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.