Album Review: High Country by The Sword
Posted by RiffRaff
Some bands evolve, some metamorphose. If you look at a butterfly you can still see the remnants of the shriveled caterpillar body still hanging around but for the most part the entirety is changed after a brief cocooning period. Unlike evolution where the change takes place over a huge period of time and many key features are still kept in tact, metamorphosis yields something quite different from its original and the process of change is quite abrupt. You could say a band like Opeth evolved into the prog rock powerhouse they are today slightly changing it up album after album. And Clutch took metamorphosis path when they injected some gospel/blues rock into their sludge metal sound on their self-titled sophomore record (the cocoon phase) and then fully embraced it on their third album, The Elephant Riders, where the metal edge was heavily toned down but still had a glaring presence. With both bands, if you listen to their latest in contrast with their earliest works, they are almost completely different bands but still maintain their cores. Metamorphosis is, however, a much more pronounced change. For their fifth full length album, High Country, The Sword have metamorphosed into something quite different from their sludgy doom metal beginnings.
On the excellent Warp Riders (I wonder where our cohort Reggie got his tag from 😛 ), The Sword started showing a slight move away from doom metal into something more rock ‘n’ roll inspired. And on the follow-up, Apocryphon, The Sword went into a cocoon phase as they started heavily embracing blues rock and not tuning their instruments to C for every song. Now with High Country the shadow of a doom metal band lingers over a bloom of hard rockin’ blues rock. Here we find a band that has always had a knack for riffs (that main riff for ‘Freya’ still remains my personal favorite riff of all time) now with a much more blossomed songwriting skill and disregard for what The Sword should be. This leads to an incredibly organic, engaging, and most importantly, fun album to listen to. A very welcome change.
Right off the bat, The Sword lets you know they are something reborn with the intro instrumental ‘Unicorn Farm’. I was taken aback by this one; I thought I was listening to a track off of Beck’s Odelay. DJ scratching over some hand claps and a fuzzy stoner riff. “Did I get the right promo” I asked myself. And I would have asked myself the same question on the next song, ‘Empty Temples’, if it were not for J.D. Cronise’s singular vocal style and the fact that doom metal edge does bear itself amid this catchy homage to Thin Lizzy. After that bit of initial shock I started settling into the record and really getting into what The Sword does best, riffs and groove.
Throughout the record you get tracks like ‘Tears Like Diamonds’ and ‘Early Snow’ that groove hard as a Gov’t Mule tune and quirky little ditties like the blues-lick ridden, synth-heavy ‘Seriously Mysterious’. ‘Dust’ and ‘Mist and Shadow’ demonstrate that The Sword are more than capable of writing engaging ballads whereas the trippy sci-fi instrumentals ‘Agartha’ and hot-rod shaped spaceship ‘Suffer No Fools’ show these guys still have their heads somewhere in outer-space. The other instrumental on the record, ‘Silver Petals’ is also of note. Reminding me heavily of Baroness’ ‘Stretchmarker’ off of Yellow and Green, this bluegrass hymn is a praise to the nature surrounding the bands hometown and like the other instrumentals on the record it carries a pinch of off-key quirkiness and a bit of melancholy that really makes it memorable. Round everything off with the psychedelic punch of ‘The Dreamthieves’, the Southern fried ‘The Bees of Spring’, and headbangers ‘Buzzards’ and ‘Ghost Eye’ and you got yourself one hell of a complete and diverse record.
Sure, we can no longer call The Sword a metal band, but they have metamorphosed into something brighter and more beautiful. The core of stellar riffs and grooves are still there, but this is a refreshing, yet dramatic shift for the band. Thin Lizzy, Gov’t Mule, and Black Sabbath do have obvious influence on the record, but this sound is something that is wholly The Sword and is much more than Four Guys from Texas pay homage to their favorite bands. Everything from the positively charged, introspective lyrics (complete with a couple nerdy shoutouts to Michael Moorcock) to the wide berth of variety in song styles comes together to deliver one hell of a ride of an album that feels natural and organic from front to back. This was not the album I was expecting from The Sword, however now that I have it I would have no other way and would like more please. A must-buy for anyone who loves some good ‘ol rock ‘n’ roll. 4.5
High Country is out Aug. 21st, 2015 through Razor & Tie Records. Pre-order here.