Someone had better save John Reis a spot on the canonical list of Hardest Working Men in Rock 'n' Roll. This is a guy who, at one point, was in two incredible bands at once (this one and Drive Like Jehu), and somehow convinced Interscope to sign them both; a guy who's maintained whole warehouses of credibility during his stay on a major by churning out seven-inches and compilation tracks for a plethora of tiny labels; a guy who pledged that anyone with a tattoo of the Rocket from the Crypt logo would get into their shows free forever, and a guy whose fanbase is so incredibly loyal that they actually went ahead and got tattoos of said logo. Now that's rock 'n' roll.
It was a mighty pleasure to hear Reis reunited with fellow Drive Like Jehu alumnus Rick Froberg on last year's Hot Snakes record, and now he's back with his main gig's first full-length since 1998. Blame the wait on the search for a new label after being predictably dropped by Interscope, because from the first blast of Group Sounds' "Straight American Slave", it's like Rocket from the Crypt were never gone at all. Huge, beefy guitar riffs punctuated by the crisp lines of the horn section (I hesitate to call one trumpet and one sax a "section," but hey, that's more than most non-ska bands have) form the basis of Rocket's 50s-garage-rock-of-the-future sound, with Reis leading the way with his indomitable Elvis-gone-punk shtick. It's the way RFTC have always done it, so why fix something that's so obviously not broken?
Group Sounds could be considered a "back to basics" record, eschewing much of the slicker production work of their last Interscope release, RFTC, most likely because their new label couldn't splurge on six-figure recording budgets. While I'm always happy to see major-label castoffs find homes on indies, I also think Rocket is one of those rare bands that truly benefited from having tons of money to funnel into their sessions; RFTC remains my favorite release of theirs because they were able to further develop the more classic-sounding facets of their sound. Group Sounds is nonstop, straight-ahead rock for the most part, more reminiscent of Scream, Dracula, Scream!, but with enough flourishes to keep things from sounding too monochromatic.
"Carne Voodoo" sports a nasty 7/4-time riff that wouldn't have sounded too out of place on a Drive Like Jehu record, but then the horns jump in with a perfect rhythmic counterpoint and it becomes a bona fide Rocket song. That's probably the most important development onGroup Sounds: The horn section continues to come more and more into its own. In the early years, they seemed a rather superfluous addition to the band's sound, but on this album, trumpeter JC2000 and saxophonist Apollo 9 are as vital as the guitarists or drummer-- maybe even more so. When they're not playing, they're providing the backing vocals, handclaps, and assorted rhythmic instruments that elevate otherwise regular rock songs to the level of Rocket songs. And for the first time ever, they actually get to take honest-to-god solos on "Venom Venom" and "Savoir Faire".
Rocket from the Crypt motor through the first two-thirds of Group Sounds like they've got something to prove. (Which they don't, but they proved it anyway for good measure.) And just as their need for speed is starting to wear a bit, they thankfully kick it down a notch for the moody yet propulsive "S.O.S.", "Dead Seed", a slower anthem right out of the Circa: Now!years, and "Ghost Shark", which appears to be a dramatic piano-laden ballad for a Scooby-Doo villain. (I jest.) Right through to the end, every song on Group Sounds is solid, pure, high-octane Rocket fuel. The hardest-working man in rock? I stand corrected: Try the hardest-working band in rock.
Enjoy the rock!!!!