Fu Manchu, Black Cobra @ HiFi, Sydney (3/5/12)

Californian psyche-rockers Fu Manchu arrived in town after a long wait to play a gigantic sun burnt set of old favourites along with San Francisco maniacs Black Cobra and Melbournians Matt Sonic and the High Times. It blew a few minds, blew the cobwebs out of some others, and even blew a bass amp.

Melbourne power rock outfit Matt Sonic and the High Times opened with a high energy set of pretty standard blues flavoured material. Their latest record This Love Electric, made up the bulk of the set and the semi-serious nature of their music made for a casual intro to the night. Matt Sonic, complete in tight jeans and Robert Plant hair, certainly looked the part, and backed the image up with some simple muscular tunes devoted to the usual bluesy issues of relationships, heartache and the like. They filled the slot fine, but a lack of originality held them back.

Two piece outfits always seem hyper aware of the limits of their capability and address the issue by producing as much noise as possible. San Fran’s Black Cobra are no exception, and they pummeled us into submission with some crazy-heavy doom metal pieces of impressive complexity and scope. It was an incredibly effective scorched earth policy executed with passion and finesse as they explored several tempos, time signature changes and vocal styles. They showed no mercy, only releasing tension strategically. After long bursts of rapid fire thrash numbers the bottom end would fall out with huge sludgy doom riffs and big splashy kick/cymbal patterns. The sound desk managed the cacophony well, articulating the finer details enough to give them depth and texture regardless of volume. But honestly, no one was really given time to appreciate the finer things as the onslaught continued.

Even though the general tone of the headliner and the support was different – Fu Manchu pride themselves on their laid back California attitude whereas Black Cobra come across as deadly serious – the energy and talent was in sync, and the monolithic stoner rock legends “blew the fridge” in their efforts to cave our heads in after we were stunned by Cobra.

High octane effort Hell On Wheels from 2000’s King of the Road opened the show. It’s a song drowning in badassness straight from some filthy grindhouse flick from the ‘70s, an ode to dirty orange panel vans, tiny skate boards, headbands and aviators. To back up their claim as custodians of a forgotten and burnt-out Californian past, a powerful rendition of Boogie Van was thrown down, proving a huge hit.

Scott Hill’s trademark drawl belied the concentration behind the delivery, and despite the fact he seemed completely stoned for most of the set (not surprising really) he was on point musically, as was the rest of the bunch. Bob Balch’s guitar work was super tight and his solos were nice. As a complete unit however they just seemed to be on autopilot. They all played great, and the intensity was there for sure, but the whole thing seemed to just be the sum of its parts. Not that the crowd was after something transcendent, but it did seem like they were going through the motions a little.

Ultimately the night belonged to the music, and since the music was good, everything else followed. A vocal crowd kept things lively, and the beer flowed freely. Not bad for a Thursday. Fu Manchu remain icons of the genre, proving they’ve still got the chops to play a style they helped invent. There’s still room left in today’s outrageously complex scene for massive, crusty psychedelic blues like this; the simplicity of their material is refreshing and potent, like a shot of whiskey in a cocktail bar.