by its July 1988 release that the project was almost unrecognizable.

Same with the lineup itself, which featured all of the classic-era members of BOC — only not really.

Original drummer Albert Bouchard had initially conceived this song cycle along with producer Sandy Pearlman, Blue Oyster Cult’s lyricist. In fact, two parts of the narrative, “Subhuman” and “Astromony,” appeared in earlier drafts on BOC’s 1974 long-player Secret Treaties. But by 1982, when work began in earnest on Imaginos, it had become essentially a solo project. Both Bouchard and Pearlman were out of the group.

Nevertheless, as their friends in BOC continued work nearby on 1983’s Revolution by Night, these early Bouchard/Pearlman sessions were joined by ex-bandmates Donald “Buck Dharma” Roeser, Joe Bouchard and Allen Lanier — along with several other notable guest stars, including Robby Krieger of the Doors (on two tracks, including “Blue Oyster Cult,” a rewrite of “Subhuman”), Aldo Nova, and Kenny Aaronson and Thommy Price, the latter of whom were then both in Billy Idol’s band.

Despite the star power, however, this first mix of Imaginos was summarily rejected by Columbia Records, sending the project further along on its strange odyssey. Pearlman would continue tinkering, adding future Blue Oyster Cult bassist Jon Rogers on vocals for the title track, a young Joe Satriani on “Siege and Investiture” (the guitarist actually traded for studio time to finish Surfing with the Alien, his 1987 breakthrough), as well as parts from Karl Precoda of the Dream Syndicate, among others. Imaginos didn’t begin to round into its final shape, however, until Blue Oyster Cult — now led by Eric Bloom and Roeser — was casting about for material after 1985’s Pearlman-produced Club Ninja flopped. Still more new vocals and guitar parts were added, along with a keyboard overdub by Allen Lanier’s BOC successor Tommy Zvoncheck.

The results looked like a return of Blue Oyster Cult’s best-known lineup, even though it wasn’t. Looked like a band on a creative rebound, even though it wasn’t. Looked like just the thing to redirect their flagging fortunes, which it most certainly wasn’t. Columbia dumped BOC after Imaginos failed to find chart success in the hair-band wasteland of the late 1980s, sending the group hurtling into a decade-long dry spell — and, ultimately, into parody as the “cowbell guys.”

Yet for all of that, and we’re leaving out the legal battle that ensued between Bouchard and his former group, this album still contains some of Donald Roeser’s most trenchant guitar playing, starting with the darkly intriguing opener “I Am the One You Warned Me Of.” The album has a similar sense of wit and adventure throughout: They dabble with a Styx-inflected brand of prog on “In the Presence of Another World,” while “Siege and Investiture” and “Magna Of Illusion” connect forcefully with the harder-edged metal sounds of the day. And yet, it still sounds like BOC. “Les Invisibles” reanimates the nervy attitude of “Burnin’ for You,” while “Astronomy” explores the same spooky spaces as “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper.” There’s even a reunion of sorts — through the magic of editing — when Roeser and Bouchard share vocals on “Blue Oyster Cult.”

Engaging, smart and loud, Imaginos somehow overcame a six-year extreme makeover. From start to finish, it’s easily Blue Oyster Cult’s most consistent album — and maybe, even now, the best one that most people have never heard.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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