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Music Reviews:

Union (Mayhem)
It was only natural that when voxman John Corabi and guitar slinger Bruce Kulick got dumped by Motley Crue and Kiss respectively they would marry each other. Now the question is the fertility of the Union, and their debut album leaves that one hanging.

I've wrung my tiny brain wondering why I don't kneel before this band the way I do Alice in Chains, which Union resembles right down to Corabi's chin tuft. One reason is the axiom that any heavy rock band failing to worship Satan, dope or its dick is just not doing its job, and these guys' straightforward execution and wounded earnestness lead one to suspect they're not 666ers or junkies - possibly not even assholes, despite Corabi often coming off like a combination of Eddie Vedder, Ronnie Van Zandt and the prophet Ezekiel. And whatever self-help books AIC guitarist Jerry Cantrell reads to make him write and mix the way he does, Union should special-order 'em.

Not to deny there's potential here that maybe only needs to simmer. Drummer Brent Fitz and bassist Jamie Hunting are large going on gigantic. "Old Man Wise" has a monstrous riff. "Let It Flow" does the Zep jangle-and-thud right smart. Kulick's metal grind and Corabi's loose ax-pickin' blend pretty well. And Corabi commands a decathlon-ready set of vocal cords - but he's not a personality yet. I mean, the way he bellows, "I can't find my tangerine," it's not even funny. And sometimes he sets himself up. "When the waitress asked me/'Hey man, what'll it be?'/I said, 'Everybody's hungry/everybody's trying to fill an empty soul,'" he moans, and since the waitress's reply is not recorded, who could resist filling in the blank, like: "Okay . . . one special," or "What kind of dressing do you want with that?" or how about "Excuse me, aren't you Bob Dylan?" (Greg Burk)

FU MANCHU
The Action Is Go (Mammoth)
With 14 tracks dedicated to muscle cars, drag racing and outer-space travel, Orange County riffmongers Fu Manchu's The Action Is Go is like a tribute to motion itself. "Urethane," "Guardrail," "Burning Road" and "Trackside Hoax" shoot the big-drum bluster and three-tier Marshall crunch into your limbic system for maximum adrenaline, but by mid-album the Fu men are sparkin' up the roach and tickling cortex with the effects-strewn "Laserblast!," "Grendel, Snowman," "Strolling Astronomer" and "Saturn III." Despite the band's stadium-size ambitions, guitarist and lead singer Scott Hill is more shoegazer than showman, sporting the sort of mopey monotone that never gets in the way of the soundage.

At age 30, Hill is just old enough to be nostalgic about the '70s, but he's not smirking at that lost decade from a hip-kitsch vantage point. If The Action Is Go jump-starts a bygone era of Wayne & Garth cock-rock, it isn't a calculated move; Hill and his mates unself-consciously live out their fun-'n'-sun drugged-out beach-party lifestyle as if the California dream never ended. This is cause for kudos and calumny - Hill's the sort of surf-bum purist who makes Fu Manchu an irony-free affair, but the band is so enamored of the Blue Cheer/Sabbath formula that it never adds anything new to the crusty genre.

Actually, Fu's first Mammoth release, In Search of . . ., was more of the solo-filled dose fest that you could freak to. The Action Is Go rocks, but in a complacent kind of way, as though the band has discovered the Holy Grail of guitar riffs and is content to keep playing the same song over and over - just like the arena-rock dinosaurs they worship. Better pass me that roach. (Andrew Lentz)

SIXTEEN HORSEPOWER
Low Estate (A&M)

Jean-Yves Tola, French bassist for Denver's Sixteen Horsepower, has described his band as putting "music to the images of America." If you happen to live - mentally or physically - in the depths of hardscrabble, gothic Appalachia, Tola's description is uncommonly perceptive. Not in recent memory has a "rock" band (and one with "alternative" roots, no less) so accurately captured the dark, eerie passion that has festered for centuries in the rugged Appalachian foothills.

Driven by David Eugene Edwards' warbled wail and the droning minor-key dissonance of an arsenal of instruments (including a vintage bandoneon, banjo and hurdy-gurdy), the band's new disc is even more challenging than their 1995 Sackcloth 'n' Ashes. Even with the addition of utility player Jeffrey Paul Norlander, tunes such as the title track and "Brimstone Rock" wind up less dense and cluttered. But the result is even more haunting, akin to getting spooked in the woods on a pitch-black night. Respites from the ordeal, like the gentle, acoustic-based "The Denver Grab" and "Golden Rope," are few and far between.

Whether or not you catch Edwards' numerous biblical references, it's clear that Sixteen Horsepower has tapped into some of life's more powerful forces. The fatalistic, fire-and-brimstone attitude of "For Heaven's Sake" and "Sac of Religion" are fueled as much by the pulsing, overdriven slide guitars as by lines like "I will not live and die - no not by the sword/I am weak, without the joy of the Lord." "Black Lung," an odd but catchy, archaic-effect banjo/fiddle reel, may only peripherally refer to the terminal affliction that haunts coal miners, but the soundtrack will surely put you on the set of an old coal camp.

This is not easy-listening fluff. Like the film Matewan, Low Estate is both passionate and very disconcerting, with an undercurrent of hostility. Who knows how and where Edwards & Co. conjured their demons, but they're playing with a serious deck of cards. (Michael Lipton)

VARIOUS ARTISTS
iAy! iCalifas! The Raza Rock of the '70s and '80s
(Rhino)
In what must be the definitive Chicano rock collection to date, iAy! iCalifas! paints a dreamy world of barrio pastimes and cruising classics, then flips dramatically by spotlighting lesser-known acts and some of L.A.'s pioneering punk bands. The bucolic '70s hits roll off one after another, starting with Santana's iconic "Oye Como Va." Malo's sensual "Sauvecito" follows, its mellow harmonies guiding a heartening tale of soulmates who finally find each other. The oldies but goodies are all here: War's "Lowrider," Tower of Power's "You're Still a Young Man," El Chicano's "Viva Tirado!" and Tierra's bubblegum-soul cover of "Together."

The L.A. punk scene of the early '80s had a crucial figure in Tito Larriva and his Plugz. Larriva's wild cover of "La Bamba" is a testament to the hyped-up possibilities of the times. Proudly spewing, "I'm an anti-capitalist/I'm an anarchist," Larriva topples this Chicano-rock monolith once immortalized by Ritchie Valens - a true punk statement. Larriva's impact is felt in the echoed guitar atmosphere of the Cruzados' "Flor de Mal"; ringing with an '80s, Cure-ish lament and a Spanish bolero cry, this haunting tune segues neatly into punk-pranksters Los Illegals' "El Lay," a pre-new wave track in which Willie Herron's chaotic, creepy voice howls with Chicano angst to a jolting beat - furious head-spins.

Offering 18 diverse cuts within a supposedly limited genre, iAy! iCalifas! producer Ruben Guevara rarely misses a beat. Even his choice of Daniel Valdez's "Brown Eyed Children of the Sun" is oddly apt; this sad yet uplifting folk song indicates the scope of Guevara's Raza music vision: part pop, part punk, yet always culturally illuminating. Guevara's passion is both a triumph and a forehead wrinkle, but never boring. (Paul Saucido)


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