By: Eric Greenwood
Ten years after its aggressive debut, Paint As A Fragrance, Rocket From The Crypt is still churning out a raucous blend of fifties rock and roll, garage punk, and rockabilly guitar machismo complete with inter-stellar horns. The band may have been through a predictably messy major label bout, but that has only strengthened the rock assault. Bandleader John Reis sounds just as fired up as he did on the band's Cargo Records breakthrough, Circa Now, in 1992. The band's fifth studio album, Group Sounds, is a message to its legions of fans that Rocket From The Crypt is back in a big way.
It was inevitable that Rocket From The Crypt would slow down in the late 90's after the slew of releases that even the biggest fans had a hard time keeping up with. Reis, who at the time was in two of the most touted bands simultaneously (Rocket From The Crypt and Drive Like Jehu), was bound to hit a wall. There was a time when it seemed like a new Rocket From The Crypt seven-inch came out almost every week (some of which easily outshined other bands' entire albums). That kind of market saturation would burn any man or band out and with the release of Scream Dracula Scream in 1995, there were definite signs that Rocket From The Crypt was running out of fuel (despite the vinyl-only release of the amazing Hot Charity that same year). The formula had just become more predictable than rocking. Although, 1998's RFTC was a marked improvement, the band's ubiquitous presence had all but vanished.
Recently, Reis has indulged in some solo work, releasing an album showcasing his dissonant yet fiery guitar skills under the moniker Back Off Cupids. He also reunited with Drive Like Jehu's vitriolic vocalist, Rick Froberg, for a band called Hot Snakes (even though its album Automatic Midnight was a clear extension of Drive Like Jehu's thunderous math punk destruction). Getting Rocket From The Crypt back together was the next logical step, and what a rebirth Group Sounds is. This time without major label dollars to blow and an ex-Journey producer at the helm, the band sounds less sonically massive but just as explosive and rocking as its heyday.
The first five songs blow by before you can even register the energy and mayhem Reis and his longtime bandmates have stirred up (founding drummer Atom is replaced by newcomer Ruby Mars even though Superchunk's Jon Wurster played drums on over half the album). "Straight American Slave" kicks things off in classic Rocket From The Crypt style. A crunching guitar riff underscores one of Reis' famously catchy choruses. His gruff, Eddie Cochran-style vocals lead the onslaught of horns and guitars. "Carne Voodoo" is like a punch in the face with its breakneck punk rhythms. The horns really stand out on these songs, carrying alternate but complementary melodies.
Group Sounds is a classic party record from start to finish. Reis' tendency for call and response choruses only enhances the fun inherent to the band's rousing energy. The greasy biker pose is sure to lure the ladies in on songs like "Return Of The Liar." These songs really sound like Rocket From The Crypt hasn't taken a day off in ten years. "Heart Of A Rat" not only satiates Ramones-style punk appetites, but also proves that a song can rock even when it's played at half the anticipated speed. "Savoir Faire" is so instantly catchy you feel like you know the words the moment Reis spews them out. And how about that intro guitar riff? Group Sounds is unstoppable- it's just one hit after another.
"S.O.S." is another half-speed surprise that proves there's no bottom to Reis' bag of memorable hooks. Again, the horns (saxophone and trumpet) fit in perfectly with each song's fundamental make-up and aren't just used as window dressing. By the time "This Bad Check Is Gonna Stick" bursts through your speakers, you've already added Group Sounds to your personal heavy rotation list. What a testament to Rocket From The Crypt's longevity and importance Group Sounds is. How many bands can sound this fresh after a decade of blistering rock and roll? And to think I almost yawned when this album arrived. I should kick myself for having doubted Rocket From The Crypt for a second.