When compared to the other bands who led the stoner rock movement in the 1990s, Fu Manchu stand out as the most workmanlike of the bunch. Kyuss, and its offshoot Queens of the Stone Age, have always led the way, with the Queens taking the music in a more mainstream direction in the past five years, while Monster Magnet, with the brief exception of Powertrip's fun metal detour, has always focused on the more psychedelic, acid-laced side of the sound. The guys in Fu, though, have always faithfully adhered to their trademark sound: roaring, drawn-out, ultra-heavy riffs, smooth, Sabbath style basslines, powerful, no-frills drumming, and the unmistakable vocals of Scott Hill, which are always delivered with a California surfer dude's cool nonchalance. Like AC/DC, Fu Manchu know their place; they certainly know that few bands, if any, do this as well as they do, and they're aware that all their fans ask of them are some consistently fun driving tunes, and they remain true to their promise with every single new release.
Start the Machine is no exception. In the years since their 1996 breakout album In Search Of..., Fu Manchu have settled into a very comfy little groove, with each subsequent release showing subtle improvements each time out. It's hard to believe that it's been three years since their last album leaked on the internet, but the new one proves that this band has not lost a step.
While 2000's King of the Road, and 2002's California Crossing slowly inched toward the mainstream with killer singles like "King of the Road" and "Squash That Fly", and a song like "Mongoose" showed that they were still capable of a fresh idea in the stoner rock genre, Start the Machine has them stepping back a bit, returning to the basics, to what made them great in the first place. Produced by Brian Dobbs, the album shuts the doors, blocking out the California sunshine, letting things stew in the heat, the result being a very urgent, stifling, sweaty record. Instead of the clean riffs of California Crossing, there's much more fuzz on this album, as the guitars dominate the mix, creating a claustrophobic sound. It's one of Fu's tightest albums in years, as well, as that sense of urgency is clear, the album ripping through twelve tracks in 35 minutes.
No, there's nothing here that can quite equal "Squash That Fly" or "Mongoose", but several songs do come awfully close, especially lead-off track "Written in Stone". With its terrific opening riff, pummeling beat, and fun, shouted chorus ("These! Are the things! That I! Need to Know!"), it's the same old thing, but incredibly, they manage to pull off the gimmick flawlessly yet again. The relentless tempo and contagious call-and-response of the punk-fueled "I Can't Hear You", and the simple riff rock of "Understand" and "Hey" keep up the pace nicely, as the band finds that groove they are so great at. They simply let the momentum carry them through the rest of the record, with cool little musical touches popping up sporadically, like the Southern Rock touches in "Make Them Believe", the theremin solo that concludes "Today's Too Soon", and the album's most pleasant surprise, the instrumental "Out to Sea", one of the mellowest compositions the band has ever recorded.
Along with Hill, the rest of the band is as great as always, but one can't help but miss the presence of former Kyuss drummer Brant Bjork, who left Fu Manchu before the release of California Crossing. Scott Reeder does an excellent job on this album, but the last few albums have spoiled Fu Manchu fans a bit, and Bjork's thunderous, phenomenal drumming suited this band's music perfectly. That's a very minor gripe, however, as Start the Machine is yet another solid album by one of the most reliable bands in rock music. No, it's nothing very original, but when you're cruising down the sunny highway with this stuff playing at maximum volume, it's all you need.