All Systems Go

San Diego's Rocket From the Crypt is ready to take over the world, and make you like it

Speedo. Petey X. Atom. Apollo 9. N.D. J.C. 2000. Who are these impressive, vaguely dangerous-sounding men?

Gang members? Comic-book heroes? Members of one of the greatest rock bands of all time? Well, if you picked the last, then you should feel pretty clever.

I'm talking about the mighty Rocket From the Crypt. Hailing from San Diego, and under the leadership of Speedo (a.k.a. John Reis), the band's lead singer/songwriter/guitarist/producer, this mighty rock 'n' roll machine has been churning out punk rock since 1991. Its catalogue includes four albums, two EPs, and about a zillion singles.

These recordings are usually found in the punk-rock section of your record store, but that's not really fair or expansive enough. Though Rocket does have the raw power and ferocity of a punk band (not to mention the massive guitar assault), this six-piece contingent (two guitars, bass, drums, trumpet and sax) is all about the songs--well-crafted, melodic masterpieces that could possibly be described as rock 'n' roll symphonies.

Unlike with ska bands (which Rocket definitely is not), the horns don't play the main hooks but are part of the big rock landscape, adding texture and depth and, ultimately, a wide symphonic quality.

Against this, you've got Speedo and N.D.'s dual guitar blast (usually the loudest instruments on each album) and, of course, Speedo's impassioned vocals--part punk, part blues, all attitude. This is take-no-prisoners music. These guys are not messing around here; they mean business. But odds are, you won't notice any of that stuff on the first listen.

Speedo's attempt to combine complex instrumentation with punk fury is a subversive one. The main mission here is to rock, and to get the audience moving, but as far as Speedo's concerned, there's no reason for rock music to be brainless.

"I think that people are ready to appreciate something that's a little more complete," says Reis, calling from a stop on the band's current tour with the Foo Fighters. "And I think in saying that, I'm kind of admitting that I think, yeah, it's Rocket From the Crypt's time. Whether it's our time to be popular or whatever, I have no idea and I don't care. But I think it's our time as far as being heard and as far as being given that chance to be heard. That's it. Just to be given that opportunity to be heard. If we get that opportunity and then people say, 'Hey, we don't want it,' then that's fine."

Enter the new album. RFTC, which hit record stores on June 2, pushes that musical mishmash a few steps further, putting unhinged punk anthems such as "Panic Scam" and "Back in the State" together with downright pretty and soulful Motownesque ballads like "Let's Get Busy," and straightahead bar-rock tunes like "Break It Up." There are even female backing vocals, as well as a female lead part on the album opener, "Eye on You."

The key to this album is diversity. While the group's 1995 Hot Charity EP (released simultaneously with Rocket's full-length major-label debut Scream, Dracula, Scream) was the first Rocket recording to show more than one side of the band's sonic countenance, the new album takes these recently displayed sides and perfects them. There are still plenty of songs primarily designed to kick your ass, but there's also the candy-coated '60s-pop appeal of "Lipstick," as well as the creepy, near rockabilly of "Your Touch." Then there are the songs that are seemingly just exercises in attitude, whose primary functions are simply to get people moving--like the aptly titled "You Gotta Move" and "Dick on a Dog," not necessarily crafted to kick your booty so much as get it shakin'.

Speaking of attitude, there's the live Rocket show. The band plays punk the way it was never meant to be played: as a production. As Reis explains in the Rocket press kit, "It's an attempt to balance something totally elaborate with something completely trashy and lowest common denominator. To bring elements of, you know, showmanship, a rock 'n' roll revue, a punk-rock extravaganza, put on a show which is basically a no-no in the kind of music we grew up listening to." From its expansive stage setup (sometimes having a keyboardist and additional percussionists onstage with the regular lineup) to its matching costumes (the 1996 Warped Tour saw the band members in silver-sequined suits, but I saw them last fall in silken black and maroon suits) to Reis' smooth stage banter (during a tuning break: "Just want to make sure that our instruments sound every bit as pretty as all of you out there look tonight"), Rocket doesn't act like a punk-rock band, that's for sure.

But then, Rocket hasn't really sounded like a straightahead punk band in a while. In fact, it has always been somewhat of a schizophrenic band. Throughout the years, its relentless output of singles (usually the most bombastic and punk material in its catalogue) has contrasted slightly with its albums. Its first two albums, 1991's Paint As a Fragrance and 1993's Circa: Now! (both released on indie Cargo/Headhunter), were of a slightly more singular vision, offering solid punk blasts of fury covered in shimmering guitar, while the singles were ragged and maniacal shots of adrenaline complete with distorted vocals and screaming, dissonant guitars.

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