Wow, southern California must really be great. With the possible exceptions of New York City and the American South, there isn’t any specific geographic region that’s more frequently or vigorously mythologized in rock than SoCal. The Beach Boys canonized their suburban home of Hawthorne, Calif., however unwittingly, as a sort of earthly paradise where any half-witted teen boy with decent arm muscles could have his pick from legions of slavering beach chicks at corner burger stands. The Doors portrayed the beach community of Venice as a bohemian free-for-all where one could channel minstrel pagan deities by way of Beat writers if he walked around in a lysergic stupor long enough. And Black Flag depicted an oppressive urban gulag where a punk could hardly cross La Cienega Boulevard without being beaten down and ritualistically tortured by terrifying, homophobic redneck LAPD mercenaries.
Fu Manchu readily acknowledges all of these portrayals, but consistently hems closer to the late-’70s, “CHiPs” mythos of southern California: the first wave of skateboarding and the era of the tricked-out vans with bubble windows and wall-to-wall carpeting, an airbrushed painting of an eagle soaring into the sunset on the side. It was a time when L.A. changed from a burgeoning orchard into a full-on Valley of the Sybarites, where chest hair was a commodity and kids from the inland suburbs were digging on Sabbath and Grand Funk Railroad and getting wasted at parties in the desert while bands played into the night, powered by generators.
Guitarist/vocalist and founding member Scott Hill hardly looks old enough to have absorbed any of this firsthand, so his grasp of the late ’70s L.A. zeitgeist seems to have been shaped by episodes of “Three’s Company” and seeing an older cousin’s band do lousy renditions of the Edgar Winter Group’s “Frankenstein” in between bong hits in the garage. However he may have come across it, the SoCal aesthetic in Fu Manchu is all-encompassing, so much so that he even looks the part with his long greasy hair and sagging pants, although it may be more of a caricature of the real thing, like the characters in Dazed and Confused. With the exception of 1997’s The Action Is Go, each and every one of their seven albums has featured a van, muscle car, or dune buggy on its cover.
Their debut, 1993’s No One Rides For Free, sounds like it was recorded in a janitor’s closet with a single Hello Kitty microphone dangling from the ceiling. They slog through eight turgid tracks worth of low-grade Sabbath idolatry, but not without showcasing Hill’s undeniable knack for out-Iommiing even Tony Iommi by coming up with evermore pulverizing riffles. The follow-up, 1995’s Daredevil, reveals their sound and aesthetic to be fully realized; it’s a masterpiece of daisy-chained vintage fuzz pedals cranked up to stupid, guitars tuned down and entire step and stoner speak-singing on such variegated topics as pinball and drag racing.
Likewise 96’s In Search Of…, which features the anthemic “The Falcon Has Landed,” a five-minute low-end dirge with the guitar signal so distorted it barely creaks out of the speakers. Several other songs on the album make prominent use of a cowbell á la “Don’t Fear The Reaper,” a fitting stylistic touch that is employed quite often on future releases.
The Action Is Go (1997) is a hit-or-miss double album, a result of a band struggling to maintain its persona, but it’s also the first album with former Kyuss drummer/producer Brant Bjork and teenage guitar whiz Bob Balch replacing Ruben Romano and Eddie Glass (both now in Nebula), respectively. Balch steps up to the plate and exceeds all expectations with his mastery of guitar histrionics, and Bjork is precisely the powerhouse drummer they needed to morph them into a destructive and menacing live band. This new lineup also finds Fu Manchu getting into lengthy quieted psychedelic passages with delay-pedal loops and vocals that sound like they’re being sung in an aquarium.
Eatin’ Dust (1999) eschews the much slicker production of its predecessor, but serves to prove that Fu Manchu’s increasing and unrelenting heaviness is not merely the product of a crafty producer, but rather of a well-oiled band dynamic and shrewd song craftsmanship (and vintage distortion pedals, no doubt). Featuring a well-chosen and deftly executed cover of Blue Oyster Cult’s “Godzilla,” Eatin’ Dust is as good an album as you’ll find in the genre of so-called “stoner rock” that seems to have been created around bands like Kyuss and Fu Manchu, as well as Fu Manchu spin-off bands like Nebula and Atomic Bitchwax.
King of the Road (2000) returns to the professional-sounding production, and features the Fu Manchu manifesto “Boogie Van,” in keeping with the vanning theme featured on its hilarious cover photo. While not an outstanding or groundbreaking record, it does bridge the gap between its less accessible predecessors to appeal to a less aesthetically-attuned listenership. It also allowed the band to be cross-marketed to metal fans and landed them a 2000 tour with Anthrax and Motorhead. And the cover of Devo’s “Freedom of Choice” never hurts.
A new album titled California Crossing was slated for a November 2001 release but has been delayed until February. Also in November it was announced that drummer Brant Bjork was leaving the band, not wishing to commit to a lengthy tour supporting the album. No word yet on who his replacement might be.
Fu Manchu’s show in Missoula will also feature the mighty Lazerwolfs, alocal trio that recently acquired the guitar services of Jimmy “Rock And F***ing” Rolle. Jimmy is a youthful guitar prodigy and recording studio owner who was part of Trabang, a local Fu Manchu tribute band a couple years back, and herewith challenges Bob Balch to a Crossroads-style guitar showdown. Should be ugly.
Fu Manchu plays the Buck’s Club Sunday, Feb.3 with special guests Headstrong and Lazerwolfs. Tickets are $10 in advance, $12 at the door.