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.