Is it any coincidence that the first proper song on The Sword’s first non-downtuned album prominently mentions “giving up the old ways?” The band has always been a mix of untold numbers of 70s influences, though most strongly associated with the doom metal movement that’s supported their careers until now. So they’ve released High Country, an album that frontman and songwriter JD Cronise didn’t even initially conceive as a Sword record when he began creating it. New aspects to the band’s sound pop up here and there, flourishes of techno music and drum loops pop up repeatedly. The guitars are no longer downtuned, maybe the most immediate and recognizable change to their style. It’s the sort of leap forward they last made when 2010’s Warp Riders came out, only the shift away from riffs and towards layers and new arrangements has never made quite the impact it had before now.
The record isn’t a complete abandonment of the group’s old sound though. Guitars are still their primary occupation, only now everything sounds brighter and cleaner than it ever has before. The newly-raised tunings and previously foreign instruments all mix together into something that still resembles the band’s own sound, but takes on new dimensions that suggest the room for further growth. Even though it opens with a quick synth-and-drum-loop intro track, it quickly returns to songs built on classic Sword riffs, only now with their new brighter sound.
The album doesn’t take a real turn for the strange until it reaches its second third. Agartha is an instrumental built on long synthesizer notes and drum rolls, followed by Seriously Mysterious’ electronic beats and vocal harmonies. Early Snow’s horn sections suggest something more like ska music. The Dreamthieves is purely the sound of mid-70s radio rock, the sort of tune that sounds like your local classic rock station has been blaring it for the last 30 years nonstop with its bluesy guitar solos and synthesizers buried just behind the rest of the mix.
It’s hard to picture where a band like The Sword go after a fork-in-the-road album like this one. They haven’t entirely abandoned the riffs that dominated their first four albums, only tuned them up and spaced them out between electronic beats and synthesizers designed to expand their sound and take it to new places. That’s where we’re left after a record like this. One that can be described the way that Queens Of The Stone Age once were, not a heavy metal record but a heavy record. Will they ever tune back down after this? Are they going to become something else entirely or is this the start of a new era for the band? Only time will tell. It’s still fair to call The Sword a hodge-podge of different 70s influences, but this time around they’ve found a new group of familiar sounds to call their own. How this affects the rest of the band’s career hasn’t been indicated yet, so only time is going to tell.
Photo by Brian Tamborello
The Sword are back with new old sounds, higher tunings, and more weird ideas. The sort of record that employs new ideas for a band that always seems to mine old ones.