The album may or may not be obsolete, but the fact remains: Listeners have long obsessed over individual songs. The Single File is The A.V. Club’s look at the deep cuts, detours, experiments, and anthems that make us reach for replay.
The astronaut lands his flying Corvette on the lawn of a creepy old house. He enters the house, is greeted by his young daughter, and presents her with a glowing orb he found while in outer space. Shockingly, the orb speaks, introducing itself as “the Loc-Nar” and “the sum of all evils.” It kills the astronaut, hideously liquefying him. Then it transfixes the horrified girl in a beam of pulsing green light, injecting visions into her brain. The first vision she’s shown is of a futuristic New York City, degraded and dystopian, awash in grime, gangsters, and cyborgs.
A song floats over the jarring shift in scene, as haunting and otherworldly as the imagery is bleak and stark: Blue Öyster Cult’s “Veteran Of The Psychic Wars.”
The film in which this weirdness goes down is Heavy Metal. Released in 1981, the animated sci-fantasy anthology became an instant cult classic, despite (or due to) the fact that it makes little sense. Or at least that’s the general perception; apart from the recurring sight of the green, glowing Loc-Nar—which might as well be the animators’ stash of weed personified—there’s not much to tie the segments of Heavy Metal together.
One of the things that tries, though, is the music. The soundtrack to Heavy Metal, while containing hardly any metal, is a cult entity unto itself. From Don Felder’s slinky, aptly Eagles-like “Heavy Metal (Takin’ A Ride)” to Devo’s industrial-robot deconstruction of Lee Dorsey’s “Working In The Coal Mine,” the songs—like the movie—cover a broad range and permeate the film’s discombobulated structure like a subliminal, alternate storyline.
But if there’s one song that sits at the dead center of Heavy Metal’s admittedly amorphous core, it’s Blue Öyster Cult’s “Veteran Of The Psychic Wars.” The drums are tribal. The synths hum like incantations. The guitar is minimal, applied with ritualistic precision. Humanizing things, barely, are Eric Bloom’s stately, stentorian vocals and Donald “Buck Dharma” Roeser’s stratospheric solo. The lyrics dwell vaguely on the fractured psyches of soldiers serving in some apocalyptic battle that subs ESP for ICBMs: “You see me now a veteran of a thousand psychic wars / My energy’s spent at last, and my armor is destroyed / I have used up all my weapons, and I’m helpless and bereaved / Wounds are all I’m made of / Did I hear you say that this is victory?” It’s a pseudo-mystical post-Vietnam parable that sounds like the most awesome story Heavy Metal doesn’t even try to tell.
Then again, BÖC didn’t create the scenario that takes place in “Veteran.” Like some of the band’s best songs, the lyrics were penned by an outside collaborator—although in the case of “Veteran” it wasn’t music journalist Richard Meltzer or the one-time girlfriend of keyboardist Allen Lanier, Patti Smith. The words to “Veteran” were written by the famed science-fiction and fantasy author Michael Moorcock, best known as the creator of the decadent, albino antihero Elric. BÖC had previously worked with Moorcock on the 1980 song “Black Blade”—a reference to Elric’s soul-drinking sword, Stormbringer. And “Veteran” takes its title from the lyrics that Moorcock wrote for another sympathetic band, Hawkwind, whose 1975 album Warrior On The Edge Of Time is based on Moorcock’s concept of the pan-dimensional Eternal Champion, of which Elric is merely a single iteration.
It all makes for a tangled mythos—but then again, so does Heavy Metal. The film’s strength, shaky as it is, lies in the gonzo synergy between its disparate parts. Still, there’s a cumulative effect to the disjointed narrative that comes together in the framing sequence; the daughter of the slain astronaut at the start of the movie reappears at the end, where she morphs into the Amazonian badass Taarna, the hero of Heavy Metal’s penultimate and best segment. It brings a rickety linkage of vignettes full circle, but it also echoes Moorcock’s Eternal Champion—right down to Taarna’s deadly sword and bone-white hair. In fact, Taarna could be an incarnation of the Eternal Champion, a possibility that has crossed the geek hive-mind more than once over the past 30 years.
“Veteran” isn’t the only song BÖC made for Heavy Metal. The track “Heavy Metal: The Black And Silver” was dropped from the soundtrack, regardless of, you know, the name and all. BÖC wound up placing it on the excellent 1981 album Fire Of Unknown Origin—along with “Veteran” and what became one of the group’s last big hit, “Burnin’ For You.” Fire is also the final studio album recorded with the classic lineup, and in many ways it’s BÖC’s high point; the radio staples “Godzilla” and “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” were already under the band’s belt by that point, and Fire encompassed the extremes of heaviness and ethereality that BÖC effortlessly wove together throughout the ’70s.
In the ’80s, though, diminishing returns set in—but not before 1982’s triumphant concert album, Extraterrestrial Live. Recorded while on tour with Black Sabbath (a band also featured on the Heavy Metal soundtrack), Extraterrestrial does ultimate justice to “Veteran.” Extended to twice its studio length, the eight-minute version gives the band space to stretch, soar, and let the rock stadium become its interstellar Corvette—and also for Dharma to weave an extended, celestial solo that sums up everything BÖC is about: rock, magic, bombast, and god-sized majesty. With “Veteran Of The Psychic Wars,” Blue Öyster Cult did more than just sing about an incarnation of Moorcock’s epic Eternal Champion. It became one.