Tyranny and Mutation

At the center is the symbol - hanging in space, half cross and half meat hook. Some claim it's made up of three exclamation points and an upside down question mark. Those with unfogged minds understand it to be the sign of Saturn, or Kronos, whose metal is lead and whose element is time itself.

In the grim days of Nixon and his carpet-bombing of Vietnam, while the Weather Underground waged its counter-bombing assault on America, during Apollo's last mysteriously abortive missions to the moon, this symbol was the closest a mainstream record label could come to putting a swastika on an album cover. To every teenaged Blue Oyster Cult fan, however, it was no secret. The sign stood unmistakably for outer space rock and roll fascismus.

The band's original name - "Soft White Underbelly" - was coined by Winston Churchill to describe fascist Italy, the vulnerable nether-region of Europe. It suggests too, the unprotected abdomen of the killer dinosaur, or the vastness of some trans-galactic egg-sac floating in the void. Conceived by their producer as America's answer to Black Sabbath, the renamed Blue Oyster Cult later joined forces with these English kings of downer rock on the infamous Black and Blue Tour.

The cover for Blue Oyster Cult's second album, Tyranny and Mutation, features a stark, geometrical black and white landscape like a Nuremberg rally site as conceived and birthed by robots. No humans, no torchlight parades, but the same emptiness and soulless fervor. And a weird celestial glow: the Kronos cross hanging on the horizon like a black, arcane sunrise. A few lurid slices are added to the palette for this album cover, finishing the scheme: black, white and red, the colors of Imperial Germany.

Musically, heavy metal already existed. It's all there on Black Sabbath's Paranoid album. But while Ozzie shrieks like a horror movie demon, the Oyster Boys use a more menacing, breathy whisper-croon. Ozzie's predicable satanic imagery and the lumbering behemoth riffs make a joke of Sabbath's dread-mongering. B-O'Cult are more oblique, more skewed and shrewd.

All gothic goes back to Germany and weird gothic touches lurk in these grooves - "flights of black horsemen" soaring over churches, "a harvest of life, a harvest of death." Even "Lucifer the light" makes an appearance. B-O'Cult is of course Germanic, with their mutant swastika, the very first heavy metal umlaut and hymns of praise to Luftwaffe jet planes. But this is still an American nightmare, not a faked-up olde worlde terror-fest. Yes, strange female presences float in the shadows. We'll never know, though, whether "Baby Ice Dog" is human or canine. Or what exactly the "Teen Archer" is aiming her arrows at. Or why is the "Mistress of the Salmon Salt" also called "The Quicklime Girl?"

On first hearing, "Hot Rails to Hell" might be just another badass heavy metal howl, proclaiming that "the heat from below can burn your eyes out." The world of this song is, however, no lapsed Euro-Catholic's Lake of Fire. The hellbound train is pure America - high tech, huge and heavy, enormous with energy, a smoking, steel-rumbling joyride that ends with a surf guitar bass plummet right out of the Ventures' "Pipeline."

Tyranny and Mutation: is there a better description of the American teenage boy's inner landscape? Tyranny: repression of impulse. Mutation: terrifying biological change. Tyranny and Mutation: are there two words which so well evoke the battle between wildness and control, the convulsive fear and joy at the heart of the adolescent's world?