Some things in metal will never change. Take, for instance, the long held tradition of the self-released demo tape, a seemingly outdated form of technology that still launches careers in underground metal. Just as Mantas’ Death by Metal or Mercyful Fate’s triptych of early demos gave rise to legends, Pallbearer’s 2010 Demo and Windhand’s self-released CD-R from that same year were the beginnings of some of the most promising sounds in heavy music of the past decade. Manchester, England’s Wode is no different, their self-released Demo MMXI cassette having turned more than a few heads in the metal press upon its release, thanks to an innovative mixture of black metal, death metal, thrash and just about any other conceivable style of metal in one auspicious and ambitious self-made three-track EP.
One of the tracks on Demo MMXI, “Trails of Smoke,” also appears on Wode’s self-titled debut album. The recording quality is richer and more robust, the product of having entered a proper studio rather than operating by D.I.Y. means. Yet the meat of the song—the songwriting, the density, the intricacy—was already there. “Trails of Smoke” was just this side of a finished product already, a soaring explosion of a black metal anthem in need of only the slightest bit of polish, which in its own way suggests just how much things really have changed. It’s a lot easier to make a recording that sounds more professional and sophisticated than it was in 1983.
Though they were already a strikingly sophisticated bunch out of the gates, Wode’s self-titled debut is a breathtaking piece of work to behold. Loyal to no particular style and bound by no constraints other than striving for what leaves the most devastating impact, Wode are masterful in transforming their various influences—which seem to comprise an entire lifetime of metal history—into a finished product that doesn’t just sound fresh, but truly innovative. Throughout six lengthy and continuously shifting tracks, they showcase range enough for an entire heathen festival, sometimes all within the same track. The album’s longest, “Cloaked In Ruin,” goes from Pagan Altar-style doom classicism to the stoic gallop of Agalloch and the nihilist blast-beat surge of Weakling within just the first two minutes. It’s a lot more than the sum of its influences, however, returning to a triumphant recurring riff and an increasingly complex melodic structure that becomes more about the intriguing details within than the menacing vessel that contains them.
Wode changes course swiftly and dexterously between tracks, always returning to some black or death motif without necessarily allowing it to define the character of the song. Only the bookending tracks, “Death’s Edifice” and “Black Belief,” come across sounding fairly traditional, while the space between the opener and closer contains a vast territory of experimentation and texture: the rock ‘n’ roll riffs and glam stomp of “Spectral Sun,” the Envy-like emotional charge of “Trails of Smoke,” or the intricate post-hardcore roar of “Plagues of Insomnia.” There’s an argument to be made that this is simply an extension of the groundwork that Wode had already laid down with their demo, and that the difference between demos and debuts is essentially a formality in 2016. Certainly, Wode started off strong, but this is no mere formality. It’s a massive leap forward.