The most pertinent question on my mind as I prepared to strap myself in for a first blast across Truckfighters’ Universe is one that I’m sure will be shared by many fellow fuzz fiends across the globe: “How could this ever match up to Mania?”
That album in question was arguably the finest record I heard throughout 2009 and still earns regular full-length plays out in the Green Machine to this day. It also encapsulated for me what a 21st century stoner-rock record should sound like; dynamic from head to toe, ballsy and fuzzy yet not losing sight of the need for hooks and memorable rhythms whilst proving stunning in its juxtaposition of those calm-before-the-storm moments such as ‘Last Curfew’ versus the head-down pummel of ‘Loose’. Truckfighters are and always have been able to prove that they are a fun band – since the first time ‘Desert Cruiser’ struck our earwaves that was eternally clear. After that classic Gravity X debut and the somewhat water-treading Phi follow-up in 2007, Mania showed that the core song-writing prowess of Ozo (Oskar Cedermalm: vocals, bass) and Dango (Niklas Källgren: guitar), along with an unstoppable urge to tour as much as is humanly possible, had successfully resulted in the establishment of a thoughtful, yet powerful band who’s creativity in flexing of The Fuzz™ bled far deeper than almost all of their peers. The issue now really continues to be: how long can that formula stay fresh, remain relevant and cutting edge yet constantly evolve and reinvent itself with every new effort?
And hence what are we to expect of Universe? The eagerly anticipated fourth Truckfighters record is to be released as always on their Fuzzorama imprint. In true Spinal Tap fashion, it includes yet another new sticksman behind the kit in Poncho (Andre Kvarnström to his mum), who it has to be said does a sterling job – providing arguably the best percussion work the band have had since Gravity X. It’s a shorter record than many would have expected, but three of the featured seven songs clock in towards the rather proggy territory of 7+ minutes. Equally, fuzz fanatics need not worry – Dango hasn’t been messing much at all with those amp dials and the polarising shorter, sharper numbers fully exercise what’s become the classic and unique Truckfighters sound identity.
Sounding like a distant juggernaught motoring down the golden highway before blasting finally into your windshield at 1000mph by the 35-second mark, ‘Mind Control’ is every bit the quintessential Truckfighters opener you’ve probably been salivating at the thought of since the rugged simplicity of ‘Monte Gargano’ last passed your controlled or uncontrolled mind. Poncho’s drumming is fierce, commanding and exacting all at once as Ozo’s upbeat vocal cries bounce off pillar and post slightly underneath one of Dango’s finest riffs to date. Bam! We’re back in business!
‘The Chairman’ is a longer contemplated, more complex arrangement and was already previously released in EP format at the back end of 2013. Dango’s subtly picked guitar lines weave around Ozo’s coiled mysteries behind the mic before the power trio erupt into wave after wave of diesel-smouldering adrenaline rock over and over again. It’s what I’d called a burst-strategy track; the vocals remaining tender enough once isolated without any heavy guitar but slipping back into the undertow as Dango cranks his overdrive up temporarily at regular intervals. Poncho achieves more than previous TF drummers by egging the bassline itself along, even playing in front of it at times to pre-empt Dango’s energy and eventfulness on the six-string. Eventually the guitarist grabs the reins and shreds, yes SHREDS, his instrument out to the track’s conclusive set of calm-manic cycles. This is already scintillating stuff.
Three-holer track ‘Prophet’ is the one the band have been doing the majority of their shouting about prior to the record launch with a Youtube teaser video. It’s one of Universe’s shorter, more squirming, urgent moments and harps back to the yearned awkwardness of Mania’s ‘Con of Man’. It’s a neat, self-contained track though and the togetherness of this triage of Swedes is once again all too clear as the groove sits snugly under Ozo’s vocal leadership. Dango prefers to drone out the choruses here rather than laser blast them with persistent cosmic radiation and there’s no fancy overindulgent soloing, just some worthy distortion mangling at the close to nail home the simple point that this is a repetitive riff-rock creative.
‘Get Lifted’ is more of a listener’s challenge and in many ways operates in the same central nucleus position that the glorious ‘Majestic’ did on Mania. It’s tender, swaying introduction parts the silence as Poncho sidles in with a simple beat and Ozo whispers gently down the mic. Gradually the track builds with some notably mature guitar-lines from Dango and layer upon layer of emotionally-driven fuzziness is added to the pile. The choruses flow beautifully and it’s a track that simply begs to be played live – as loud and as grandiose as possible.
‘Convention’ is a straight-up, but rather welcome, 90-second tension-soaked splurge which never quite gets to a complete explosion point yet slides comfortably into ‘Dream Sale’ – itself a juddering voyage which explores some classic rock territories as well as rocking a chorus which would’ve been at home on Phi or equally Mania.
Titanic 13-minute long closer ‘Mastodont’ in some ways feels like it should offer more than it does in the way of both versatility and intrigue. Intended as a “tongue-in-cheek nod to buddies Mastodon”, you could be forgiven for expecting a truly progressive ode to the hard-rock by-the-way-of claustrophobic Atlanta sludge of the mighty metallic mammoths themselves. Instead, ‘Mastodont’ feels a little like an erstwhile Biffy Clyro song with the occasional riff that tries to find the middle ground between Blood Mountain and some of Queens of the Stone Age’s more pop-driven dark atmospherics. I just don’t quite get this one really – it’s too long and repetitive and feels awkward at the end of what’s already a highly accomplished album. Yes, there’s a couple of well-executed gear-shifts here and there and Dango does show once again just how far he’s come as a lead player, drafting in legions of distortion effects and a choppy helicopter background effect throughout, but the track feels more like it’s wandering rather than truckfighting in many senses. Perhaps it needs a live airing for me to get under the skin of this one, but with the shore-lapping waves at the stern and bow of the song, it feels a little too experimental in its aesthetic to have a clear agenda.
So, does Universe top Mania? I’m going to stick my neck on the line and say that as an album I want to put on and play front to back, then Yes, I think it just about does. It’s coherent, mature, well rounded and clever, but at the same time it doesn’t carry the strength in its individual tracks as virtually everything on Mania did. Hats off to Dango and Ozo – it’s not easy to write songs which simultaneously reinvent the tried and tested desert rock templates whilst keeping in touch with the fuzzy, chunky rifforamas that we all know and love at the same time. It also feels that in Poncho, Truckfighters finally have a drummer who can challenge and excite their grooves with far fewer boundaries – here’s to hoping they manage to keep their hands on him because his performance here is truly remarkable for a first-timer. Universe is a grand title, but this record wears it well – Truckfighters are pushing for new worlds – only time will tell if the rest of the desert cruisers try to catch them up.
Scribed by: Pete Green