Music News

Fu Manchu

There are, of course, the great intro riffs: Sabbath's "Iron Man," Led Zep's "Whole Lotta Love," B.O.C.'s "(Don't Fear) The Reaper," Neil Young's "Cinnamon Girl," etc. Oft copped, rarely topped. Instinctively grasping this, Fu Manchu still manages to elbow some room with a brand of high-octane, hard-pounding psychedelia that's instantly recognizable and absolutely memorable by virtue of the fact that the band excels in those crunching chordal repetitions that deliver the message directly to the pleasure centers of the brain.

"Stoner rock," by any other name, is one of the more appropriate genre appellations to be employed by critics and fans alike since "industrial" in how it quickly suggests sound, attitude and lifestyle. Think Kyuss, Queens of the Stone Age, and Nebula -- the latter, of course, featuring three former Fu's. Since forming a decade ago, Fu Manchu has endured several major lineup shuffles, the most recent one being the departure of lead guitarist Eddie Glass and drummer Ruben Romano following 1996's In Search Of . . . album. The pair would go on to hook up with bassist Mark Abshire, also a Fu alumnus, to form Nebula, which has earned its share of ink in recent months following the release of its Sub Pop debut late last year. (To say that the split was acrimonious is an understatement; every time the subject comes up in an interview, both the Nebula and Fu Manchu camps dismiss the other's current output as lightweight. Hey, dudes, can't we, like, get along? Here, have a toke . . .) This left Fu vocalist Scott Hill and bassist Brad Davis to regroup, signing on guitarist Bob Balch and drummer Brant Bjork for 1997's The Action Is Go.

Now comes the new lineup's follow-up, King of the Road, co-produced by the band and Joe Barresi (Queens of the Stone Age) and recorded at Masters of Reality main man Chris Goss' Palm Desert studio. The album has a buzzing, primal, tube-era ambiance to it, the kind of sound that intentionally causes distortion when cranked up on the home stereo. The better to Marshall Amp ya, my friends.

Things kick-start with a thick, Hawkwindlike wall o' riffs, and after "Hell on Wheels" finishes spitting flames, it's off down the road into the great open yonder. There's an anthem grander and more visceral than Grand Funk's signature "Are You Ready?" called "Over the Edge" and a slab of potent slide-git Southern blooze given the appropriately '70s-esque title "Boogie Van." (Lest you accuse the band of indulging cheap imagery, the CD booklet is littered with fetishistic close-ups of the aforementioned vehicle in all its detailed, tucked, rolled and leather-interiored glory. It's also prominently featured, along with assorted muscle cars, in the "King of the Road" video, included with some heavy-duty CD-ROM multimedia components installed on the disc.)

There's the exultant Blue Cheer maneuvering in the title cut and the Skynyrd-meets-Alice Cooper thumper "Hotdoggin." There's even an inexplicable (on paper, at least) cover of Devo's "Freedom of Choice," which, in true riff-rock fashion, Fu Manchu totally remakes in its singular image. Here, as with most of Fu's material, vocalist Hill doesn't so much sing his words as he blurts them out, like manifestos to adopt and employ ("Freedom -- of -- choice -- is what you've got!"), waving that freak flag high. For Hill, it seems, lyrics are riffs, too.

Great riffs are, well, they're like what some folks say about art, how you don't know what kind of art you like but you know it when you see it. You know great riffs when you encounter 'em, know instinctively that they're great. Great to hear 'em ringing in your ears, great to feel 'em churning in your gut. And, it should be duly noted, Fu Manchu has an additional secret weapon: Not only does the band plow into those killer intros, it signals the songs' ends in similar -- highly effective -- fashion. None of those namby-pamby fade-outs or how-do-we-end-this-song abrupt endings. Every tune goes out in a blaze of riffs. In hot-rod parlance, this is known as "shutting down the competition." All hail the great Fu.

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Fred Mills