Rock & Roll isn't brain surgery, and Orange County's Fu Manchu is the band that proves it. Their kind of low-end, primordial Metal, dubbed "Stoner Rock," is growing in popularity, though it's not going to be the new Grunge or Ska or Swing or Polka. But the fact that the somewhat predictable squalls of Fu Manchu's fifth album, King of the Road, kick the ass of Metallica, Buckcherry, Limp Bizkit and Korn is reason enough to believe in Heavy Metal again.
Like Trip Hop groups and Emocore bands, Stoner Rockers tend to beg off the label they've been given. It's a descriptive term though. This kind of Metal isn't about screaming falsettos or blazing scale guitar solos: It's about creating a fuzzy riff and deep bottom end and pummeling them into oblivion. Add in wah-wah and psychedelic guitar effects, cowbells and songs with semi-cryptic lyrics ("The more we see, the more we know") or paeans to cars and, voila: Music that sounds like it should be pouring out of a smoke-filled custom van.
Fu Manchu bassist Brad Davis is ambivalent at best about the tag.
"I remember when we first heard it we thought it was kind of funny," he says. "I always thought of us as being more of a straight-up Rock band.
I'd consider Ween to be a Stoner Rock band a million times more than Fu Manchu. The only thing that I don't like is that it implies that you would have to be stoned to enjoy it. Whatever."
Undiluted Hard Rock is hard to find. Most of it has been flavored by Hip Hop or watered-down by hair-styling products and power ballads. Not so with the Stoner Rock, which starts with a foundation of Delta Blues, British Metal and Punk Rock. Like an evolution from Neanderthal to late-Neanderthal, there is a simple and direct path that Fu Manchu and like-minded bands Nebula, Queens of the Stone Age and Fireball Ministry grow from: Blue Cheer to The Stooges to Black Sabbath to Kiss to The Melvins to Monster Magnet to Kyuss. There's some Grunge in the Stoner Rock stew as well, even if it's Sabbath filtered through Nirvana.
"I think it would be harder for this kind of Rock music to rear its head if it had been dead for a really long time, but all of those (Grunge) bands really reminded everybody that that music rocks," Davis says.
Fu Manchu is at the center of the Stoner Rock web, old men of the scene as it were. Formed in 1990, the band has carved its initials in the desk with songs about cars, bizarre science fiction and Bigfoot. Since being kicked out of the group in 1996, Eddie Glass and Ruben Romano have formed the similar-sounding Nebula. And drummer Brant Bjork comes from the now-defunct and legendary Kyuss, joining Fu Manchu in 1996 after producing their 1994 No One Rides For Free LP. Davis was added to the group the same year.
"In Orange County there are no real Rock bands," Davis says. "It was kind of a freakish thing, playing this kind of Rock. We'd write the kinds of songs that we liked, what kind of music we wanted to hear. That's still what we do now. As far as how we stand with the other bands and stuff, we don't really think about what's going on with other bands."
But Fu Manchu tip their hand that they aren't dumbasses with more bongs than brains when the record closes with a cover of "Freedom of Choice." With Bjork's kick drum tuned so low it sounds like an aluminum bat hitting a waterbed and singer Scott Hill and Bob Balch's murky, over-distorted guitars carpet-bombing the melody, "Freedom of Choice" is only just a bit more Pop than the rest of the record. There aren't any other overt New Wave moments; Manchu are too smart and powerful to lighten up more than once. But clearly there are some New Wave records in with the group's collection of Blue Cheer vinyl.
That doesn't mean that Fu Manchu are intellectuals posing ironically as heshers. They may enjoy nuances in the privacy of their own homes but, as a group, they are just as good at being juvenile. "No Dice" 's hook was inspired from a scene in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. There's enough guitar wank for the average Metal guy to be hooked, but the song is honest and unpretentious, even when Hill recites "No shoes, no shirt, no dice," in a surfer drawl. Musically, it falls somewhere between Foghat's "Slow Ride" and Soundgarden, with a syruplike distortion that covers everything and that won't come out of the carpet if you spill it.
Davis points out how Manchu differs from more traditional Metal groups.
"Any part of the Fu Manchu, there's a sense of humor at work," he says. "We're definitely not a serious band. We're not going to write a song about wizards and then stand on stage and give everybody dirty looks. We'd be Dio then. We should write one song about wizards and dragons, just for the hell of it. I always wanted to do a bass solo with a cape on, flying through the air in one of those harnesses shooting lightning from my bass neck."
Limiting themselves to one cover tune per record, King of the Road's title track isn't the Roger Miller song, but a monster of (what else?) thick riffs. The rare fast-tempoed number propels the song out of the somewhat lethargic mood of the record for a quick blast of energy. Handclaps and the chanted line, "King of the road says you move too slow," build to a bashing, driving, near-double time coda, bringing the Metal to the heavy.
So what does the bassist for the auto-obsessed band drive?
"You'll never know," he demurs. "Once we make enough money for us to buy cool cars, then I'll tell you all about it, but it's going to remain a mystery. I can tell you what Brant drives — a '65 Impala. He gets pulled over every three miles."
FU MANCHU will be at Annie's on Tuesday with Anthrax.