King of the Road
There are, of course, the great intro riffs: Sabbath's "Iron Man," Led Zep's "Whole Lotta Love," B.*Ouml;.C.'s "(Don't Fear) The Reaper," Neil Young's "Cinnamon Girl." Oft copped, rarely topped. Instinctively grasping this, Fu Manchu delivers a brand of high-octane, hard-pounding psychedelia that's instantly recognizable and absolutely memorable. The band excels in those chordal repetitions that pummel the pleasure centers of the brain.
"Stoner rock" is one of the more appropriate genre appellations. It instantly suggests sound, attitude, and lifestyle. Think Kyuss, Queens of the Stone Age, and Nebula -- the last, of course, featuring three former Fu's. Since forming a decade ago, Fu Manchu has endured several major lineup shuffles, the most recent 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 SubPop 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.
The new lineup's follow-up, King of the Road, has a buzzing, primal, Tubes-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-guitar Southern blues called "Boogie Van." (Lest you accuse the band of indulging in cheap imagery, the CD booklet is littered with fetishistic closeups of the aforementioned vehicle in all its detailed, tucked, rolled, and leather-interiored glory.)
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 remakes in its singular image. Here, as with most of Fu's material, vocalist Hill doesn't so much sing his words as bark them out, like manifestos. For Hill, lyrics are riffs, too.
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 a 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 Fu. -- Fred Mills