Monday, November 23, 2015

Rocket From the Tombs' "Black Record"

To someone like  your humble chronicler o' events, who believes that Ohio is the secret music capital of America, it's a source of wonder to know that in 2015, members of Cleveland proto-punk pioneers Electric Eels, Mirrors, and Rocket From the Tombs have a new record out (as X___X) and are about to hit the road in the new year. (Rubber Gloves in Denton on January 20!) The arrival of a new Rocket From the Tombs LP in my mailbox yesterday was even more welcome -- a veritable candygram from the gods.

It seems inconceivable, considering their subsequent influence, that the "classic" Rocket From the Tombs lineup (the one with David Thomas, Peter Laughner, Craig Bell, Gene "Cheetah Chrome" O'Connor, and a rotating cast of drummers) only existed for about nine months back in '74-'75. That fractious outfit (documented on Smog Veil's 2002 The Day the Earth Met Rocket From the Tombs compilation) cast a long shadow, fragmenting into the contrarian punk art of Pere Ubu and the bad-boy rockaroll of the Dead Boys.

By now, it's been a dozen years since RFTT reconvened with Richard Lloyd, an old familiar from his Television days, standing behind the guitar in the onstage space once occupied by the late, lamented Laughner, and Pere Ubu's Steve Mehlman on drums. That lineup toured, cut a fine studio document of their retrospective set (Rocket Redux) and an album of new material (Barfly) that was completed as the band was fragmenting. First Lloyd departed, then Chrome, to be replaced by a pair of younger Clevelanders: Gary Siperko (Mofos, Whiskey Daredevils) and Buddy Akita (This Moment In Black History).

As a former record store geek, I find it fitting and proper that, even after embracing digital technology with an information-dense web presence, David Thomas -- whose aesthetic sensibility was formed in the early '70s -- should retain a reverence for The Romance of the Artifact, and indeed, the new RFTT record is sumptuously packaged, with the first pressing on silver vinyl. Even the download card, usually a disposable artifact, comes with artwork that's going to look spiffy on the shelf in my living room next to the hand-colored Leni Sinclair postcard of the MC5.

Black Record is the fruition of a deferred dream of Thomas' to collaborate with This Moment In Black History, CLE punks whose 2009 album Public Square sounds more important with every spin. Guitarist Buddy Akita is a member of both TMIBH and RFTT, and TMIBH drummer Lamont "Bim" Thomas will drum with X___X when they tour with his solo project, Obnox, in 2016.

The album also marks the return of Crocus Behemoth, the pseudonym Thomas was employing as a rockcrit when he originally formed RFTT as a magazine employee's amusement. His lyrics and vocals here serve notice that he still doesn't like it here much. His voice, which sounded like a warlock casting spells when he intoned "30 Seconds Over Tokyo"'s account of a wartime suicide mission way back in '75, has aged in interesting ways, becoming a crabbed and craggy thing of distressed beauty.

"Waiting for the Snow" blasts off with a blizzard of anomie laced with acceptance, suggesting that adult angst is more convincing than adolescent angst because it's grounded more in experience than in observation: "I'm sitting here / I'm waiting for the snow / That's no metaphor / That's something you'll never know." The title track explodes with an energy that's reminiscent, to these feedback-scorched ears, of the Dicks' "Rich Daddy," and carries a lyric that manages to simultaneously invoke rock history, Thomas' history, and the mortal terror of 21st century life: "Fools rush in / Worlds collide / Culture's a weapon / That's suicide."

This is followed by a brief "oldies set," starting with a tip o' the lid to RFTT's Pac Northwest kindred spirits, the Sonics (speaking of superannuated gents who released an album this year that rocks with energy and abandon worthy of players a third of their age), continuing with a version of what's arguably RFTT's best-known song, "Sonic Reducer," on which Siperko and Akita demonstrate forcefully that they're more than worthy replacements for Lloyd and Chrome. The eBow episode that introduces the tune and the second solo, which descends into fascinating realms of pure noise, add a modern edge to the punk classic.

"I Keep A File On You" rocks every bit as fiercely as the "oldies," which is appropriate to the feverish paranoia of its lyrics, while "Nugefinger" takes the piss out of Dubya's neighbor via a riff that alludes to, but stops short of appropriating the one from his "Stranglehold." I am probably alone in imagining that the backing voices are chanting "SEGER!" after the repeated "Listen, daddy-o." And in hearing the shade of Don Van Vliet in Thomas' musette blasts.

Turning the record over -- tactile experience is important here -- and we're afloat on "Spooky"'s waves of crashing minor chords, over which Thomas croaks an ode to a girl with "some funny kinds of ways." "Coopy (Schrodinger's Refrigerator)," the first single from the album, boasts a killer riff and more slash-and-burn guitar in support of Thomas' most dynamic vocal here. "Hawk Full of Soul" is an exercise in dynamics, with Lamont Thomas singing and shaking a tambourine behind Thomas, like a 21st century CLE punk version of Sam and Dave.

"Read It and Weep," written and sung by Bell, dates back to the original RFTT's last show but was curiously omitted from previous archival releases. And "Parking Lot At the Rainbow's End" closes the show on a suitably ambivalent note ("I'm going to be the one changing the tires for you"). Here and throughout, the chorus of voices puts me in mind of the one on the first MC5 album.

It's heartening to hear the sound of men who took up instruments to achieve catharsis 40 years ago and are still carrying the fire in their bellies today. Great bands don't need to break up. Ever. They just don't have to play together all the time.

ADDENDUM: B'deah, I'm an idiot. Lyrics are here.


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