Vocalist Johnny Ott, guitarist Jimmy Ray, and drummer D.T. Graves (on and off) have been in The Cryptkeeper Five since its 1997 origin, with many different supporting players over the years. The trio played music together in a band called Navalistic Death before the Cryptkeeper Five as well. Johnny’s first CK5-leaning lyrics were for a song called “Black Death A Go-Go.” At the outset, the group was a “straight ahead punk rock band,” according to D.T. Their first album, Dear Dr. X… I Wanna be The Creature (1997), not only reflects this musical direction, but also was characterized lyrically by a preoccupation with “B-movies.”
The band’s name would appear to be a blended reference to the fictional “crypt-kicker five” from the Monster Mash, and the host of EC Comics’ Tales from the Crypt. However, Ott has stated that this was only a subconscious influence and that the name was instead a horror rock update of the pop/rock “Fives,” such as Dave Clark Five and Jackson Five. Unlike those groups, CK5’s name does not refer to the number of band members, which has fluctuated from between three and seven musicians.
CK5 have toured extensively along the U.S. East Coast and Midwest since their formation, and continue to play many dates to this day. The current lineup includes Johnny Ott (vocals/guitar), Jimmy Ray (guitar/vocals), D.T. Graves (drums/vocals), Mikey G (bass guitar/vocals), and Brian Mazzarini (drums).
When it comes to influential terms, The Cryptkeeper Five has a strange but useful set of heroes. In addition to the Ramones and the Misfits, the band counts Bruce Springsteen, Roy Orbison, and Tom Petty among its musical influences.
Their bio goes on to say that while other punk rock and horror punk bands have produced a blend of 1950s rock and Ramones/Misfits-inspired punk, CK5 is unique for introducing a sax—including Jersey rock element to that mix. In a 2002 interview, drummer D. T. Graves said of the music which inspires them: “All the great genres of rock- 50’s rock, the girl groups of the 60’s, the 70’s punk, Jersey shore rock… all tend to rely on the same qualities. They tap into something that makes your heart skip a beat or two, the magical quality.”
Their sound has inspired some colorful descriptions. Some commenters have come up with “Elvis does the Monster Mash,” and, “Jerry Lee Lewis (singing) for the Misfits”; another reviewer chose a somewhat more contemporary reference, writing, “imagine Danzig fronting Rocket from the Crypt.”
With all that in mind, I recently spoke with manager Joey Affatato, and he sent me the music to take a listen to. Let’s take a look at the topsy turvy world of The Cryptkeeper Five.
“Maddog” kicks things off with a huge chorus of vocals and guitar magic. Grungy but precise, the band makes way for singer Johnny Ott to lay his mid-toned groundwork. Ott is a pure singer in the vein of Stan Ridgway. Dark and brooding lyrics mix with a mid-tempo vocal attack. I like the arrangement of the song as well. It starts off strong and dips and dives in all the right places. I especially like the clean and chugging guitars (courtesy of Johnny Ott and Jimmy Ray) who drive this song. Rock steady drums and bass nail this quirky, rock and roll composition to the proverbial floor. Parts all fall into place and help make this addictive sound a surefire classic from this Jersey band.
“Balboa” is up next and immediately brings up images of The Beach Boys and The Gaslight Anthem. Thunderous drumming (courtesy of D.T. Graves or Brian Mazzarini) pound out the rhythm as bassist Mikey G shores things up alongside. I like the fact the everyone in the band sings and does it quite well. That’s something you don’t see a lot of these days. It’s usually the singer and maybe the bass player or guitar player but all these guys chip in. The song itself is anthemic and boisterous in nature, utilizing some interesting minor chord changes in the bridges and reminding me of some Willie Nile sounds. I wanted to mention the recording of this record as well, done by the ever-capable Sean Glonek (Julianna Hatfield, Frank Black) over at SRG Studios in Hamilton. I’ve reviewed several projects recorded by Sean, and he always knows just what to do to get things sounding just right. “Balboa” is no exception, and it makes for a great piece of music.
“The Black Clouds” is up next and takes a decidedly different turn while remaining within the musical grasp of the band. Crystal clean guitars and vocals kick things off as the band builds and everyone comes into the second verse with a powerful snap of rhythmic bliss. Lyrically speaking Ott is somewhat dark and I like it a lot. Guitar work is brilliant as washes of beautiful chords and picked sections bow to sharp trills that blow over the top of the piece like so much atmospheric meteor dust. Johnny Ott’s vocal tone is once again a perfect fit, and his melodic structure makes “The Black Cloud” a memorable song indeed.
Moving around a bit I came to a song called “Frankie.” Mixing the classic blend of Sonny Curtis of The Crickets with the powerful charge of Willie Nile’s House of a Thousand Guitars, Cryptkeeper Five throw down and deliver some bodacious rock and 1950s rhythm music on this song. Drums sound the alarm as handclaps stomp out the urgency of the following lyrics. Ott delivers his vocal charge straight down the middle as Mikey G pumps out the backbeat. Once the chorus hits, everything gets big. Ott and Ray tear things up and provide the meat for this addictive chorus. The subject matter is old-fashioned rock imagery at its best. Fighting the night away, Frankie and Johnny fought for their father’s approval. Great vocal choruses make this song a real contender in the big ring.
Another song I wanted to mention is “Ignite.” The Cryptkeeper Five ramp things up and take off at a fast pace for this song. Guitars grind and whirl, pushing out some fantastic lead work by Ray while the band holds things down with style. If you’re into bands like Against Me! you’re gonna love “Ignite.” The take no prisoners delivery mixes fast chords with meteoric drums and bass as Ott does his vocal thing. After all, all they want to do is set the world on fire, and “Ignite” puts them in an excellent position to get this done.
One last song I wanted to mention is “Two Headed Boy.” Melodic and structured to rise in the attack, the song starts out with rumbling drum patterns and guitar feedback under Ott’s smooth vocal presentation. The song features some powerful bridge work as well as memorable choruses that put this song into my top favorite category. Ott’s vocals are mixed perfectly on this record, and this is no exception. You can hear him above the band’s attack with no problem, and the overall effect is stunning and satisfying. The song outro features Ott’s vocal and acoustic guitars with just a hint of guitar feedback in the back of the mix. The band comes back one more time to lay its heavy wall of vocal choruses along the back of the tune as guitars, bass and drums and pianos serenade the vocalists into the end of the song.
There is a total of 11 songs on The Stronghold, and even though we’re out of space, I listened to the entire record and was gleefully happy with the result. The Cryptkeeper Five should move more than a few mountains with this disc, and the songs are all top-notch compositions that you’ll want to listen to again and again. I’d have to wholeheartedly agree with Johnny Ott who describes the record as “an unbending, unwavering, furious inability to admit defeat. It’s about earning one’s self-respect. It does not compromise.”
The next show as of this writing will be at The Bond Street Bar in Asbury Park with The Vansaders and Almost People on Aug. 11.
For more information on The Stronghold, head over to cryptkeeperfive.com to get info on ordering it right now.