Immediately notable for the simple fact that they come from China – by way of (where else?) Lawrenceville, New Jersey – the heavy power-rocking trio The Fever Machine have hooks to spare. The band call the material on their self-released debut full-length, Living in Oblivion, “schizo rock,” but I couldn’t disagree more. Nothing on these nine tracks is happening by mistake, and the Shanghai three-piece are never out of control, from the three-part vocal arrangement of opener “Hell Yeah” to the maddening infectiousness in the chorus of the finale “The Arouser.” Their songwriting is varied, which I think might be what they’re talking about with the self-imposed genre designation, but really, these songs are more put together than the imbalance a word like “schizo” implies. They effectively blend pop accessibility with a riff-rock edge and veer occasionally into punk (the bopping “Blind Faith”), rockabilly (the motoring “Out of Touch”) and even add flourishes of psychedelia to longer tracks like “Synesthesia” and “Don Pedro,” which offset the otherwise alternate-universe-radio-friendly bounce of some of the other material. Vocalist/guitarist Danny, bassist/vocalist Fabi and drummer/vocalist Miggs are maddeningly tight, and the production is likewise crisp and professional, starting with the drum beat reminiscent of “Hurricane” from Kyuss’ …And the Circus Leaves Town that launches into “Hell Yeah,” a song that, once it gets going, is poppy enough to make Torche blush. Still, that accessibility doesn’t come at the cost of any warmth of tone, and especially from Fabi, the bass fills are thick and excellently supplement the riffs to fill out The Fever Machine’s overall approach. There will be those for whom it’ll simply be too clean, too poppy, too perfect-sounding, but the level of craft on Living in Oblivion is undeniable, and for the vocal arrangements alone – they waste no time showing a taste for the à la Queens of the Stone Age lush in the second half of “Hell Yeah” – there’s much about the album that demands attention.
“Blind Faith” uses a start-stop intro and interplay between Danny and Miggs/Fabi to show off more purposefulness in 45 seconds than some bands show in their entire career, and like much of Living in Oblivion – if not all of it – the song that ensues is brimming with energy. At 3:22, it’s a classic radio hook, and “The Milfshake,” which follows, uses pretty much the same methodology in its start, even upping the presence of the bass groove. The difference, though, is “The Milfshake” is instrumental, allowing time to process the choruses that The Fever Machine have already put forth even as it branches out the sound with a second-half circus-style build that pays off in more echoing guitar and tonal hum from Fabi to bridge directly into the opening of “Dance with Deviance,” a landmark in the record’s 42-minute runtime. Once again, the band knows exactly what they’re doing, and there’s no mistaking the purposefulness of their push. Miggs double-times it on the hi-hat for the verse, and opens up to Songs for the Deaf-style punctuation during the chorus, which only makes it hit harder, and Danny’s vocals drive home lines second only to the closer in being memorable. It’s them at their most Queens of the Stone Age, perhaps, but it works. The guitar solo bridge has a personality of its own as well, and as “Synesthesia” follows with a slower, slide-infused groove, the band are pretty aware of balance. Danny’s and the backing vocals come out of sync in the chorus, and especially after the simple, thick, rolling groove of the verse, it’s just gorgeous as a payoff, earning its spot as the centerpiece of Living in Oblivion while, like “The Milfshake,” expanding the sonic reach of both the band and the album. The midsection solo/bridge picks up the pace, but at just under six minute, there’s more room in the song for The Fever Machine to take their time in getting back to the chorus, and they do, Fabi laying down some foundational jam lines in the process. It’s a smooth build, and not the last one on offer here.
Not that they ever really left the ground or anything like that, but “Out of Touch” resimplifies the structure and in so doing proves to be – like the rest of the album – impeccably placed in the tracklist. Another upbeat, poppy chorus is led along by Danny’s guitar, and though it’s not their most driving material, the song earns its place on the album by the time it’s over, helped by some righteous soloing and Miggs’ fill work. “Really Don’t Care,” which is the shortest track on Living in Oblivion at 2:44, cleans up the guitar strum to add a surf-style affect and brighter feel, but again, it’s the songwriting that’s the star of the show, and the dynamics are further underscored when the ringing acoustic notes and immediate motion of “Don Pedro” are filled out with slide guitar and Danny’s vocals. Handclaps, far-back guitars, thick bass, catchy chorus, catchy verse, catchy everything – “Don Pedro” holds it all at 7:37, and is executed with grace and a smoothness that surpasses even “Synesthesia” as the gradual shift takes place between the break and the resurgent chorus at the end. That there’s a formula in use isn’t the question – it’s what The Fever Machine are able to accomplish within these structures that makes the record successful. For about a minute into “The Arouser,” it seems like it’s just going to be an afterthought to the relative sprawl of “Don Pedro,” but there’s something just a little too insistent about Miggs’ bass drum that gives it away, and sure enough, at 1:09, the track picks up and embarks on one last brain-kicking hook: “”We live in fucked up places/We live in fucked up times/We go through fucked up phases/Pulling down the party line” and the ensuing lines about hailing the chief who’s just a liar and a thief, etc. Maybe it’s just because it’s the last, but there’s no doubt it’s the one that sticks with you after Living in Oblivion is over, backing “ooh” and “aahs” only making it more potent.
It’s not an easy thing to do for a band to make something obvious sound original or fresh, but The Fever Machine not only do it well – they do it naturally. Still, there’s no question of the meticulousness behind Living in Oblivion’s breadth, and it’s exactly that side that most comes through on repeat listens. Knowing literally nothing about the rock scene in China (a quick search of this site will bring up this post as the only one to date with the tag), it’s fascinating to hear a band like The Fever Machine come across with a genre-spanning blend that’s nonetheless delivered with a confidence and poise that makes every move sound straightforward, even when it isn’t, thrilling in the process as only exceedingly well-made pop can.
Tags: China, Shanghai, The Fever Machine, Unsigned bands