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By Nathan Smith
King of the Road
Fu Manchu makes low-end, primordial metal, which is growing in popularity (though it's not going to be the new grunge or ska or swing or polka), if not originality. But the fact that some stuff on Fu Man's fifth album is louder, faster and better than shit from Metallica, Buckcherry, Limp Bizkit and Korn is reason enough to believe in heavy metal again.
Undiluted rock has been hard to find. Most rock is flavored by hip-hop or watered down by hair-styling products. Not so with stoner rock. Like evolving from Neanderthal to late-Neanderthal, Fu Manchu, and like-minded bands Nebula, Queens of the Stone Age and Fireball Ministry, has taken the following path: '60s fuzz-rock (Blue Cheer) to '70s metal (Black Sabbath) to late-'70s glam (KISS) to '80s punk (Melvins) to stoner rock (Kyuss, the father of all stoned-out rockers). Fu Manchu, which formed in 1990, is made up of former Kyuss drummer Brant Bjork, singer/guitarist Scott Hill, bassist Brad Davis and lead guitarist Bob Balch.
Fu Man's kind of metal isn't about falsetto screams or blazing-scale guitar solos. It's about taking a fuzzy riff and a bottom-end beat and pummeling them into oblivion. Add in some wa-wa and other psychedelic guitar effects, cowbells and songs with semicryptic lyrics and -- voil$agrave; -- you have music that sounds like it should be pouring out of a smoke-filled custom van.
But by closing King of the Road with a cover of Devo's "Freedom of Choice," Fu Manchu tips its hand that it isn't a group of dumbasses with more bongs than brains. In the song, Bjork's bass drum is tuned so low it sounds like a water bed being smashed with an aluminum bat, and Hill's and Balch's overdistorted guitars cloud the tune's main melody. Still, these sonic novelties are what make "Freedom of Choice" just a bit more pop than anything on the rest of the record. There are no other overtly new-wave moments here: Fu Manchu is too smart and powerful to lighten up more than once. But clearly there are some new-wave albums in these band members' record crates.
Which doesn't mean Fu Manchu is four intellectuals posing as smokers, either. King of the Road's title track isn't a campy take on the Roger Miller song, but a monster of thick riffs. This rare up-tempo number jolts the somewhat lethargic mood of the record. Hand claps and the chanted line "King of the road says you move too slow" build to a bashing, driving, near double-time coda. It's a shift from heavy gear into heavy metal gear.
Rock and roll isn't brain surgery, and here's the band that proves it. With Fu Manchu, you know what you're going to get when you hit the play button. And sometimes that's the most satisfying music there is.
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