When Swedish three-piece Truckfighters debuted in 2005 with Gravity X, it was clear they had a firm grip on the traditions of fuzz rock. That album bristled with desert and stoner influence; Kyuss, Fu Manchu, flourishes of countrymen acts like Dozer. There were flashes of brilliance in cuts like “Desert Cruiser” — which still opens all their shows with its clarion riff — and “Manhattan Project,” “In Search of (The)” and elsewhere.On 2007’s Phi, lineup changes brought a second guitar and though the output was quality, the dynamic didn’t work quite as well as the debut. Phi and subsequent touring led them to 2009’s Mania (review here), which seemed like the capstone on the decade of quality semi-revivalist fuzz. Progressive in songs like “The New High,” “Majestic” and “Con of Man,” the trio of vocalist/bassist Oskar “Ozo” Cedermalm, guitarist Niklas “Dango” Källgren and drummer Oscar “Pezo” Johansson proved there was more to their sound than riff worship and that they indeed had something to offer that even their Californian influences couldn’t at that point match: A future. It’s been four years since Mania – twice as long as all the other breaks between albums — and after years of road time across Europe and the US and losing Johansson to Witchcraft only to replace him with Andre “Poncho” Kvarnström, the trio from Örebro make a return with the long-awaited Universe on their own Fuzzorama Records. Self-sustaining between the label and recording in their own Studio Bombshelter, Truckfighters are a more mature band than they were four years ago, but they keep both the roots in fuzz from their earliest work and the progressive mindset of Mania intact on the 44-minute/seven-track Universe, resulting in a vinyl-minded flow that in longer cuts like “The Chairman” (7:54), “Get Lifted” (7:55) and closer “Mastodont” (13:54) pushes the boundaries of what Truckfighters have done before and blends that with catchy hooks and strong riffing on the shorter opener “Mind Control” (3:57), on “Prophet” (4:47) and the penultimate “Dream Sale” (4:30).
The tracklisting is ordered in alternating fashion, shorter song into longer, into shorter, and so on. Anomalous in this is standout and (what I imagine is) side B opener “Convention,” which clocks in at 1:40 and arrives before “Dream Sale” and “Mastodont.” One might expect an interlude or throwaway filler based on its runtime, but they actually launch and completely payoff an instrumental build in that time and manage to provide a hook as well. A lesson in efficiency, then. It’s not the first on Universe. From the gritty-to-full launch of “Mind Control” on through its signature Truckfightersian tonality and chorus, there’s little waste to be found. Cedermalm sounds clear, comfortable and dynamic as a vocalist and as the layers in the chorus of “Mind Control” illustrate, Truckfighters are continuing to do something they’ve always done: Making complex ideas sound easy. He pushes himself vocally throughout, perhaps most of all on “Get Lifted,” but between touring with Truckfighters and his tenure in Greenleaf supporting their 2012 outing, Nest of Vipers (review here) — he’s since left the band — there’s clearly growth evident in his approach and comfort with harmonies, as displayed both in “Mastodont,” which very much is the culmination of Universe, and in “Prophet,” which feels almost in direct conversation with the unceasing movement of “Monte Gargano” from Mania. Second cut “The Chairman,” which also served as the title-track for a late-2013 EP released by Fuzzorama and Last Hurrah Records, offers a glimpse at Truckfighters‘ more exploratory tendencies, with Cedermalm starting on vocals before Källgren and Kvarnström join in and lead the way toward the first verse. The tone is fuzz but there’s an underlying thud to “The Chairman” in the bass and drums that works exceedingly well to give it a sense of gravity, and though they hold back on delivering the chorus, that only serves to make it all the more satisfying upon its arrival, Källgren soloing past the halfway point to a boogie break that leads to a payoff that is both a landmark within the album itself and a foreshadow for what “Get Lifted” and “Mastodont” will continue to build upon.
It’s worth pointing out that for as much as Universe was intentionally structured to feed shorter songs into longer ones, it has already mounted considerable momentum by the time “The Chairman” is done, getting quiet and wandering a bit in layers of acoustic and electric guitar with steady drum thump and subdued vocals before exploding into its apex just before seven minutes in, and positioned as it is, “Prophet” only keeps that push going. Kvarnström is steady on his kick for a desert rocker with a restrained verse with open guitar and underscoring bass rumble, and the song solidifies around its chorus, which is one of Universe‘s strongest. A full stop around the three-minute mark gears into full-on fuzz riffing for the bridge that builds, stops, repeats, and the drums circle around to establish the transition back to a final chorus, ending cold with a ringing cymbal that gives way to the silence from which “Get Lifted” fades in its bassline. Were it not for the level of execution shown in “Mastodont” and the diversity within that song, “Get Lifted” would be the high point of Universe. Its build is masterful, its hook infectious, and its linear construction only highlights how far Truckfighters have come as songwriters and how seamlessly Kvarnström has blended with the founding and core duo of Cedermalm and Källgren, being a player of both power and character. He’s rarely driving the material here — that’s mostly left to the guitar or bass — but in moments like that bridge in the back half of “Prophet” and in his transitions throughout “Get Lifted,” he’s no less fluid than either of the other two members, and at 2:25 when “Get Lifted” launches from its quiet start to full-breadth, full-weight rocking, he doesn’t oversell it, doesn’t overplay it, just rides the groove with class. Like “The Chairman” before it, “Get Lifted” teases its chorus before it actually unveils the thing, but they get there around the halfway point and though Cedermalm‘s vocals are deep in the mix as if to suggest he’s being swallowed by the fuzz emanating from his and Källgren‘s amps, you just know in listening that a bigger payoff is soon to arrive.
Of course, it does. The next time through the chorus, Cedermalm does a call and response with himself that ends in raw shouts playing off melodic layers before the band cuts to an even thicker riff that serves as the crescendo, giving just a hint of acoustic plucked strings amid all that rumble, the bass leaving off with a viscous chug. On a linear format, “Convention” takes off immediately from there — there’s no break — and it’s almost like the latter, shorter song is an extension of the longer one, but for the fact that it’s a completely different progression (in other words, it’s its own song). Vocals are rougher but still clean, forward in a way they weren’t by the end of “Get Lifted,” and Kvarnström‘s drums back the ready-for-launch guitar and bass like the countdown to their takeoff. Of course it’s a quick run at less than two minutes long, and it’s basically one riff for that time, but they give it substance anyway, and the lead into “Dream Sale” is no less smooth than was the one out of “Get Lifted.” I don’t know if the idea behind “Convention” was just an experiment or what, but it does nothing to undercut the momentum of the record, though “Dream Sale” presents a turn into most wistful territory. With its learn-ed thematic and somewhat moodier vibe, it’s probably the track on Universe that’s hardest to imagine the band jumping up and down while playing on stage, but it adds emotional breadth in the context of the album and still emerges after a few quick hits and stops in a resounding chorus that unites it somewhat with the earlier “Mind Control” and “Prophet” in style even if the presentation is a bit more restrained. They still find room to kick into a full-throttle refrain at the end, though the vibe has changed somewhat going into the silent start of “Mastodont.” A tense guitar line fades in and is met head-on by the introduction of the drum beat, carried forward at a patient-but-still-in-motion build that gives way after a minute or so to a larger, swaying riff.
Regarding the title, it’s said that it’s a tongue-in-cheek homage to Atlanta riff-crushers-turned-prog-metal-forerunners Mastodon. What Truckfighters‘ relationship with that unit might be and whether that turns up in the lyrics at all, I don’t know, but the song itself, which comprises nearly a third of Universe‘s runtime and has a berth wide enough to summarize much of the creative progression they here present — it is in every bit the “epic closer” — still very much belongs to Cedermalm, Källgren and Kvarnström stylistically. That is, while it goes without saying that they’re capitalizing on the momentum they’ve built over the course of the whole album, they’re not completely adopting Mastodon‘s noodle-heavy approach for the track that plays off their name. Granted, there’s a precision to the background guitar line in the early verse and the chorus hits heavier, but the weight is more in league with “Get Lifted” than anything Mastodon have done lately. Kvarnström‘s cymbals create a wash in the chorus and the bridge after benefits from a punctuating plod before breaking back down to a softer verse, the intensity building again over the course as the focus remains on melody in Cedermalm‘s vocals, then again, that bridge, the release. They’re not halfway and they’ve peaked twice, and the second time more is satisfying than the first, leading to a jump in tempo for a wah-drenched Källgren solo. Running — yes, running — through a couple iterations of that lead, “Mastodont” quiets and Cedermalm comes to the foreground vocally to signal the next instrumental build, and then the fullness of the fuzz sweeps in almost before you’d expect it to and the song once more hits its stride for a satisfying double-chorus near the 8:30 mark, not returning to that plod afterwards but bending it to their will and the movement of the song itself, going bigger, then bigger again, then bigger again in a kind of churning triumph that, indeed, is what the entirety of Universe has been driving toward.
Something of an epilogue arrives in the last two minutes of “Mastodont,” which Cedermalm topping acoustic guitar for an afterthought chorus before the guitar itself is tasked with fading out to end the album. It’s a curious note to go out on, but if nothing else, Truckfighters‘ minute to sit still is well earned by all the rush and movement preceding. Universe winds up suitably expansive with “Mastodont” as its finishing piece, the song standing in for the growth in the trio since Mania, principally Källgren and Cedermalm as songwriters but also in the recasting of the three-piece with Kvarnström on drums. There are no shortage of recognizable elements in their sound, from the tone of the guitar to the compression in the recording to the sort of subdued mood Cedermalm‘s voice sometimes takes over the most raucous of riffs, and those are present in Universe as well, tying it to Mania and Phi and Gravity X, but in terms of where Truckfighters are as a band, it is its own entity and worthy of appreciation as such. Each of their full-lengths has its own appeal, so I won’t get into comparing one over the other, but suffice it to say these songs stand up to anything the group might want to put them against from their catalog. The last several years have seen Truckfighters ascend to the forefront of heavy rock thanks to maddening hooks and work ethic to match. Universe affirms how deserving they are of that position and reasserts the supposition that first cropped up nine years ago: There’s a future in fuzz and they’re it.