Friday Full-Length: Wo Fat, The Black Code

Posted in Bootleg Theater on January 10th, 2020 by JJ Koczan

 

Heavy rock and roll’s history — and that of rock more generally — is replete with vehicular infatuation. From Chuck Berry‘s “No Particular Place to Go” to Deep Purple‘s “Highway Star” to Nebula‘s “Down the Highway,” it is a thread that unites subgenres around notions of self-direction, freedom and, of course, movement. In the hands of Dallas three-piece Wo Fat, the idea of the “highway” became “Lost Highway,” with a darker, swampier spin on the trope befitting the album it led off, 2012’s The Black Code (review here; LP review here). The first of two offerings they’d make through Small Stone Records, it followed just a year behind 2011’s Noche del Chupacabra (review here), which if I’m not mistaken gave Wo Fat the distinction of being one of if not the first American band to release through Nasoni Records — if they weren’t actually first, it’s still very select company to be in — and continued momentum built from the success of their 2009 sophomore outing, Psychedelonaut (review here; discussed here). That album solidified elements present on 2006’s nascent The Gathering Dark and established the penchant for hooks and bluesy and well-fuzzed tone of guitarist/vocalist Kent Stump, and furthered a penchant for jammier vibes between Stump, bassist Tim Wilson and drummer/backing vocalist Michael Walter that would continue through all their subsequent work to-date.

What makes The Black Code‘s five-track/46-minute stretch a landmark in Wo Fat‘s catalog, however, is a combination of three factors. I’ll bullet-point them to make everyone’s life easier:

  • The songs.
  • The evolution.
  • The timing.

The first one is probably the most straightforward. “Oh yeah we’re goin’ down the lost highway/Oh yeah there’s gonna be hell to pay” is as righteously catchy as it is righteously simple a hook, but it’s just the first of the bunch on The Black Code, and even the 12-minute “The Shard of Leng” has a chorus it drives home, let alone the album’s 10-minute title-track or closer “Sleep of the Black Lotus.” The centerpiece “Hurt at Gone” would seem to veer elsewhere structurally, but it makes a point to drive wo fat the black codehome repetitions of its title as well, and proves memorable for its use of slide guitar ahead of the Rhodes on “The Shard of Leng.” The songs all came together around an open-feeling sensibility, not necessarily meandering, but willing to flesh out with a natural patience and explore the territory around them with Stump‘s soloing leading the way. Noche del Chupacabra made a point of its swampiness on “Bayou Juju,” but The Black Code — if it didn’t come right out and say so — continued the theme fluidly.

Which brings up the second point. The reason it’s fair to call The Black Code a landmark isn’t just because it’s been influential in the years since it was released, but it was a critical moment in Wo Fat‘s development as a band. There was a lot that worked from the outset on The Gathering Dark, and that potential came forward on Psychedelonaut. Noche del Chupacabra stripped down some of the second album’s reach and put the focus on the combination of craft and jams. The Black Code ultimately succeeded because it — just a year later — took the lessons of all Wo Fat‘s prior LPs and put them to use in a span of songs that brought together in a way that made the record equal parts immersive and memorable. It was a culmination of everything Wo Fat had accomplished to that point, and those accomplishments had already been significant. In short, it was the moment where Wo Fat “figured it out” as regards the band they wanted to be and what they wanted to do with their music. It pushed them past their influences and onto ground more thoroughly their own.

And the timing for that couldn’t have been better. Consider the spread of mobile social media, the advent of YouTube Channel proliferation of music, Bandcamp, Spotify and so on. I don’t think StumpWalter and Wilson were sitting at a Wo Fat board meeting planning out their digital strategy as to how to get the most out of the solo-into-oblivion methodology at play on “Sleep of the Black Lotus,” but no question that word spread of Wo Fat‘s excellence in a space that, even a few years before, didn’t exist in the same way, and that that had an impact on how they were received, particularly by a new generation of fans. They hit their stride, as it were, and the music-on-social-media infrastructure was there to let them reap the benefits. It doesn’t seem like a coincidence that Wo Fat went to Europe for the first time supporting The Black Code, playing Roadburn 2013 (review here) in the Netherlands and a slew of other dates besides.

In 2013, Wo Fat also released their split with EgyptCyclopean Riffs (review here), and that momentum would continue to carry them through 2014’s The Conjuring (review here), a more than worthy follow-up to The Black Code. A limited 7″ split with The Re-Stoned arrived in 2015 ahead of their Ripple Music debut, Midnight Cometh (review here), in 2016. In 2017, Ripple took the 2015 live album, Live Juju at Freak Valley (review here), and with additional tracks, offered it as Live Juju at Freak Valley… and Beyond! on CD and LP, but 2020 will make it four years since their last proper studio offering, which is the longest stretch of their career to-date. They went to Australia in 2019 though and they’re set to play Monolith on the Mesa this year and other gigs, so they’ve been plenty busy one way or the other. Still, I’ve got my fingers crossed for a new record sometime before December.

I’ll admit it felt almost too easy to close out the week with The Black Code, but in thinking about why, it’s because the record so damn relevant. It doesn’t seem nearly as close to eight years old as it is, and given the impact it’s had on the structure of Wo Fat‘s work since — I would expect a new album to bring something of a shift in that, but I’ll save that speculation for another time — the recent discussion here of the best albums of the 2010s, and the ongoing spread of their influence more generally, it speaks as its own best argument. Maybe I’ll shut up finally and just let it do that.

As always, I hope you enjoy.

Thanks for reading.

Thanks for reading.

I lost The Pecan’s hat yesterday evening. Actually my hat, but he has taken it for his own and I have another of the same one, so whatever. Yes, we have matching winter hats. It is a white knit hat that my wife’s grandmother, Helen, first made for me well over 15 years ago. At some point, I came into the second one, and that was the one that didn’t make it out of Stop & Shop at Rt. 10 & 202 last night. Not a tragedy — it’s not like I lost the kid, right? — but an object of marked sentimental value to me and a genuine bummer. I called the grocery store and asked them to keep an eye out. The poor customer service woman thought I was insane. I spared her the full explanation of the hat’s origin.

My sister went twice and looked in the parking lot for it. She also went in and talked to customer service. Her husband went on his way to work this morning too. And The Pecan and I were out this morning early as well. I looked in the parking lot as the sun was coming up and then looked again in the back of the car by his seat and it was there under the floor. It had been there apparently the whole time. Real human relief. Exhale.

Last night, after he went to bed, I also accidentally broke my Chemex carafe that I use to make coffee. I had poured water in the coffee maker (8 cups, same as ever) and was shaking out the excess in the sink and the glass caught the faucet and broke. Again, could’ve been worse. Not a big mess of glass to clean up on the floor, and not the actual, much more expensive, coffee maker broken. But after the day I’d already had running solo point on Pecan duty as The Patient Mrs. is away on a work trip — dude was pissed to have a no-mommy day — and after the thing with the hat, it was clearly time to cut my losses, have dessert and get in bed.

This morning, before I even found the hat, I woke up to a message from a record label whose work I respect telling me that an artist whose work I very much respect has a yet-unannounced new album, and did I want to write the album bio for it. I said yes, and it’s a quick turnaround, so I’ll have to write it tomorrow, but I’m listening to the album now (it’s not Wo Fat, though that’d be cool too), and it’s really good, so all the better. It’s something to look forward to writing about tomorrow, and as it happens, getting blindsided by a new album and then looking forward to writing about it is among my very favorite things in the universe. Right up there with roasted garlic and hot showers.

That was a welcome start to the day, and I haven’t bought a new coffee carafe yet as of this writing — I got a cup at the Panera drive-thru, which was at very least better than Dunkin’ or Starbucks in the realm of “loosely acceptable in a pinch” — but obviously that’s on the agenda. I’m also making pesto this afternoon with kale and hazelnuts and my own roasted garlic that I’ll eat tonight with cauliflower and leftover chicken for dinner. Need to get parm reg at the grocery store when I buy the carafe.

I have a doctor’s appointment at 12:30 — it’s 10:30 now — to do a follow-up ultrasound I guess because they’re worried I might throw a clot after the surgery I had a week ago on my leg and they want to make sure everything’s kosher. Whatever. My father threw a clot in his leg a while back; didn’t kill him. Dude’s heartier than me, but if I dropped dead, well, at least I found that hat and got to hear one more good record that I was looking forward to writing about.

If I did though, I’d miss Ode to Doom next Wednesday in Manhattan, and that’d be a bummer. Apparently it’s Joe Wood from Eternal Black’s birthday. Dude is more than a prince. He’s a king. Seriously one of the nicest people I’ve ever met. If you ever have the opportunity to know him, take it. It will make your life better.

One would expect his birthday would draw a good crowd, even for a weeknight in January.

Tomorrow’s plans include a drive to Connecticut so that The Pecan can visit with The Patient Mrs.’ family and I can continue on to Rhode Island to purchase chicken from the Buffoni Poultry Farm in Johnston. I will get at least 40 pounds of chicken, no bullshit. I was thinking about getting 30 pounds of thighs if I can. It’s almost the start of the semester, so basically we’re stocking up for the next few months ahead of The Patient Mrs.’ break ending, and it’s not like I want to make a three-hour drive for chicken every week. So yeah, I’ll be buying in bulk.

No one in New Jersey runs a free-range, preferably organic, farm that does their processing on-site and sells boneless thighs. These are very exacting standards, and I’ve yet to find anyone who meets them. Plus the chicken from the place in RI is better than anything I’ve had here, and I’ve been through a few farms at this point.

I could go on, but this post is already beyond manageable. Guess I feel like writing. Bodes well for the weekend if I can keep it up. Always plenty of work to do.

Real quick — next week: Premieres for Red Mesa (video), Grey Skies Fallen (track), Yuri Gagarin (video), and another video I’m not sure I’m allowed to talk about ahead of time but that’s slated for next Friday. Also the Ode to Doom review will be up Thursday.

So good stuff to come.

Please, great and safe weekend, and thanks again for reading.

FRM: Forum, Radio, Merch at MiBK.

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On Wax: Wo Fat, The Black Code

Posted in On Wax on January 24th, 2014 by JJ Koczan

I’ve had Wo Fat on the brain lately, ever since I found out they’d have a new record out this year and they got announced for Small Stone‘s showcases in Boston and Brooklyn this March, as well as playing Freak Valley in Germany this coming May, so with a ton going on, it didn’t seem outlandish to pay their 2012 fourth full-length, The Black Code (review here), another visit. Small Stone put the thing out on vinyl last year in a first run of 500 split up among three color variations. Gone. Second pressing comes limited to 250 copies in 180g vinyl, either solid yellow or transparent orange. The one I got is solid yellow, which I think sits pretty well next to the Alexander Von Wieding album art, playing off the greens of the cover itself and in the gatefold and accenting the band’s logo and the sand of the otherworldly desert landscape. Call me superficial if you want, but in addition to being a fuzz-drenched glory-jam of a full-length, it’s also a nice-looking find.

As to the record itself, well, if you didn’t hear it when you came out, not to be a prick about it, but you’ve been missing out on some of the finest heavy fuzz the US has to offer. As the folks — myself included — who caught Wo Fat at Roadburn last year, they’ll tell you. Wo Fat tap into classically hairy tones and fit them to whatever proportional gag about “Texas-sized” you might want to make. Guitarist/vocalist Kent Stump drives the formidable groove of “Lost Highway” and “The Black Code” on side A, opening things up a bit to let drummer Michael Walter tie up purposefully-left-loose ends on “Hurt at Gone” while bassist Tim Wilson adds bottom end heft to the languid-but-swinging push. The Black Code was self-recorded, but wants nothing for production in either its clarity of natural vibe, and Wo Fat lock in their riffy grooves like the unpretentious heirs to Fu Manchu, saving plenty of room to jam in these long, spacious-sounding tracks.

That’s true all the more on side B of the vinyl, which feels all the more like a wall of fuzz with the CD-closing duo of “The Shard of Leng” and “Sleep of the Black Lotus” flowing one right into the next. One factor that particularly stands out in revisiting The Black Code is that although it’s the jammiest outing Wo Fat have released to date, the songs also hold tightly to memorable choruses, whether it’s “The Shard of Leng” building from its slow-groove intro into more straight-driving riffy crunch or “Lost Highway” kicking the record off with one of its most resonant hooks back on side A. As a power trio, Stump, Wilson and Walter are dead-on and their transitions run accordingly smooth. “The Shard of Leng” stomps its way through swaggering riffery, comfortably paced but irresistibly grooving, with Walter backing Stump‘s vocals in the chorus before breaking out the cowbell and signaling the move into The Black Code‘s longest jam, Echoplex and all.

“Sleep of the Black Lotus” keeps a similar vibe in its okay-this-is-the-song-and-then-we-jam-the-crap-out-of-these-riffs mentality, and though both sides are about even time-wise, the second feels longer with the two more extended tracks. Still, they make an excellent pairing even more on vinyl for being isolated from the rest of The Black Code, righteous and exploratory as they are. Whatever Wo Fat might have in store for their fifth album, and whenever it might arrive this year amid their touring first to the Northeast from Dallas and then overseas, it comes on the heels of their most accomplished full-length to-date — anyone further fiending for their fuzz should explore their 2013 split with Egypt (review here) — and for as great as The Black Code looks and sounds on wax, I can’t wait to hear how they follow it up.

Wo Fat, The Black Code (2012)

Wo Fat on Thee Facebooks

Small Stone Records

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Wo Fat Update on Spring Gigs – Roadburn, Desertfest, SXSW and More

Posted in Whathaveyou on February 27th, 2013 by JJ Koczan

I love a bit of fuzz in the springtime. Okay, really any time of the year, I’ll take it when I can get it, but either way, I’m glad to read the news that Texas trio Wo Fat are heading overseas to act as fuzz ambassadors. Following gigs at SXSW and the inaugural Fuzzed Out! fest in Fort Worth, they’ll stamp their passports and hit up Roadburn, Desertfest London and a slew of other European outlets. Living the dream as it were. Always glad to see things coming together for bands who kick ass, which Wo Fat most certainly do.

They sent an update down the PR wire:

Upcoming Spring Gigs!

Wo Fat has got a number of great shows coming up and we wanted to make sure you knew about them. In March we will be doing a weekend Texas tour that will start with a performance at the Small Stone Records showcase at SXSW in Austin with a killer lineup of our labelmates, followed by a mini Small Stone showcase in San Antonio with Freedom Hawk, Lord Fowl and doom masters Las Cruces. Then we’ll finish up the weekend at the first annual Fuzzed Out! Fest in Fort Worth, which features a great lineup of bands that are part of the new wave of stoner rock, including Ape Machine, Mothership, Freedom Hawk, Lord Fowl and Been Obscene.

Coming up in April is our “Lost Highway Across Europe Tour” which includes stops at Roadburn and Desertfest London. We won’t be able to hit as many places in Europe as we would have liked this time around due to commitments at home, but we hope to do a more extensive European tour in the future.

Check out the dates below. We hope to see you at one of our shows!

Mar 14, 2013 – Small Stone Records SXSW Showcase – Headhunters, Austin, TX with Mellow Bravo, Supermachine, Luder, Freedom Hawk, Lord Fowl and Suplecs
Mar 15, 2013 – Small Stone San Antonio Showcase – Nightrocker Live, San Antonio, TX with Lord Fowl, Freedom Hawk, Las Cruces and Maneaters of Tsavo
Mar 16, 2013 – Austin Heavy Music Showcase – Special afternoon show at the Spiderhouse Ballroom, Austin, TX. Wo Fat plays at 1:15pm.
Mar 16, 2013 – Fuzzed Out! Festival 2013 – The Grotto, Fort Worth, TX
The new wave of Stoner Rock with Lord Fowl, Wo Fat, Freedom Hawk, Southern Train Gypsy, Ape Machine, Been Obscene and Mothership
April 12, 2013 – Boiler Room, Dallas, TX with Mothership, Hawk Vs. Dove and Mount Salem
Apr 20, 2013 – Roadburn Festival – 013, Tilburg, Netherlands
Apr 21, 2013 – White Trash Fast Food, Berlin, Germany with Abrahma
Apr 22, 2013 – Vera, Groningen, Netherlands
Apr 23, 2013 – Les Combustibles, Paris, France with Witch Mountain, Cough and Abrahma
Apr 24, 2013 – L’Usine, Geneva, Switzerland with Abrahma
Apr 25, 2013 – Vortex, Siegen, Germany with Maserati and Abrahma
Apr 26, 2013 – De Pit, Terneuzen, Netherlands, Terneuzen is On Fire Pre Party with Abrahma, Swamp Machine and Idealus Maximus
Apr 27, 2013 – Desertfest London, The Underworld, Camden, United Kingdom

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Wo Fat, The Black Code: Oh the Places the Riff Will Go

Posted in Reviews on August 17th, 2012 by JJ Koczan

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.

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