In the early ’90s, when major labels raided the independent punk and hardcore scenes looking for the next big thing, few of the bands swept up in the signing frenzy produced their best work. One that did was San Diego’s Rocket From The Crypt, whose 1995 album, Scream, Dracula, Scream!, would become a high-water mark, a fantastically catchy-yet-aggressive collection of garage punk laced with saxophone and trumpet.
The band shifted direction a bit on 1998’s RFTC, opting for a less aggressive, more “classic rock ’n’ roll” sound, but the success of Scream, Dracula, Scream! didn’t repeat itself. The band’s label, Interscope, lost interest, and RFTC hung in limbo for more than a year while waiting for Interscope to finally drop it. Longtime drummer Adam “Atom” Willard quit, and Rocket From The Crypt found itself homeless and wondering about its next move.
When the band re-emerged with Group Sounds in March of 2001, it had found an unlikely home on Vagrant Records, which was blowing up at the time thanks to a slew of young emo bands like The Get Up Kids, Saves The Day, Alkaline Trio, and especially Dashboard Confessional—whose broken-hearted, acoustic sing-alongs couldn’t sound more different from Rocket From The Crypt. When I interviewed frontman John “Speedo” Reis for Punk Planet in the spring of 2001, he admitted to knowing nothing about the other bands on Vagrant. By that point, Reis was in his early 30s and had been in Rocket for more than a decade, and he couldn’t really care less what the kids were listening to.
Group Sounds explodes with that “We’re still here” defiance and the frustration that had built up over the long, infuriating wait during the band’s time in major-label limbo. It’s also a truer sonic successor to Scream, Dracula, Scream! than RFTC, ramping up the aggression with a slew of riffs that hit RFTC’s sweet spot of garage punk and post-hardcore. (Plenty of people associate Reis more with Drive Like Jehu, the seminal post-hardcore band he played guitar in at the beginning of the ’90s.)
Classic Reis-style riffs propel the blistering “Savoir Faire” and “White Belt” (one of the best songs on the album), but Group Sounds on the whole sounds like vintage Rocket From The Crypt. “This Bad Check Is Gonna Stick” has an exultant chorus that recalls “Young Livers” from Scream, Dracula, Scream!, and songs like “Out Of Control” and “Spitting” wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Hot Charity, another classic RFTC album from 1995, or even 1992’s Circa: Now! “Venom Venom” seethes with Pete “Petey X” Reichert’s bass before exploding in a deluge of guitars at about the halfway point, and throughout the album, the horns from Paul “Apollo 9” O’Beirne and Jason “JC 2000” Crane counter the aggressiveness with bursts of brass.
Group Sounds relents for the moodier “S.O.S.” and closes with the subdued “Ghost Shark,” which features legendary Memphis musician Jim Dickinson on piano. (He played the piano on the Stones’ “Wild Horses,” recorded Big Star’s Third, and has a deep list of similarly impressive credits.) The press materials for Group Sounds eagerly touted Dickinson’s appearance, though chances are no other band on Vagrant had any idea who he was.
Like getting Dickinson to play on the album, the victories of Group Sounds would mostly be personal. Although it received positive reviews, and the band toured successfully behind it, Rocket From The Crypt’s moment had passed. When it released Live From Camp X-Ray in 2002, the vigor that characterized Group Sounds had disappeared. RFTC technically remained a band for three more years, but by the time it played a farewell show in San Diego on Halloween in 2005, it had barely performed or done anything else for some time.
RFTC reunited to tour this year, and though new material seems unlikely, it breathed new life into Group Sounds, which was re-issued on vinyl on Record Store Day. Maybe 12 years after its original release, Group Sounds will finally ascend to the same hallowed level as Scream, Dracula, Scream!, Circa: Now!, and Hot Charity. It deserves a place of honor in one of the best discographies of the past 20 years.