Of course it had to be Iron Tom Sharpe, Meaford’s Greatest Athlete, that introduced me to Fu Manchu. It was at a Record Store staff party, and the song he was obsessed with was “Saturn III” from The Action is Go (as recounted in Tyler and LeBrain episode two). Since collecting most of the Fu Manchu albums, I’ve managed to boil it down to three favourites. Of these favourites, King of the Road from ’99 may be their best album.
If you don’t know Fu Manchu, they are certainly not for everybody. Lumped into the stoner rock scene, their repetitive drone-y songs are not commercial enough for many rock fans. Lyrics are about cars, skateboards and UFOs are not typical rock fare. The half-spoken half-sung vocals of Scott Hill are very different. Yet these are some of the factors that make them Fu Manchu. On top of the cake, the incredible drummer Brant Bjork played on some of the albums, including King of the Road. Ready for the ride?
The appropriately titled “Hell on Wheels” opens the proceedings on a decidely adrenalized note. That repetitive detuned riff enables the band, powered by the inimitable Bjork, to groove their way through your skull. “So put the keys in my hand! In my hand!” sings Scott Hill, over and over again. The lyrics are straight and to the point: “El Camaro never dies, look closely and you’ll know why.” So it’s one of the car songs, then! I strongly advise you to exercise caution if choosing to play King of the Road in the car. Traffic tickets are your responsibility, not mine.
“Hell on Wheels” fades into “Over the Edge”, pure groove at a mid-tempo pace. One doesn’t necessarily have to differentiate between Fu Manchu songs in a review. They all feature heavy-as-fuck repetitive riffs, Hill’s unmistakable flat vocal stylings, and an unstoppable groove. It’s just a matter of fast, slow or in-between. “Over the Edge” is absolutely an album highlight on a CD containing little else. “Boogie Van” is less a highlight but boasts a vintage-Sabbath style riff and some cool slide courtesy of Bob Balch. Then the doors are blown off the place on the title track, similar to “Hell on Wheels” in speed but even more intense. It’s one of the UFO songs, but the lyrics are as muddy as the music:
Under forty over is UFO,
Hell bent, stacked in rows,
The galaxy is lined with hundreds more,
Small town, you bet we’re sure,
All through my head,
It’s happenin’ over again,
As the day is long, they keep movin’ on.
As this sucker builds towards its end, I dare you to try and not bang your head. It’s my favourite song on the album.
King of the Road says you move too slow
After a ride like that, you need to come down, and “No Dice” does the trick with a groove right in the pocket. “No shoes, no shirt, no dice!” sings Scott, and for a while I really wanted to post a sign that said that on the door of the Record Store. (They never let me have any fun!)
Kicking back now, “Blue Tile Fever” keeps the grooving movin’. “It’s all brand new, just like I told you,” is the repetitive vocal hook, and Bjork gives you some tasty cowbell to gnaw on. Bob Balch’s squirrely lead guitar stylings keeps things interesting. “Grasschopper” is cool but not as hooky as the previous songs. That’s alright, because “Weird Beard” (the theme song of Iron Tom Sharpe himself) is hilariously catchy. My sister started calling Tom “weird beard” a few years earlier because of his sometimes unique facial hair stylings. When Fu Manchu came out with a song called “Weird Beard”, I couldn’t stop chuckling. No idea what this one’s about at all, but dig that groove!
Wikipedia tells us that the next song “Drive” was only on the North American version of King of the Road. Other territories got a song called “Breathing Fire” (wishlisted!). “Drive” kicks ass at maximum rpm. Brant Bjork and Bob Balch keep it interesting, while bassist Brad Davis keeps the groove going with pedal to the metal. (Do not play while driving!) Once again a comedown is necessary and “Hotdoggin'” does the trick as a slow cruiser. The surprise is the closer, “Freedom of Choice”, a Devo cover. It’s surprising because of how heavy they make it.
The CD is “enhanced” and contains the music video for “King of the Road”, as well as the single “Evil Eye” from The Action is Go. (So you can consider “Evil Eye”, an awesome tune with a cool video, as a bonus track.) This outdated technology never really worked well in the first place and now with YouTube, nobody cares anymore. It’s there if you want to check it out.
There are a few Fu Manchu albums that I would bestow the coveted 5/5 upon. King of the Road is one.