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Rocket From the Tombs - Rocket Redux

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Artist: Rocket From the Tombs

Album: Rocket Redux

Label: Smog Veil

Review date: Mar. 17, 2004

Rocket from the Tombs were a ghost for nearly 30 years, a mostly unheard footnote to early US punk. The Cleveland band lasted for less than a year, played a dozen shows, then dissolved in 1975. They never got to a recording studio, but the legend said that they played a mixture of metallic shock and krautrock experimentalism, sick but brainy music. The legend has staying power, because the band split into the cerebral Peru Ubu and the lizard cortex of the Dead Boys.

The croaking, hulking singer Crocus Behemoth reverted to the name Dave Thomas, taking a few of the band's songs for the foundation of Peru Ubu's early sets. Guitarist Gene O'Conner became the Dead Boys' Cheetah Chrome, and used a few more. And key writer-guitarist Peter Laughner flitted through Ubu, Television, headlined a few acts, then succumbed to liver failure in 1977 before receiving the recognition he deserved. “Ain't it fun when you know that you're gonna die young” he wrote in a song that would become a Dead Boys standard, later covered by...errr...Guns 'n' Roses.

For the next 20 years, a practice room tape and a few live bootlegs circulated. But Rocket from the Tombs was really more a hip reference for the obsessive punk fan. By the time the San Diego band Rocket from the Crypt emerged, hardly anyone got the reference.

Two years ago the existing recordings were cleaned up and released as The Day the Earth Met Rocket From the Tombs. Here was an official document, and the band could be evaluated without the glow of scarcity. And the consensus was, man this stuff is fantastic.

The sound was limited of course, pocked by blurred crunch and tape phasing. But this much was legible: RFTT were way ahead of their time. Their rep was just.

So the surviving members went on tour last year. Television's rustbelt-bred Richard Lloyd filled Laughner’s role and the shows have been good and mean. Now they've recorded a set in Lloyd's personal studio. Are they outstaying the welcome?

Not yet. There are a few shaky moments on Rocket Redux where you can't help picturing a bunch of old guys in a home studio, since that's pretty much what it is. Some of the songs are so nihilistically young, it's awkward knowing the singers' ages, but they did pick the 12 best songs from the The Day the Earth Met…. The indulgent parts are reined in and Lloyd's mixing is excellent; the two guitar interplay that was just discernible on the live tapes is finally vivid. In Redux, RFTT have remarkably made the 1976 John Cale-produced debut for Sire Records that never happened.

Established classics like “Final Solution” and “Sonic Reducer” sound great – still distinct from the later versions – but the songs that didn't carry over sound just as big. The winding riffs of “So Cold” in particular reveal a more mournful and effective number than the practice room tape could suggest.

The band goes out of its way to present the songs with the original structure, and when captured with studio clarity, RFTT tend actually fit their era, rather than explode away from it. The layered guitar arpeggios evoke Alice Cooper. The ballad “Amphetamine” could fit on Greetings from Asbury Park. “Muckraker” preens with Mott the Hoople sarcasm. This was a more unconventional band, but they had a strong sense of songcraft right from the start, even as they schemed outrage.

Thomas has changed the most. In the Tombs, his voice hadn't developed the warble which was abundant on even the earliest Pere Ubu; he forced growls more than he yelped. Here, his shaky phrasing keeps the songs unnerving whenever the record eases towards convention, distinguishing them from the originals. Rocket Redux could have been Rocket Redundant, but something new is happening here, even as the material is presented with an archival intent.

The band is cagey about this being more than a one off. They've expressed doubts that they could write material together, but hint that they'll make an attempt. Should they try, when the original line-up was an obnoxious detonation of youthful ambitions? Other career encores would argue yes. Direct descendants Mission of Burma are about to improve upon their legendary stature with ONoffON and Wire has shown that the first punk generation can keep pushing forward. In the Tombs’ favor is the newfound chemistry between Richard Lloyd and Cheetah Chrome on this record, most notably on “30 Seconds Over Tokyo”; they're the guitar heroes that never quite were. They've got a directness which tugs at Thomas' oblique appeal and the band could find a fascinating median in the tensions that tore the first version apart.

By Ben Donnelly

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