For those of us over 30, the feeling of musical obsolescence is one we know all too well: It’s a jarring experience to survive enough years on this planet to witness the first rehashing of the music you grew up with. Those of us born in the early ’80s first checked for gray hair when synth-pop got big again. Unfortunately, we’re about to do it again.
Hero worship from coast to coast
For those of us over 30, the feeling of musical obsolescence is one we know all too well: It’s a jarring experience to survive enough years on this planet to witness the first rehashing of the music you grew up with.
Those of us born in the early ’80s first checked for gray hair when synth-pop got big again. Unfortunately, we’re about to do it again.
Those of you in your early 20s, however, are about to experience this firsthand, if you haven’t already in the last year. The generation gap between our two groups will be closed, and the cycle can begin with the next generation.
I’m talking about grungy early-to-mid-’90s alternative rock music. Bands like Hum and Superdrag are the latest influences in the music industry’s rehash-fest, which has recently been reflected in bands like Yuck, Tame Impala and more.
Enter California X. The band is composed of three men from Amherst, Mass., and they do the Hum thing while also infringing on the territory of Fu Manchu, Dinosaur Jr. and the wave of fuzzed-out stoner bands that logically followed alternative rock back in its golden age.
If you’re not familiar with any of California X’s predecessors, the brief primer is that all feature smoothed-out fuzz riffs—and I do mean riffs—with a guy that just kind of softly yells over the top of the mess. Cymbals and drums form heavy, dense puddles of groove that are the mortar between the driving basslines and giant riffs.
Indeed, the band sounds so much like Fu Manchu that it almost feels like I’m reviewing King of the Road—but I digress. If you couldn’t get enough Fu back in the band’s heyday, or were just too young to ever get into them, California X is probably a good bet.
Songs like “Spider X” sound straight out of the Fu Manchu playbook, and might confuse even the hardest-headed van-dwelling Fu fan out there. Not only is the playing very similar, but California X’s vocalist, Lemmy, employs a similar sense of melody and delivery.
The record even has that hyper-compressed mastering feel, and the band relies on fadeouts to close out a few songs. All signs point to the record hedging as close to the original material as possible.
Keep in mind that this type of blatant worship isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Bands like Uncle Acid and the Deadbeats completely nail the Black-Sabbath-worship thing outright, and their records are a joy to listen to.
The point at which California X leaves me scratching my head is when they decide to stray from the Fu-print and carve out their own niche of fuzzed-out pop metal—a move that falls a little short.
Take the record’s last track, “Mummy,” for instance. The track sounds like it’s straight out of a corny, slacker coming-of-age flick from Fu Manchu’s golden years—think Reality Bites.
This is less like the good parts of Fu Manchu that we all remember—airbrushed wizards and metric tons of weed—and more like a bunch of silly footage of long-haired, flannel-clad teenagers throwing up on the Tilt-A-Whirl and aimlessly running around on train tracks in the woods.
It might sound cool if you lived during that time period or actually did that stuff, but otherwise it sounds like ham-fisted nostalgia-for-sale.
Don Giovanni Records
3 1/2 Stars
Structurally, the album is a mess, with a closing song opening the record and vice versa. Two track titles share similar names even though they appear consecutively. The album’s order also feels generally off. After repeated listening, you can probably think of five different (and better) arrangements of the songs.
However, when California X is on, it’s on. The aforementioned “Spider X” and the album’s opener, “Sucker,” are incredible hard rock tracks, worthy of inclusion in Fu Manchu’s lengthy, smoky oeuvre.
While the second track, “Curse of the Nightmare,” is close, it isn’t quite there, even though the cut has some of the sludgiest, chunkiest riffing ever laid to mylar. “Lemmy’s World” contains one of the best melodies I’ve heard on a rock record in recent memory.
Perhaps the most maddening aspect of the record is the inconsistency of the production: The guitars on one track sound like they have a wildly different compression effect applied to them compared to the next. And since the guitars are the primary focus of a band whose bread and butter is riffs, this is at best bothersome and at worst disorienting.
Headphone listeners will notice the inconsistencies right away, as I did, but those listeners who check out California X through a stereo might not mind as much.
Once you experience the record with headphones, however, the compression ratios will be the only thing you hear.
Despite these gripes, most of the record is enjoyable enough to table complaints until the end of the album, rather than letting them loose on the fly. Nothing is too overwhelming, except the compression issues (which you might not even notice).
Really, the sum of all the little things doesn’t remotely ruin California X’s raw riffage. Give the record a shot, and when you’re done with it, file it right next to your Fu Manchu wax. Scott Hill would probably be OK with that.