Fu Manchu, Gigantoid: Eyes Wide on Arrival

It’s been a long five years since SoCal fuzz rock progenitors Fu Manchu released their last album. Like its 2007 predecessor, We Must Obey, 2009’s Signs of Infinite Power had a huge, encompassing sound, the trademark heft in Scott Hill and Bob Balch‘s guitars and Brad Davis‘ bass bolstered by production largesse that, while certainly not short on an appeal of its own, did little to convey the enduring affection for classic West Coast punk in Fu Manchu‘s approach. Released on their own At the Dojo Records and arriving preceded by the late-2013 Scion A/V single “Robotic Invasion,” Gigantoid readjusts the balance. The four-piece of Hill, Balch, Davis and drummer Scott Reeder recorded with Moab guitarist/vocalist Andrew Giacumakis, and like Moab‘s own debut, the result on Gigantoid boasts a natural but still vibrant feel, raw in comparison to what Fu Manchu have done their last few times out even going back to 2004’s Start the Machine and 2001’s California Crossing, but still definitely their own style. A campaign the last few years of marking album anniversaries for their earlier works — touring playing whole records like their 1996 and ’97 classics, In Search Of… and The Action is Go, and reissuing those along with demos for California Crossing and their 1994 debut, No One Rides for Free — has undeniably had an impact on the direction of Gigantoid‘s nine tracks, and in just under 35 vinyl-ready minutes, Fu Manchu hone a sound that’s not a cloying play at recapturing the magic of their first couple records, but which takes that feel and couples it with the now-decades-long development in their songwriting.

As their fans know, a lot of the Fu Manchu aesthetic isn’t up for debate. They’re not a band who want to reinvent themselves with each release, and as much as one can trace a gradual development over their full-lengths and put any number of narratives to it, the core of heavy, grooved-out fuzz (plus the occasional ’80s cover) remains steadfast in what they do. And as much as the production seems like a left turn outside the context of their exploration through past outings, that’s the case throughout the bulk of Gigantoid as well. The album opens with a four-song salvo of quintessential Fu Manchu-ery, blending sci-fi themes and ultra-nodding push as “Dimension Shifter,” “Invaders on My Back,” “Anxiety Reducer” and “Radio Source Sagittarius” confirm that Fu Manchu are still Fu Manchu at heart. After five years, it’s something of a relief to know, and with the memorable hooks in each of the first four cuts — the opener more grandiose, the second and third falling gleefully into their choruses and the last of them a rush that’s a highlight of Gigantoid as a whole — it seems their time away from the studio hasn’t been misspent. Following this initial wallop, the subsequent “Mutant” closes out side A with a bass-led start-stop groove to which Reeder soon adds his stomp before launching into its full volume, Hill‘s vocals in the verse not necessarily rushed, but matching urgency with the music behind. It’s not that “Mutant” doesn’t have a hook of its own or that it’s some radical departure, just that with some subtle effects work from Balch, the breaks to Davis‘ bass, and a shorter runtime, it’s an overall shift in vibe that acts as precursor to some of the other expansions in approach that side B brings, beginning with the all-out rager “No Warning.”

“No Warning” isn’t much more than a minute long, but its faster pace and straight-ahead mentality come excellently suited to the production on Gigantoid, and its sheer punkery makes it a standout on the album. In a front-to-back linear listen (digital or CD), it builds on “Mutant” and brings that intensity to a head, but even with a break between, the momentum “No Warning” crafts is immediate and engagingly righteous. There are no frills to it, but Fu Manchu come across tight and the most alive they’ve sounded in over a decade. Side B is quite a jump from where it starts to where it ends — that’s true of Gigantoid as a whole as well, but summarized neatly in the second half — as “Evolution Machine” recalls some of the triumphs in the first side of the album perhaps with a slightly darker take, and “Triplanetary” bridges the gap between “No Warning” and a song like “Radio Source Sagittarius” before closer “The Last Question” provides an unexpected conclusion, an initial stonerly bounce and consistent structure giving way to an effects-rich instrumental jam about halfway through the seven-plus-minute finale, the foursome ending the band’s 11th album with a surprising foray into what at least comes across as being based in improvisational (and purposeful) sonic meandering. Atop Davis‘ steady bassline and the foundational beat from Reeder, Balch swells volume and creates a psychedelic swirl to accompany Hill‘s noodling — the beach giving the desert a run for its money in a laid back, jammed-out vibe distinct from everything else here. It sounds like they could just keep going, but they bring it down gently and cap Gigantoid not with an adrenaline surge, but with a peaceful semi-fade past the 34-minute mark. This last shirking of expectation is perhaps the most satisfying of all on the album, since it demonstrates just how capable Fu Manchu are 20 years on from No One Rides for Free of still catching their listeners off guard, and in emphasizing just how much Gigantoid delivers both what Fu Manchu fans want and what the band needs. Across Gigantoid‘s fuzz-laden course, Fu Manchu sound reinvigorated and like they’re making precisely the music they want to make, on their own terms and with the intent of meeting their own expectations. I can’t think of anything I’d ask of the album more than it delivers, and for many heavy rockers, myself included, Gigantoid will no doubt serve as one of 2014’s best when the year’s over. They never really left, but this feels like a great welcome back.

Fu Manchu, “Invaders on My Back” from Gigantoid (2014)

Fu Manchu on Thee Facebooks

Fu Manchu on Bandcamp

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