Rocket From the Crypt – Live From Camp X-Ray (Vagrant)

In my mind there are few bands as vital to American Rock ‘n’ Roll as Rocket From the Crypt. I was once a reluctant believer. I turned my ear to the hype ’til last year’s Group Sounds and a sit-down with Petey X. I had never seen them until after I interviewed Petey and it’s safe to say that had I seen them before the meeting, I’d have already snatched up all their records and been in complete awe of the bass player who sat across from me in Rocket’s touring motor home. I’ve since gotten the RFTC bug and collected as much of their music as I can find.

Live from Camp X-Ray, their second record on Vagrant Records, dishes out a ten track helping of RFTC heaviness. As the title of the record may suggest, this is their The Rising. The liner notes crookedly explain how the events of September 11, 2001 changed the direction of the album, though it’s hard as a listener to detect exactly how. Live from Camp X-Ray is harder than Group Sounds but, thankfully, not a departure from the Rocket From the Crypt aesthetic.

It is their aesthetic that I believe makes them so vital. They’ve never strayed far from big riffs played not by one instrument but all six. Their bigness derives from the layers each instrument adds: the horns, bass, drums, guitars and Speedo’s voice all pile on to make a musical engine that hums and pounds like a heavy-duty V6. Live from Camp X-Ray fires on all cylinders — its guitar-steeped riffs make it a heavier collection than past releases and its terse, tight songs make it a breathless listen that begs repeating.

“I’m not Invisible,” the lead track, bears witness to this approach. The two guitars and bass snake together into one dense riff over which Speedo spits his lyrics. The record hardly allows the listener to catch a breath before beating “Get Down”‘s two chord riff into your head. In “Get Down,” the horns which made only a brief appearance in the first song, complement the wiry guitar riffs during the chorus. This is how the remainder of the album will go. Rather than playing the hook as they often have done in the past, Live from Camp X-Ray‘s horns add melodic accompaniment to the album’s rare downshifts.

“Can You Hear It?” is an easy favorite. The guitar riff is offset by strings on the upbeat giving the song bouncing, bright spots in the midst of all the darkness.

Which brings me to the album’s “theme.” There are definite references to our post-September 11th world, but none crass or mired in mushy sentimentality. If the terrorist attacks and our country’s response to them “inspired” this album, it was mostly to fill it with an angst that’s all too real. Speedo’s lyrics probably refer to specific things but he’s wise enough not to clog the songs up with direct messages.

“Outsider” is a perfect example of this. Compare it to another punk song of the same name. Where the Ramones pretty harmlessly sang of being a misfit, RFTC hone in on emotion much more complex than mere misanthropy: “Destroy Un-American / I don’t can if they can / Wading in American’t / Will you die for it? / Outsider! Just leave us alone!” It’s a safe bet that RFTC didn’t pen a jingoist anthem here, but captured in twisted irony their mixed-up feelings in a mixed-up world. It’s fitting that “Outsider” is probably the highlight of the album — with one of the biggest, tightest riffs propelled with a syncopated keyboard, a great “Whoah” during the chorus, and Speedo’s sneering voice put to great use.

“Too Many Balls,” which closes the record, touches on the nature of the problems in the world in its widening of a small theme — too many amped-up testosterone freaks — into one much larger. The incessant repeating of the hook — “Too many balls gonna kill us all” — at the end of the song becomes a mantra of palpable fear.

There’s a lot to be said for how ignorant RFTC proves the record industry to be — here’s a band whose every note should provoke the envy and respect of lesser musicians, whose every album reflects a dedication and energy that’s difficult to find in ten bands, whose very existence gives hope to those of us who believe in the power of rock above and beyond the mere words sung in songs — but Rocket From the Crypt hardly have time to address the idiocy of record execs so neither should we. They’re too busy rocking. And so should we be.