Reduced by one guitar, the now-foursome Fuzz Manta made their return earlier in 2011 with the sophomore outing, Opus II, on CD and vinyl through Gateway Music. I wasn’t a huge fan of their 2009 Smokerings debut, finding it mostly generic but for the standout vocals of soulful frontwoman Lene Kjaer Hvillum, but with Opus II, the Copenhagen natives bring more elements of classic rock and blues to complement their natural-sounding fuzz, and the results are surprisingly impressive across the eight songs. Hvillum is still in the lead role and provides the album its several high points, but being down a guitar has forced Fuzz Manta to be more creative stylistically, and the added organ work of Jesper Bo Hansen melds gorgeously with the band’s sound. Hansen appears on three tracks – the early “Man with No Face” and side B’s closing duo “Corrosion” and “Let Me Walk” – adding rich melody alongside the vintage-style distortion of Frederik Jensen’s guitar and letting bassist Morten Clod-Svensson and drummer/recording engineer Pelle Moltke have room to flesh out the grooves in the rhythm section – which they don’t seem to have much trouble doing anyway, even on the songs without organ. As the album gets moving with opener “Motumann,” the shifts in their aesthetic are almost immediately apparent.
The groove is primary. The guitars and bass insistent. The drums forceful. The vocals perfectly cadenced. Fuzz Manta, from the very first minute of Opus II, sound like a more confident, more stylistically nuanced and more individual band than they did on Smokerings. “Motumann” strikes early with one of the record’s catchiest choruses, and offers a subdued break in its middle that foreshadows some of Opus II’s bluesier material. They cut the tempo behind Jensen’s solo and nod toward doom without ever really getting there or losing their rock sensibility, and through it all and the final chorus return, Clod-Svensson and Moltke sound like they could go anywhere with ease. That proves fortunate as “Man with No Face” begins with tempo and riff cadence similar to Deep Purple’s “Strange Kind of Woman” – Hansen’s organ only furthering the comparison as it works in Jon Lord-esque tandem with Jensen’s guitar. The bridge layers in acoustic guitar among the electric and organ, bass and drums, as Hvillum reiterates and reinterprets the chorus with jazzy flow. It’s not surprising when the rush returns and the song returns to its verse/chorus pattern, but the solo section and final chorus satisfy anyway in a way they might not have on Smokerings, and as if to confirm the growth of Fuzz Manta’s songwriting, the mostly acoustic “Quiet Monday” balances a breathy Stevie Nicks delivery from Hvillum over folksy Led Zeppelin picking and percussion. While the turn in approach might seem abrupt and maybe cutting short the momentum the first two tracks have built up, in the context of heavy ‘70s traditionalism, it makes more sense and sets up the riffier side A finale, “Lithia’s Box” to seem that much heavier with its layered rhythm and solo guitars, which gradually give way to Opus II’s first showing of the jam, where Clod-Svensson’s running bass makes me most regret the fadeout that cuts the song at 8:39.
But for the closer, the songs on side B are shorter, and, if “Turn Around” is anything to go by, darker. Jensen’s guitar feels more spacious and foreboding in the verse, thicker in the chorus and even when Clod-Svensson submerges his bass in a host of effects for the bridge, there remains something malevolent in the guitar line. The song is still catchy, but where “Motumann” had semi-retro fuzz, “Turn Around” borders on jangly, noisy crunch in its tonality. “White and More” is instantly familiar, but perhaps only to itself, demonstrating an immediacy that much of Opus II avoids in favor of a more studied approach to rock classicism. It feels rushed, but rushed on purpose, and Hvillum’s vocals come on as more blown-out, which meshes well with the guitar’s turn back to fuzz. Lead lines set a stoner metal vibe early on, and the hits later might confirm it, but Hvillum’s matching Jensen’s lead is straight blues (and an element reprised from the first album). Nonetheless, the heaviness is there, and though it might seem like a leap to go from “Turn Around” to “White and More,” Fuzz Manta are able to tie it together as they move into the Grand Funk-y beginning of the end with “Corrosion.” Hansen revives his organ role – sounds more like piano, actually – and Moltke hits the wood block during the chorus for what winds up being Opus II’s shortest track, and the band follows the by-now-established pattern of an otherwise disparate break bringing back the verse and chorus to end. If Fuzz Manta’s songwriting is still under development, there’s still growth to be had, but closer “Let Me Walk” shows them at their bluesiest yet, keeping Hansen’s organ limited in relation to the work of the guitar, bass and drums, and expanding on their ideas with a freedom and poise that speaks to the real potential of their craft.
Right around three minutes in, “Let Me Walk” opens itself with cymbal washes and tom runs from Moltke into a lengthy heavy psychedelic blues that feels like an extension of some of the ideas earlier presented on “Lithia’s Box.” Moltke takes his time in setting the mood with some guitar noise behind, and when the smoky riff starts back up at 4:45, its groove is worthy of Brant Bjork and Hvillum adjusts her delivery to match. She is the consummate frontwoman here and feels like she’s directing the band as much as she’s topping the music with her vocals. Jensen’s guitar is appropriately loose and allows Hansen’s flourishes to do exactly that, a gradual build finding culmination shortly before the grand finish to both the song and album. Opus II ends with organ where I might want guitar or even the drums, since they play such a prominent role in “Let Me Walk,” but after the 11 minutes of the song, it’s an insignificant gripe. Fuzz Manta reportedly have another album – titled Vortex Memplex – already finished that they’re looking to get out before the end of 2011, so it shouldn’t be too long before seeing how they progress with the ideas they present here, but if it winds up as a step along a row of footprints, Opus II will still be integral to the understanding of the band’s development, and much more importantly, it rocks. My expectations were relatively low after Smokerings, but it seems the changes Fuzz Manta have undergone in the last few years have left them much stronger as a unit and more cohesive in their attack. I won’t approach Vortex Memplex with any such reservations.
Tags: Copenhagen, Denmark, Fuzz Manta, Gateway Music