With only a single, three-song demo from five years ago to their name, the UK’s Wode is a relatively unknown quantity, which can be a welcome rarity in a musical culture that tends toward oversaturation (to put it mildly). The band’s self-titled debut album is frustratingly difficult to write about, but the very thing that makes it so difficult to write about is precisely what makes it such an effective album: this is prefix-free black metal. It’s not progressive or orthodox, Cascadian or industrial, post or melodic; instead, Wode is 47 minutes of thoroughly engrossing and unostentatious black metal.
Album opener “Death’s Edifice,” for example, starts misleadingly with some Primordial-style 6/8 strumming that quickly gives way to a straight-ahead trot, and its midsection moves from an almost startlingly uplifting tremolo riff and progression into a more modern-sounding, head-down pummeling that could just as easily fit into a song by Withered or Woe. At no point does Wode sound like they are emulating a particular band, even as individual moments fire up associative neurons left and right (as with the brief guitar solo and galloping midsection of “Cloaked in Ruin,” which sounds quite a lot like Darkest Era). Sometimes they sound old, and sometimes they sound new, but they always sound almost entirely untethered from any particular scene or sound or microexpression of the genre.
Which is not to say, by the way, that Wode is schizophrenic. In fact, the album is marked by an eerily smooth movement from one mode to the next, in a way that ignores the individual brushmarks in favor of the pointillist whole. The occasional overtones of feedback hint at a cold/industrial tone, but at times the band’s tilted-forward drive and locked-tight, elbows-in sound surges with the compressed thrill of weirdly melodic black metal. (In fact, although the albums are quite dissimilar, there’s something about Wode that reminds me of Kvist‘s For Kunsten Ma Vi Evig Vike.) You’re not likely to mistake this for a recently unearthed Grieghallen production from ’96, though, because where so many of the second wave bands gravitated to Romantic or neoclassical minor scales, Wode favors a denser harmonic construction. The band’s instrumental tones are also quite thick, which highlights the small-interval riffs (as on “Trails of Smoke”).
More importantly, each of these six songs has obviously been workshopped and woodshedded for a long time. The slowly rippling shifts in mood, the smooth transitions and tight structures, the patient build from fragments into an eventual cascade of riff-forms: none of that happens without care and diligent revision. “Spectral Sun” opens the album’s second half with aggression, but by the time it circles around to its wonderful guitar lead that wraps the last minute and a half or so tightly before spinning it out in wider arcs, you’re just as likely to have forgotten how you got there as you are to care.
Perhaps the finest attribute of this very good album is that Wode knows how to turn relatively simple ideas into big moments, like the mournful bent-note coda to “Cloaked in Ruin” or the devilishly catchy guitar theme that closes out “Plagues of Insomnia.” The fact that the band plays such devoutly, pointedly prefix-free black metal does mean that Wode doesn’t yet have a strongly recognizable personality. (One regret: if they played Viking metal they could call themselves One Wode To Asa Bay.) What they have in excess, however, is skill, passion, and the recombinant confidence that comes from knowing they can pluck from whichever branch they like.
As it was and shall be: songs over scene; heavy metal over feeling shitty.