To those already familiar with Dallas riff forerunners Wo Fat, their fifth album, The Conjuring, will likely hold few surprises. It is foremost the next stage in the Texas heavy rock trio’s ongoing progression, captured at the band’s own Crystal Clear Sound studio by guitarist/vocalist Kent Stump, it runs a sonically consistent thread forward from their last several records even unto its Alexander von Wieding artwork, the German artist having contributed the last two covers as well, to 2012’s The Black Code (vinyl review here, CD review here), which was their debut on Small Stone, as well as 2011’s Noche del Chupacabra (review here), released by Nasoni. But as that collaboration has yet to yield a piece of such impact as that which adorns The Conjuring, so too do the album’s five songs/47 minutes find Wo Fat at their most developed yet, be it the smooth tempo shifts in “Read the Omens,” the hooks in the opening title-track or the boogie-strong “Beggar’s Bargain,” the bluesy humor of “Pale Rider from the Ice,” or the extended jam in the 17-minute closer “Dreamwalker,” which looms large over the rest of the tracklisting. Wo Fat have only become more spacious and jammed-out over time, so these things are natural progressions, and they very much remain a heavy rock band, but to trace their development since their 2006 debut, The Gathering Dark, and its follow-up, 2008’s Psychedelonaut (review here), is to understand the roots of the utter mastery of their sound they show in these tracks, the power trio dynamic between Stump, bassist Tim Wilson and drummer/backing vocalist Michael Walter shining through the dense wall of fuzz and riffed excellence they’ve crafted. I consider myself a fan, but I think even the most impartial of ears would have to admit they’ve outdone themselves again.
Listening to “Dreamwalker,” one can only wonder how long it will be before Wo Fat jam out a single-track LP, one vital piece that brings their voodoo tales and rolling grooves to bear across a massive, 40-minute exploration, but as much as that cut is bound to be a focal point for anyone who takes on The Conjuring, that’s not to underplay the quality of songwriting that precedes (or, really, that contained within it; as stretched out as that song is, it’s also got a hook). The album opens with a sample culled from 1957’s Curse of the Demon, the quote, “I know the value of the cold light of reason, but I also know the deep shadows that light can cast,” topping a mounting swell of feedback that least to the first riffs of “The Conjuring,” which unfolds patiently but clearly announces its verse riff upon arrival. Immediately Wo Fat are in their element: Vital, natural-sounding, not forcing the song but enjoying the trip they’re taking with it. Between songs like “Shard of Leng” and “Lost Highway” from The Black Code, “Bayou Juju” and “Descent into the Maelstrom” from Noche del Chupacabra and “El Culto de la Avaricia” and “Analog Man” from Psychedelonaut, there’s no question Wo Fat have a history of mixing a few choice hooks into each record, the kinds of choruses you hear immediately in your head upon seeing the name of the song, but The Conjuring balances this impulse best of all with their predilection for jamming, extended tracks bookending the album while “Read the Omens,” “Pale Rider from the Ice” and “Beggar’s Bargain” hold true and further the methods they’ve established as their own over the course of their decade-plus tenure. I don’t know how many layers of guitar there are by the time “The Conjuring” wraps its near-10-minute run, but I know they’re all put to good use, and I know “Read the Omens,” which follows, continues the momentum with no letup and a raucous wash of cymbals to accompany.
Granted, as they hover between six-and-half and seven minutes long, “Read the Omens,” “Pale Rider from the Ice” and “Beggar’s Bargain” have a grounding effect compared to either “The Conjuring” (which is a fitting title-track for its balance of one side and the other, the structure and the jam) or “Dreamwalker” (which moves the jam to the fore more than Wo Fat ever have), but there’s plenty of spaciousness within them as well, Stump leading the way on guitar through verses and choruses both catchy on “Read the Omens” the title line serving as the hook as its has many times before for the band and as it will soon again on “Pale Rider from the Ice,” though that cut shows a bit of bluesman’s personality as well in the vocals on the opening lines, “Last night/Or the night before/Yeah, I said last night/Or the night before that…” eventually deciding it was last night that a worrying dream was had, as a noisy bed of guitar plays out beneath. They get around to a verse and chorus sooner than later, but to find Wo Fat toying with open structures in this way is refreshing five albums in, since it demonstrates their sound is more than just a bipolar “now we play this part and then we jam” approach, and that they’re looking for ways to push it even further than that. Of course, Stump, Wilson and Walter have done exceedingly well setting jams and structured pieces alongside each other, and they’re among the best in the States at it within heavy rock, so I won’t knock it, but as much as “Pale Rider from the Ice” earns its centerpiece position from its title-line hook and resolution that, “It was no dream,” it also does so for how it pushes their approach forward. Though its position as the penultimate track threatens a chance of being consumed by the anticipation for “Dreamwalker” still to come, the quicker shuffle of “Beggar’s Bargain” and its swaggering groove make The Conjuring‘s shortest piece (at 6:28) a high point, with Walter‘s best performance on the album — no, not just for the cowbell — opening the ending guitar solo section with a shift as fluid as any in the closer to come.
Still, how could anything other than “Dreamwalker” stand as the most righteous moment on The Conjuring? At 17:11, it is the longest song in Wo Fat‘s career — the title-track to Noche del Chupacabra is the next closest at 15, though “Nameless Cults” from their 2013 Cyclopean Riffs split with Egypt (review here) was just about 13 and they’ve been close to that mark before as well — and more than that, it’s their biggest jam and they utterly pull it off. Nearly six minutes pass of hypnotic build before the first verse comes around, psychedelic leads a background cloud of distortion swirling all the while as Wilson and Walter hold the flow together, and when Stump — backed by Walter — at last announces, “Whoa yeah, I am a dreamwalker,” the realization that they’ve arrived at a genuine chorus is nothing short of revelatory. The lyrics change up the second time through, but they hold to that verse/chorus structure for another round and draw out the chorus part as “Dreamwalker” moves past its halfway point and into the instrumental charge that will consume its back half, wah and echoed effects adding a spacey feel as Wo Fat ride the groove of their own creation through peaks and valleys, dropping the guitar and bass out shortly before 12 minutes in to let Walter hold down the beginning of what will soon be The Conjuring‘s last from-the-ground-up build, Stump soon joining in with a cosmic blues solo while Wilson plays the unsung hero in anchoring the movement until the drums pick back up and drive “Dreamwalker” toward it and the album’s apex, bringing in a speedier interpretation of an earlier riff to round out with around two minutes left as the guitar takes a wailing solo and the bed for the fadeout is set, Wo Fat phasing themselves out of the picture and leaving behind only the frequency-of-the-universe drone they’ve been playing over as The Conjuring‘s last impression and the resonate sense that over the last eight years since their first record, Wo Fat have become not only the standard bearers for traditional stoner rffing, but also one of heavy rock’s most essential and forward-thinking acts. The stylistic ground they cover here, from jazzy improvisation to thunder-thighed boogie and into psychedelic expanses beyond would be enough to make The Conjuring impressive, but the fact that Wo Fat accomplish these things while still sounding cohesive and unpretentious — please allow me to introduce you to the 17-minute jam that doesn’t lose itself in navel-gazing self-indulgence and leave its audience behind — makes their fifth a shoo-in as one of 2014’s best albums. More than a decade on from their start, Wo Fat stand atop the the genre that inspired them and have set about remaking it in their image, and if The Conjuring winds up being a point of influence in years to come, that can only be to the benefit of heavy rock and roll. Recommended.