Fu Manchu are one of the most reliable brands in rock’n’roll. Dependable, quality, and always there for all your fuzzed-the-hell-out riffing needs. After eleven albums over nearly 25 years, their staying power is proven and justified. You’ve done something right if you’ve survived this long. Pickier listeners might gripe about a lack of diversity in their output, and that’s a totally fair assessment. After all, their catalogue is nothing but no frills, ass-kickin’ hard rock with nary a dud in the bunch. I find their consistency impressive and reassuring in the sense that I can put on any of their records at random and be satisfied for about 40 minutes. Fortunately, Clone of the Universe fits right in alongside both classics like The Action is Go or King of the Road and their great 2014 release Gigantoid. Still, we can’t avoid the important questions at hand: Is the album worthwhile? (I’ll give you a hint – yes.) Is the album necessary to their catalogue, or is this an important record in terms of understanding the band as a whole? Well, let’s take a look…
Let me tell you what you (probably) already know. Clone of the Universe is a hot box of dank riffs stacked up on one another like cordwood. Scott Hill’s vocal delivery is still all kinds of California cool, spinning tales about space and other shit that simply rocks a hook. Bob Balch is again warping your face with the wah-wah and maniacally driving his solos around like he tossed a cinder block on the gas pedal and is steering with his toes. Drummer Scott Reeder deals classic rock-era beats that are equal parts efficient groove and heavyweight-strength body blows. Bassist Brad Davis keeps the Fu motor humming, thumping out some savory licks here and there. So yeah, it’s all very par for the course. There’s no radical changes to their core sound short of marginally improved songwriting. Fu Manchu just do what they do best, blast super-tight stoner jams that all but guarantee you’ll be air-guitaring with Cheeto fingers.
It all makes for their most distinguished release since 2002’s California Crossing. Though much of Clone of the Universe is mid-tempo cruise control, they’ve struck a powerful combo of density in tone and composition in a decidedly vinyl-friendly arrangement. The first half of the album’s 37-minute runtime is eaten up by tracks that hover around the magic three minute mark. They’re fun, they rock super fuckin’ hard, and most importantly, it’s hard to tire of ‘em. “Intelligent Worship” is a So-Cal take on robo rock rounded out with cowbell breaks, where the latter third devolves into a solo-packed stoner rock standard. “Slower Than Light” brings about one of the thickest, trippiest, bluesiest slabs of their career and with a riff so fuzzy it just might be a recording of a zipper (YKK just might be the new Big Muff…). The title track showcases a signature groove that lathers up into a blustering fury, taking things up a notch from the original recipe. At four minutes, “Nowhere Left to Hide” gets a little long in the tooth compared to the gear-shifting roars of everything else, but still refuses to get self-indulgent or bloated. Still, the formula has been adjusted enough to stop this from becoming “just another” Fu Manchu album – guitar tones are (somehow) fatter, songwriting is tighter, and they lean more syrupy Sabbath than speedy punk.
As if that wasn’t enough (honestly, it is), the B-side is where things get very different. Consisting of a single 18-minute track, “Il Mostro Atomico” is a gargantuan unlike we’ve ever heard from the group. Featuring a guest spot from Rush’s Alex Lifeson, the album actualizes it’s very huge, space-y, and very heavy nature (with what’s gotta be Balch’s most grating tone ever), pushing things to another level. Resembling something of a longform Earthless epic, it’s mostly instrumental (vocals don’t show up until halfway through and don’t stay for long), ripping through four phases with an abundance of resinous grooves and psyched-out solos. Lifeson’s solos add real flavor and recognizable atmosphere to the track; the pairing doesn’t sound as oddball as it may look on paper. The cosmic forays tap into that heady retro-Rush zone as well as they accentuate the sky-high concept of the record. It’s a treat to hear a band that’s honed their chops on shorter tracks execute something of this size off so well. They sound right at home, and it has me jonesin’ for more. It’s an awesome way to foil side A’s rippers, and it just feels more album-y than most of their recent output. If this this where the band continues to grow, we might be looking at a new chapter of Fu Manchu, so don’t skip it.
Clone of the Universe is available February 9 on At the Dojo Records wherever albums are sold.