Fu Manchu, Clone of the Universe: Don’t Panic

fu manchu clone of the universe

Hey, look. If you’re Fu Manchu — and if you are, thanks for the riffs — having a guest appearance from Rush guitarist Alex Lifeson on your new record isn’t going to hurt your cause. But make no mistake. With the SoCal fuzz innovators’ 12th full-length, Clone of the Universe — released through their own At the Dojo Records imprint — the case is much the same as with the rest of their discography: The highlight of the Fu Manchu album is the Fu Manchu album. I’m not decrying Lifeson‘s spot on the 18-minute “Il Mostro Atomico” that closes out Clone of the Universe. It’s a massive, multi-faceted, explorational space jam topped with killer solos set to a dead-on weighted nod; essential Fu Manchu fuzz setting off on a five-year mission. There’s one verse and it doesn’t start until after nine minutes in.

Cool as hell, right? Of course, but it’s the earlier songs — opener “Intelligent Worship,” “(I’ve Been) Hexed,” “Don’t Panic,” “Slower than Light,” “Nowhere Left to Hide” and “Clone of the Universe” itself — that really tell the story of the record. Side A. And side A finds the San Clemente foursome of guitarist/vocalist Scott Hill, bassist Brad Davis, guitarist Bob Balch and drummer Scott Reeder in tight and top form as regards songwriting. Following suit from their last long-player, 2014’s Gigantoid (review here), the band continue to strip out some of the thickness from their fuzz as compares to records like 2009’s Signs of Infinite Power or 2007’s We Must Obey (discussed here), and it’s telling that even in working with Jim Monroe at The Racket Room in Santa Ana, CA, they also returned to Moab guitarist/vocalist Andrew Giacumakis — who helmed Gigantoid — at SUSSTUDIO in Simi Valley for additional recording.

That moves gives a sense of continuity of approach between the two albums, despite the four years separating their release, and context to the rawness of tone coming from Hill and Balch‘s guitars throughout Clone of the Universe, which very much plays out in two-sided fashion. The already-noted “Il Mostro Atomico” consumes all of side B in four distinct movements, and fair enough for that, but the earlier cuts running from about two to four minutes apiece make up a varied side A drawn together by the universal tightness in the band. They’re not through “Intelligent Worship” before Reeder‘s on his cowbell, and neither should they be. One could easily argue Fu Manchu know who they are as a band — after 12 records, they ought to, frankly — and are content to play to that in their general approach.

Fu manchu John Gilhooley

Which is to say, Fu Manchu sound like Fu ManchuHill‘s core vocal style won’t really change at this point, groove always remains central, and they blend Southern Cali laid-back-itude with heavy rock shred like the best in the business in part because they helped invent that “business” in the first place. And Clone of the Universe doesn’t fix what wasn’t broken coming off Gigantoid. Hooks abound in “Intelligent Worship,” “(I’ve Been) Hexed,” “Slower than Light” and the title-track itself very much in a milieu that Fu Manchu fans will recognize as the band’s own. But on the other hand, there’s the raw drive of “Don’t Panic” — a 2:08 punker thrust with zero broach for nonsense that’s there and gone and still catchy that would be welcome to start any set I happen to be standing in front of — which, when paired with the easy-grooving start of “Slower than Light,” showcases the dynamic of tempo shifts that the band is working with across the still-quick span of the record as a whole, which even with 18 dedicated to “Il Mostro Atomico,” tops out at 38 minutes with seven songs.

Davis‘ bass signals a faster turn into the finishing movement of “Slower than Light” and with a semi-lurching rhythm, “Nowhere Left to Hide” delivers another memorable chorus in the ongoing series of them while also serving as the longest of the non-“Il Mostro Atomico” cuts at 4:27. Its vibe is foreboding but never really goes so far as to be a threat, despite the title, though the churning riff does bring to mind some unseen malevolent force. A later highlight guitar solo gives way back to the central riff that closes out and echo leads the way into the start-stop immediacy of the verse to “Clone of the Universe.”

No question why it’s the title-track; “Clone of the Universe” is quintessential, and it all the more represents the side of the album on which it appears for its ain’t-got-time-to-bleed lack of flourish and the push that emerges after the midpoint, only to slam into a wall of silence and then cut back to a slower version of the central riff to finish. From there, it’s off to “IlMostro Atomico,” which likewise wastes no time getting airborne and staying that way for the duration. There’s nod, there’s jangle, there’s tension building, and finally there’s angular space-o-prog that carries the band out, with a quick return to the first riff before a final fade.

Again, the Lifeson guest appearance is notable, and no doubt it was a thrill for Fu Manchu to bring him into the studio and get him on the record — mom always said there were two types of people in the world: Rush fans and the rest — but the focal point as one approaches Clone of the Universe shouldn’t be that singular moment or any other, rather what the record as a whole does with Fu Manchu‘s trademark sound and style, one part drawing it tighter than it’s ever been drawn before and the other pushing more broadly than it’s ever gone. Whichever side of the album happens to be on at any given point, Fu Manchu remain recognizable as who they are, and if anything, their will to add so much to that identity some 33 years after they got their start speaks to how special a band they really are. You can clone the whole universe, there’s still only going to be one Fu Manchu, and they’re in top form here.

Fu Manchu, Clone of the Universe (2018)

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At the Dojo Records website

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One Response to “Fu Manchu, Clone of the Universe: Don’t Panic”

  1. Seanofthedead says:

    Glad to see the band that got me into this “scene” is still going strong! First time I heard them was in the mid 90’s while doing my college radio show…..I’ll be picking this record up this weekend for sure.

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