Fu Manchu

 

Fu Manchu, Dusted Angel

Who’da thunk that a band that celebrates the laissez-faire SoCal ethos of “whatever, dude … let’s go surfin’/boarding/drivin'” could find itself releasing twelve albums and completing hundreds of gigs around the globe over the course of its 27-year history? Not a bad effort for guys whose fashion sense often seems wedded to the 1980s Ocean Pacific surfwear they still jam on-stage. Yet there’s a stubbornness too that has always seemed to work in San Clemente-based rockers Fu Manchu’s favour.

Openers Dusted Angel are even more aged than our headliners, some of whom are alumni of cult Santa Cruz crew Bl’ast. They still have some bite, for a bunch of guys who cut their teeth on hardcore back in the ’80s and probably don’t have a whole lot of them left to chew with. Angry, shouty stuff in the style of Nick Oliveri’s Mondo Generator, but with some freaky/spacey moments that make you think they probably listen to Monster Magnet or Kyuss in their van.

It certainly appears as if Fu Manchu’s loyal fans are ready to keep cheering them on, and it’s a packed house/Friday-night sellout at familiar stomping ground the Troubadour. Ambling on to the stage, tuning their own gear, the group is as unpretentious as ever, shaking hands with longtime admirers/pals, as their family members take their seats in the rafters. Frontman Scott Hill and wife Nickie have brought their pre-teen daughter to see the group tonight, and Hill will mention which songs in the set his dear Daisy likes best. But first up, the intro music plays over the PA, and immediately anyone who remembers the ’80s is unable to keep from grinning: It’s “Somebody’s Baby” by Jackson Browne, a tune forever linked with the teenage-high-jinks classic FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH. But that ends the “bouncy pop” section of the evening, as the four musicians tear into the title track from brand-new album CLONE OF THE UNIVERSE; a three-segmented beast that goes from fast, to slow, to fast again.

One element that’s always defined the Orange County band is the powerhouse drumming it’s received from past time-keepers. We’re now 14 years into the band’s “Scott Reeder era,” and the drummer has helped steer Fu Manchu into new territory, with mixed results. The five albums made with Reeder have seen them move from a heavy-Seventies sound to a jagged post-hardcore landscape, where cowbells are verboten and lyrics tend to address the outer reaches of the stratosphere instead of the big block engine of a muscle car. This has led to such albums as WE MUST OBEY, SIGNS OF INFINITE POWER, and GIGANTOID, which found Fu Manchu compressing their sonic boundaries into shorter and sharper bursts of riffs and fury, yet often finding themselves on shaky footing. CLONE, however, is easily its finest collection in more than a decade, and the band’s confidence in the new material is palpable.

Not that they’ve completely left the poetry of the highway behind … far from it. The songs that get the best response of the night from the audience are all about splitting the road in two and pushing the land speed record’s envelope: “Eatin’ Dust,” “California Crossing,” “Hell on Wheels” and–the biggest crowd-pleaser of them all–“King of the Road” still convey a universal sense of freedom through velocity … even in an age of Uber and Lyft.

Live, Hill is still the focal point, with his lengthy ’70s mane and clear Plexiglass Dan Armstrong guitar (drool!). But Bob Balch … give the man credit for style, energy and substance. The guitarist has gone from a shy presence live to a rousing, attention-grabbing soloist bar none. Brad Davis, an unassuming player in the Tim Sult mould, who has also played with Clutch in recent years, keeps the sound tight and heavy, as Reeder bashes his kit like the bastard offspring of John Bonham and Dale Crover.

Not everything flies as well as the mongoose: to these ears,  “Dimension Shifter” has never sounded like anything more than a rough draft of a song, and, frankly, “Weird Beard” is getting tiresome, and doesn’t deserve such a place of reverence, so deep into the set as it is positioned. But those two are dwarfed by an airing of the new 18-minute and utterly riff-tastic “Il Mostro Atomico,” and the humongous set-closer “Saturn III”; still spine-tingling after all these years when the group hit the “Time to release the hatch!” break.

After tonight, a lengthy tour of Europe awaits, and then more dates in the U.S. will occur before they can get back to the beach. They might be getting up there in years, but few in the clubs still rock as well as the Fu.

JOSHUA SINDELL

Fu Manchu set list, Feb. 9, 2018 (Troubadour)
Clone of the Universe
Evil Eye
Eatin’ Dust
California Crossing
(I’ve Been) Hexed
Coyote Duster
Hell on Wheels
Mongoose
Nowhere Left to Hide
Dimension Shifter
Strato-Streak
King of the Road
Il Mostro Atomico

Encore: Weird Beard
Saturn III