Album Review: Fu Manchu, The Return of Tomorrow

fu manchu the return of tomorrow

The lords of fuzz come back around with a new collection. Six years and one plague-interrupted three-EP 30th anniversary celebration later, San Clemente, California’s Fu Manchu offer what I count as their lucky 13th full-length, the 2LP The Return of Tomorrow, through their own At the Dojo Records. And while there’s been no lack of Fu-activity in the years since 2018’s Clone of the Universe (review here) — highlighted by the 18-minute “Il Mostro Atomico,” which featured a guest appearance from Alex Lifeson of Rush — the last year alone has seen solo- and other adjacent offerings from bassist Brad Davis (Gods of Sometimes), drummer Scott Reeder (Jacket Thief) and lead guitarist Bob Balch (Slower, Big Scenic Nowhere, Yawning Balch), with founding guitarist/vocalist Scott Hill as the only one not with a concurrent exploration, and fair enough as Hill‘s riffing has always been perceived as the central element to what Fu Manchu do. And as regards that core approach, The Return of Tomorrow is both loyal to the closely-guarded facets of the band’s structured, characteristic style, and willing to branch out a bit over the course of the included 13 songs and 50 minutes.

How Clone of the Universe ended with “Il Mostro Atomico” is relevant here in terms of The Return of Tomorrow‘s scope and how it’s presented as two shorter LPs combining to make the entire release, with the mullet-type construction of business-up-front-party-in-the-back, except with Fu Manchu, the business is the party. To explain, from “Dehumanize” through “Destroyin’ Light” — the first seven songs — the band are on an absolute tear. The material hits hard and is catchy in a way that fans will find familiar in pieces like “Roads of the Lowly,” “Hands of the Zodiac” and “Loch Ness Wrecking Machine,” etc., without really challenging the punk foundations of their sound or the clearly-ain’t-broken methodology of their songwriting. Hill delivers verses and choruses in recognizable patterns, and the band guide their listeners through a succession of stories about monsters (“Loch Ness Wrecking Machine”), psychic weirdos (“Hands of the Zodiac”) and the anxieties of the age and aging (“Dehumanize” and “(Time Is) Pulling You Under”) while kicking ass in classic Fu Manchu style, raw-ish in production in the spirit of the turn they made on 2014’s Gigantoid (review here) but wanting nothing for fullness of tone or emphatic groove.

It’s after “Destroyin’ Light” that an intended twist comes as “Lifetime Waiting” takes hold for the start of the second LP. Hill‘s stated purpose was to put the faster material first and then follow with a set of slower songs, each on its own platter, each like a short album unto itself. It doesn’t quite work out that way listening through — that is, it’s not so black and white between one and the other — as “Haze the Hides” digs in after “Hands of the Zodiac” or “The Return of Tomorrow” regrounds the proceedings following the Southern-rock-informed jammer “What I Need,” but one would hardly hold some display of dynamic against the band. It’s true the longest songs, “What I Need” (5:54) and “Solar Baptized” (6:00), both appear in the second half of the tracklisting, and while the penultimate “Liquify” bases itself around a funky start-stop riff, the lead flourish from Balch touches on psychedelia as it moves toward the end and the mellower instrumental vibing of “High Tide,” which closes in subdued, jammy fashion. So the listener can hear the one-to-the-other-type intention brought to bear in the songs themselves.

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Mission accomplished? Yeah, at least mostly. Listening front-to-back, there is definitely a sense of expanding the reach as “Lifetime Waiting” gives over to “Solar Baptized,” but honestly, it’s all still Fu Manchu, and Fu Manchu wouldn’t be likely to put out a record at this point that wasn’t. That is to say, they know who they are and what they’re about, and while their songwriting has grown over the last three-plus decades and various productions have pushed them either toward largesse or a more stage-minded sound — The Return of Tomorrow leans toward the latter, which suits both the fast and slow material — taken as a whole, these songs aren’t trying to reinvent Fu Manchu 34 years later. You wouldn’t have asked Slayer not to be Slayer, or you wouldn’t tell Tony Iommi not to riff on a record.

To expect Fu Manchu to suddenly shift their entire approach when they’ve never shown any real interest in doing so would be ridiculous. Part of what makes The Return of Tomorrow work so well is the immediate familiarity of its hooks, with even the hard-hitting “Dehumanize” and “Haze the Hides” as a salve for tumultuous years, and the band can only be called correct to revel in that. Are they playing to audience? Maybe, but isn’t that also part of who they are as a band, writing a fresh batch of songs to take on the road for the next however long? Whether it’s two LPs or one, and even with the quirky construction — which is no less a showcase of the band’s persona than Hill‘s delivery of the title-line in “Loch Ness Wrecking Machine,” to be sure — The Return of Tomorrow celebrates Fu Manchu‘s context and their ability to make whatever they want to do fit with it. “High Tide” doesn’t conform to expectation in the same way as “Destroyin’ Light,” and “Solar Baptized” is downright expansive set next to “(Time Is) Pulling You Under,” which is a little over two minutes long and charged enough that the lines of the verse seem to interrupt each other on the way to Balch‘s next casually-shredded transitional solo.

The lesson here is probably that Fu Manchu can do whatever they want and make it work, even if part of that ambition is in maintaining the signature aspects of their broadly influential take on heavy rock and roll. At no point — even “Loch Ness Wrecking Machine” — do they slip into caricature, and their self-awareness becomes a strength as most of the material feels like it was made specifically for the stage and songs take different routes to get where they’re going. But it’s Fu Manchu, so yes, the songs are going, and the energy with which they do so is very much their own. Comforting even in its brashest moments, The Return of Tomorrow draws strength from self-awareness and dares some breadth around the central take reaffirmed by each chorus repeating in your head once it’s over. It wouldn’t be summertime without Fu Manchu.

Fu Manchu, “Hands of the Zodiac” visualizer

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