Almost uniquely in the world of stoner rock (and in rock & roll, period, for that matter) Fu Manchu have actually improved with age. While hardly altering their original, fuzzed-out, retro-minded formula, the So-Cal natives have gradually evolved -- Fu Manchu first stood out simply as one of the first groups to do what it does, and now deservingly stands out as one of the best at what it does. The reason for this unusual development is also a simple one: songs. Fu Manchu always rocked hard, but they didn't really start writing consistently good songs until 1997's breakout The Action Is Go, and after achieving a possible career-best effort via 2001's California Crossing, the band is once again in nearly top form with 2005's long-awaited Start the Machine. Invariably tight, immediate, and groovy, pulsing sonic hot rods like "Written in Stone," "Open Your Eyes," and "I Wanna Be" dominate an LP that was clearly meant to be heard on vinyl, not CD, and where no single track ever breaches the four-minute mark. As well as proving main man Scott Hill's innate facility at matching catchy riffs and hooks, these offerings suggest that the band's mid-career flirtations with space rock were probably instigated by then-drummer Brant Bjork (he of Kyuss fame). But that's not to say that Start the Machine is a one-dimensional album, as, breaking out of the basic flow, "I Can't Hear You" is a brash, one-minute punk rocker, "Make Them Believe" and "It's All the Same" splice AC/DC's bluesy boogie with Sabbath's grinding power chords, and "Out to Sea" goes mellow and instrumental to act as an intermission. Bottom line, Fu Manchu know their strengths and, having found their songwriting legs for good in the 2000s, have no intentions of veering into realms that would let down their fans -- or themselves.