The Fucking Champs are to metal what the “Mr. Spaceman”-and-forward Byrds were to country: interloper rockers in love with a marginalized genre but unwilling to commit to full realignment. In the Byrds’ case, there may have been a brief flirtation with short locks at the superconservative Grand Ole Opry, but they were still long-haired hippies at heart, more likely to hang with Mick Jagger than Merle Haggard (and also more likely to get kicked to the curb by a couple of genuine good ol’ boys than get a call from the Nashville Welcome Wagon). Similarly, San Francisco’s the Fucking Champs avoid the goat-worshipping life, instead forcing their metallic square into the indie-rock circle: The largely instrumental trio tours DIY with post-rockers and post-punkers and releases records on Drag City, the label that brought you avant-slackers Pavement and Royal Trux.
Now, peddling metal to wimpy indie rockers is virtuous business, indeed. But the Fucking Champs aren’t just serving up regurgitated Carcass riffs and Iron Maiden guitar solos. Nope, these quasi-Hessians—including an ex-member of arch-punk poster boys Nation of Ulysses—toss plenty of nonsinister synthwork into their math-metal jams. Heck, a full third of their latest disc, V (actually full-length No. 3), favors keyboard-ticklers over ass-kickers. And though the Champs call their split-personality aesthetic “total music,” it sounds more like a gambit to diffuse the metal impact and avoid getting lumped in with all those lunkheads from shop class.
Accordingly, “Never Enough Neck (Pt. 1)” jump-starts V with brutal percussive force. Guitarists Josh Smith and Tim Green hammer at their overdriven six-strings as if they were tuned drums, but rather than careering into garbage-disposal vocals and dog-and-pony-show solos, the Champs—who also include nerd-spectacled drummer/guitarist Tim Soete—focus all their energies on building a complex yet accessible musical structure. In not much more than two minutes, the Champs scramble through no fewer than 10 distinct and infectious riffs. All chugging guitars and double kick-drums, it’s definitely metal—just not the windowless-van kind that scares off the ladies.
But even at their surliest, the Champs never forget to bring the hooks. Like the Byrds, they can craft melodies that damn near outshine the sun. “Nebula Ball Rests in a Fantasy Claw,” for example, soars where most tech-metal merely pummels, placing the emphasis on majestic ascending harmonies instead of pure muso proficiency. Similarly, “Aliens of Gold” sandwiches ironic rockist drum breaks between seriously majestic ax synchronicities, and “Chorale Motherfucker” does away with the drums altogether, ending the album with thick layers of nothing but crystalline guitar hookage.
If all that sounds familiar, then you’ve probably heard 1997’s III and/or 2000’s IV. And, yes, the rawk on V is Ramones-identical to the glorious guitar workouts on the Champs’ two previous full-lengths. This time around, though, the band’s synth excursions venture into fairly unfamiliar territory. Whereas III favored bubbly kraut-rock piss-takes and IV leaned heavily on airbrushed AOR mellotronscapes, V’s nonmetal tracks share little with previous Champs output. All grotty and dark, “Major Airbro’s Landing” is the perfect soundtrack for a Philip K. Dick adaptation: Muted low-end riffing and updated disco drums elevate a spy-guitar motif and swirling Space Age synths. It’s a genuinely new sound for a band that usually gets more retro than retrofuturist whenever it switches on the electronics.
“The Virtues of Cruising” offers a similar tooling-around-the-wasteland vibe, taking your dad’s luxury car out for a spin with Philip Glass pulsing on the stereo. And “Children Perceive the Hoax Cluster” launches the Champs clear into the night sky: With its inner-space-exploring lead guitar riding the digital swells, the track is simply beggin’ to rock the laser light show at your local planetarium.
Of course, none of this drops jaws the way it did two records ago. III and IV set the bar pretty high. For all its striving, V is largely the sound of a great band flying in a holding pattern. But should we really give two shiznits about change if these guys wanna make their Sweethearts of the Rodeo over and over again?
Fellow Californians Hella are equally guitar- and drum-obsessed: Like the Champs, the Sacramento duo says no thanks to both bass and vocals. But its end result, Hold Your Horse Is, is much punkier than the Champs’. Whereas V is dense with epic hooks and guitar overdubs, Hella’s difficult math-rock offering is a stripped-down and almost lo-fi document of what two mortals can do live in the studio.
Like any number of free-jazz records, Hold Your Horse Is uses its instrumentals as a pretense for trotting out the chops. This means, of course, that you probably won’t be whistling “Cafeteria Bananas” to yourself when the disc finishes. But guitarist Spencer Seim and drummer Zach Hill—both just barely in their 20s—have nonetheless developed memorable approaches to their respective tools.
They waste little time before showing off their skills: After a handful of anthemic chords, Seim and Hill jump headfirst into the busy, skittery business that makes up most of “Biblical Violence,” which begins Hold Your Horse Is in earnest after a goof-off techno passage. And amazing violence it is: Stuttering across his strings, Seim tries his damndest to keep up with Hill, who flies around his kit like Keith Moon unwinding a solo at 78 rpm.
Though some of Seim’s ideas seem borrowed from recent jazz-inclined rockers (witness the Storm & Stress-style ax jive of “City Folk Sitting, Sitting”) and a lot of Hill’s rhythmic approach is co-opted from black metal’s blizzard beats (check out the Emperoresque percussion barrage at the beginning of “Been a Long Time Cousin”), the pair generally fill up their sound without resorting to standard-issue tricks. On tracks such as the dizzying “Republic of Rough and Ready,” which works despite the labored hand-clap break, and the pointillistic “Better Get a Broom!,” which is more melancholic than destructive, Seim seldom falls back on power chords or even much in the way of effects. Somehow, though, the guy sounds like three guitarists playing at once as he tremolo-picks his disorienting webs of notes.
It’s pretty damn unreal, but you get the gist of Hella’s thing after about a song-and-a-half. Aside from the wisp of electronica that begins the disc, the only variation from Hella formula here is the midalbum “Brown Metal.” Whereas other Hella tracks whip relentlessly through change after change, this one sticks to a single blurry riff throughout, relying instead on rhythmic variation for dynamic effect. Hill starts off slamming out polyrhythms on various metals before switching halfway through to a straight-up 4/4 beat, a maneuver that transforms the song from a tempest of noise into an unexpectedly halcyon groove.
Only 15 minutes into Hold Your Horse Is, the relative simplicity and directness of “Brown Metal” is already a welcome respite from the labyrinthine sound and fury that surround it. Sure, there’s some jealousy-inducing new talent on display here, but despite their cool moves, Seim and Hill end up giving us too much too soon. CP