Following two strong releases in last year’s Noche del Chupacabra and 2009’s Psychedelonaut after their 2006 The Gathering Dark debut, Texas fuzz rockers Wo Fat make their debut on Small Stone Records with The Black Code, a self-recorded five-track full-length that serves as a loud and clear heralding of their arrival in the up and coming class of American heavy riffers. While furthering the semi-jammed ethic that Noche del Chupacabra (review here) began to solidify, guitarist/vocalist Kent Stump leading through sections of jazz-hued fuzz improv, The Black Code also further refines the crispness in the band’s songwriting and highlights more sci-fi thematics than its horror-from-the-swamp-minded predecessor. The five component tracks of The Black Code total 46 minutes, and through that time, Wo Fat show basically two modes of operation. They’re either riffing or they’re jamming. The distinctions are clear. If you’re listening to the part of the title-track that has an absurdly catchy chorus in the tradition of their own prior highlight cuts “El Culto de la Avaricia” from Psychedelonaut (review here) and “Descent into the Maelstrom” from Noche del Chupacabra, then that’s the structured first half of the song. If Stump is ripping out a righteous classic rock solo while bassist Tim Wilson and drummer Michael Walter (who also contributes backing vocals) hold down a thickened funk rhythm, that’s the jam. It’s not hard to tell when the one starts leading to the other, and opener “Lost Highway” is really the only song that doesn’t break into an extended instrumental section, but just because Wo Fat telegraph their moves doesn’t make The Black Code any less enjoyable. Bolstered by Stump’s engineering job which captures analog warmth (though I’m pretty sure it’s a digital recording listening to Walter’s toms later on, and I don’t inherently view that as a negative) without sacrificing either clarity or sonic professionalism – that is, the album doesn’t sound amateur and clearly Stump’s recording skills have developed no less than his songwriting over the last couple years – The Black Code offers payoff to the potential Noche del Chupacabra displayed, working off similar ideologies in a more solidified, clear presentation. I have no scruples saying it’s Wo Fat’s best and most arrived work yet.
The album starts in medias res with “Lost Highway,” a song that underscores the band’s ascent to the distortion-caked fore of next-gen American heavy rock with a mid-paced stoner groove and a strong chorus hook. For those who’ve never encountered Wo Fat before, there really isn’t anything revolutionary in their approach – it’s heavy riffs, thick grooves, gravelly vocals and classic rock structures leading to extended instrumental jams – hardly reinventing the wheel. What makes The Black Code work so well, however, is both the power trio chemistry between Stump, Wilson and Walter, and the skill with which the familiar elements they’re working from are combined. Wo Fat are unabashedly fuzzy, and that fuzz well earns a Fu Manchu comparison both in terms of its thickness and the way it seems to slow down every riff that comes through it. The opener is the shortest track on the album at 5:25, and it’s a solid lead-in for the more expansive material that follows, the 10-minute title-track keeping its verse and chorus in mind for the first half – it is the strongest chorus of the album and so well picked to represent the whole – and then there’s a ring out just before five minutes in and the instrumental jam begins. By now, these guys are more than adept at sounding natural and keeping a flow going in a jam without sounding forced, and the progression of “The Black Code” is no exception, but you pretty clearly get two pieces instead of one unified whole, or even two pieces and then something to tie them together structurally like a revised verse or chorus. In the end, they come out on the right side of “Not all who wander are lost,” but for a band so obviously adept at heavy rock songwriting as to come up with the chorus to “The Black Code” in the first place to then willfully abandon the premise they’ve set for themselves seems incongruous on a conceptual level. Somehow, the song works.
In searching for a reason why that should be so, the best I’ve been able to come up with is that it’s a part of the subtle psychedelia and overall laid back vibe in Wo Fat’s presentation. Stump is tearing through solos, Walter is periodically thudding away on his double-kick, and Wilson is holding down the songs from getting out of hand, but The Black Code is still a pretty low-key affair. If it’s a rock and roll party – and I’d argue that it is – then it’s the backyard barbecue kind more than the rooftop “let’s all take pictures and then post them on our Facebooks” kind. Though to be fair, I don’t know that the latter kind actually exists anywhere other than cellphone commercials. Point is that by the time “The Black Code” is seven minutes in, it’s done well enough to bring you along with it on its trip into the jam that you don’t feel like it’s out of place, even as far away as the original chorus might seem. It’s that success that’s at the heart of what makes The Black Code such an achievement for the band. CD centerpiece and vinyl Side A closer “Hurt at Gone” finds Stump’s guitar taking more of a back seat to the Walter’s drumming, which drives the progression amid slide work and a gradually developing groove. In terms of its chorus, it’s not as strong a cut as the one before it, but it’s not trying to do the same thing. Wilson’s bass does well in filling out the mostly guitar-less verse lines, following Walter’s toms over a bed of distortion. “Hurt at Gone,” for being less focused on its chorus, flows more easily into its jam than did the title-track, taking what might otherwise be the solo section and drawing it out over a longer period while holding to basically the same rhythm as the rest of the song. Stump remains a formidable lead guitarist, busting out licks that aren’t any showier than they should be, but effective in highlighting both his own technical ability and the in-pocket feel between Wilson and Walter. As Side B gets underway with “The Shard of Leng,” a clear divide has taken place.
Both “The Shard of Leng” and The Black Code closer “Sleep of the Black Lotus” follow a more jam-minded path. That’s to their overall benefit, as the jams are, as ever, well executed and well patterned, but the swampy psychedelia at the beginning of “The Shard of Leng” is a departure from the more straightforward rhythm of “Hurt at Gone,” sounding much more open, much more patient, much more languid, bordering almost on something one might expect out of the European scene – lest we forget that Noche del Chupacabra was picked up for release by German psych purveyors Nasoni – than the burly Republic of Texas. Nonetheless, Wo Fat pull off the atmosphere with ease befitting the sound of the song itself, and it’s not until a full six minutes into the 12:36 of the track (it’s the longest on the record) that Stump, Wilson and Walter pick up the pace and begin the more structured verse and chorus, which – while begging for more than the two cycles through it gets – stands up to “The Black Code” and effectively switches the paradigm, putting the jam first and the song after as opposed to the other way around. It follows suit with the rest of The Black Code in this regard in that it is impeccably placed in terms of the overall, full-length flow. The last three minutes of the song are instrumental, another solo section leading to an irresistible building groove that, well, if they wanted to jam out on it for another six minutes, I probably wouldn’t complain. It works just as well riding the song out as it does, however, and 10-minute closer “Sleep of the Black Lotus” begins with a mounting noise of guitar chords and cymbal washes from which the central riff gradually emerges. The song is fully underway before two minutes in, but it’s almost a surprise when Stump’s vocals kick in with the first verse, mixed further back as they are and more timed to the progression. There’s little change into the chorus and there doesn’t need to be, as Wo Fat have long since established the course and if you’re on board with what The Black Code has to offer by now, it’s no struggle to go along with the finale’s heady vibing as Stump delivers the title line for a second time and then leads the band through an instrumental break, teasing a big rock finish at around five minutes in and eventually crashing back into solid riffing at 5:48.
That riff serves as the basis for a few final minutes of jamming – the solo that comes to top it is among the more improvised sounding on the album – and ultimately carries The Black Code to its conclusion, leaving only ringing ears behind and a few choruses that just can’t seem to quit. Their blend is still unquestionably under construction, but Wo Fat prove with their fourth album that they can both craft highly-structured material and lay back and ride out grooves whenever the situation might call for it. As their reputation continues to grow, the fact that they’re also still growing in terms of style only makes their songs more exciting to hear, and palpable though it is, the jump from Noche del Chupacabra to The Black Code feels organic as it comes through these songs, giving one the sense that, if Wo Fat have arrived, they won’t be staying in one place for too long before moving onto the next step wherever their path might take them. Still as being their Small Stone debut, The Black Code is undoubtedly going to serve as a landmark in their career, aligning them with the likes of labelmates Gozu, Lo-Pan and Freedom Hawk as some of the best up and coming fuzz the US has to offer. It would be easy to go on with various levels of fuzzly imagistic hyperbole about what an accomplishment The Black Code is, but what it basically boils down to is this: Recommended.
Tags: Dallas, Kent Stump, Small Stone, Small Stone Records, stoner rock, Texas, The Black Code, Wo Fat, Wo Fat band, Wo Fat Dallas, Wo Fat Kent Stump, Wo Fat Lost Highway, Wo Fat Small Stone, Wo Fat stoner, Wo Fat Texas, Wo Fat The Black Code