Photo by Alex SolcaIt's easy to dismiss Fu Manchu as rock's answer to That '70s Show. I did until two years ago, when I caught their set at an Austin, Texas, record shop. They hauled in gargantuan amps better suited to the Arrowhead Pond than the confines of a tiny retail store; the mere sight of them had several people scrounging tissues and napkins for makeshift earplugs. When Fu tuned up and finally blasted off with "Hell on Wheels," the tympanic crunch was so ungodly brutal that it shook loose years-old dust clumps from the shop's ceiling fans, crap that sifted down like gray snowflakes onto the crowd during the 45 or so minutes they played; another 15 minutes and the windows would've gone, too. When a band has the raw aural power to perform free janitorial services, how can anyone not walk away impressed?
Not much has changed in the intervening years, a fact for which fans are grateful. Other than flirting occasionally with melody, Fu Manchu's new album, California Crossing, offers nothing new—no strange forays into synthesizer swooshes or tuneless rapcore, no digitized doot-doots or 160 bpm boompa-boompas. Anything other than the Fu's usual skull-busting Deep Purple/Motrhead/Sabbath riffage, and the steadily growing cult of Fu purists would turn into a lynch mob.
Fu Manchu are OC's most naturally heavy semifamous band (as famous as they can be without steady radio and MTV airplay), "natural" because they don't pose—no furrowed brows, wifebeater tanks and lyrics about neglectful daddies to prove how hard they are. They pretty much just stand there onstage, four guys impassively grinding out excruciatingly loud, painful-even-with-earplugs music, peppered with '70s retro lyrics about pool skating, surfing, El Caminos, Mongoose BMX bikes, wasteoids, the beach, driving around, Dogtown, UFOs and vans—both the Chevy and the slip-on shoe.
A lot of people call this sort of thing "stoner rock," partly because it's the kind of sonic sludge that creates Jeff Spicolis and partly because—until he recently clipped his long blond locks into a Jackson Browne bowl cut—singer Scott Hill looked like Spicoli. (The Fu haven't helped their cause much by willingly playing into the Fast Times at Ridgemont High paradigm. "No Dice," a track from their last album, King of the Road, used a memorable image from the film—a sign that reads "no shirt, no shoes, no dice"—as its hook.)
It's music to fire up a thousand bongs to, and it's very un-Orange County—about as remote from the pop sounds of Sugar Ray, No Doubt and Lit as the band's San Clemente base is geographically distant from the rest of the county. These are not spiky-haired, camera-ready pretty boys. Hill, bassist Brad Davis, guitarist Bob Balch and new drummer Scott Reeder (late of Smile, replacing Brant Bjork, who's run off to join Queens of the Stone Age) are sweaty, jeans-wearing laborers who seem most comfortable throwing down simple, soul-cleansing, no-frills, balls-out rock & roll. Retro? Recall the words of William Faulkner: "The past isn't dead. It isn't even past."
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Fu Manchu perform with fluf at Detroit Bar, 843 W. 19th St., Costa Mesa, (949) 642-0600. Thurs., Jan. 24, 9 p.m. $6. 21+.