Texas fuzz lords THE SWORD have carved a niche by riding the rails of retro, which includes fantastical dreamscapes Conan the Barbarian, Red Sonja and Kull the Conqueror would ideally call home. All set to the grind of vintage doom, Southern boogie sludge and early Seventies dirt prog. In other words, THE SWORD has presented their entire shtick as heavy metal for "Heavy Metal" the magazine addicts. Den, anyone?
On their last trip, "Warp Riders", THE SWORD abandoned terra firma for a HAWKWIND-loving space coaster trip, which won them both praise and condemnation, depending on which circles of the underground you polled. Having to rebound from the departure of drummer Trivett Wingo shortly after the release of "Warp Riders", THE SWORD didn't take long to rest on their laurels. With a new man behind the kit, Santiago "Jimmy" Vela, III and a new record deal with the rapidly burgeoning Razor & Tie, THE SWORD steps back into the fabled crags and canyons which first gave them inspiration on their fourth outing, "Apocryphon". Their followers will no doubt breathe easier accordingly.
THE SWORD not only returns to their sorcerous wonderland, they step back and punt from a songwriting scheme. "Warp Riders" was far more adventurous than even THE SWORD themselves might've been comfortable with, because "Apocryphon" goes right to the primitive. This album is closer in spirit to "Age of Winters" with its initial caution and repetitive crunch chords, at least through the first few tracks, "Veil of Isis", "Cloak of Feathers" and "Arcane Montane". BLACK SABBATH of course lays the groundwork of these tunes, yet THE SWORD only take what they need to create rudimentary doom palettes. This permits the band to methodically weave some exterior accessible rhythms on top of some gnarly riffage from Kyle Shutt, Bryan Richie and J.D. Cronise. The guitar solos come in and out with fierce cleaving then they seem to just slide right back into the main drives of the song or they finish them altogether. Whereas the mini-epic "Dying Earth" is set up in nearly the same manner, yet the escalating solo is a cataclysmic ear blast which sets up a booming reprise of the main melody as its finale.
"Apocryphon" really takes flight with the punchy "Execrator", which opts for a hammering, upbeat tempo on the verses, jiving rhythms on the bridges and a killer chorus that makes the most of falling behind the beat. As with "Dying Earth", "Execrator" serves itself a gopher ball that gets knocked out of the park in a hurry. While many of the album's songs are short and punctuated, this one has such a quickly-ushered dramatic finish that's all over before you can say "Huh?"
"Seven Sisters" and "The Hidden Masters" are other standouts with their slithering grooves but they couldn't be more bipolar opposites in theory. "Seven Sisters" is a largely greasy affair with blues shucking and a brave dabble with calypso rhythms, while "The Hidden Masters" lumbers on beastly down-picked strides sure to satiate any true headbanger. It's the muscular, full arc swing of a broadsword set in slo-mo.
Later in the album, THE SWORD opts for a more traditional metal and seventies rawk pump on "Hawks and Serpents". You could imagine FU MANCHU or FIREBALL MINISTRY tackling the same territory. Some wallowing synths and Moogs serve up the intros of "Dying Earth" and the title track, showing the band is still seeking out diversity as much as they're seeking to recalibrate themselves with a basics-minded approach. The DEVO-esque bleep-and-bloop lead-in to "Apocryphon" sets up a titanic headbanging overture that calls upon both BLACK SABBATH and early JUDAS PRIEST. If you're not picturing a drippy consummation of lopped-off demon heads and copulation with big-breasted desert queens, you've missed the picture altogether. "Apocryphon" becomes masturbatory crunch metal that, like most of the album, makes its gory point, wipes both of its tools dry and then gets on its black steed, vanishing into the next realm that ends with "ia."
What's best served by THE SWORD taking a step backwards on "Apocryphon" is getting Santiago Vela, III acclimated and writing songs in primary that allows the band to toss on a few dashes of secondary and even tertiary coloring. Album number five oughtta be a doozie.
- Ray Van Horn, Jr.