Sunday, 23 August 2015

The Sword - High Country (2015) / 85%

Ooby Dooby Rock

A popular opinion about the American quartet is that they were opportunists hipsters who jumped onto the stoner doom band wagon and while it's sort of true, it's not fully accurate. The early 2000s were more about sludge (early Mastodon), aggressive stoner (High on Fire), stoned stoner (Bongzilla) and the retro metal approach wasn't still quite big in the US, it was going somewhere in Europe with Witchcraft and the likes though. Even if it's possible that the dudes of The Sword weren't totally honest about their craft (I don't quite believe in that, I'm naive enough to think musicians play the music they like) and weren't doing anything new at the time, they brought doom to the American masses and that's something. Also, <i>Age of Winters</i> was still released before the whole occult rock/doom fad (think of Jex Thoth for the US). Nevertheless, I'm not saying they were instigators or precursors since stoner rock/metal wasn't absent, they never really brought new ideas and bands like Priestess were evolving in the same genre but after more than a decade, the band was in dire need of a change of scenery.

I enjoyed their first three albums but thought that their fourth record <i>Apocryphon</i> was a mediocre effort: it went nowhere and it felt rehashed and lazy. Three years later, they're back with a new album and they feel fresh and renewed. It's nowhere near as heavy as their four other albums but it still rocks super hard. There's still some doom and stoner metal to be found here but they added a huge dose of classic rock and psychedelia to their formula. It's like they took a long big bath while listening to Rush's <i>Fly By Night</i>, some old CCR and Led Zeppelin and a bunch of Queens of the Stone Age records (Satan knows I love Josh Homme). While many songs are far from their old style (check out “Seriously Mysterious” and its lush keyboards or the psychedelic intro), I feel their identity is kept intact, it's clearly the same dudes. They probably discovered the psychedelic darlings of Tame Impala and decided they liked their stuff ( to be fair, well, Kevin Parker is pretty damn awesome) and I think it's wonderful. Add a lot of blues, roots and southern rock tendencies to their psychedelic stoner rock and you're in business for what I'd call my surprise of the year. Nonetheless, I'm sure some “purists” of the band won't like this new direction but to me, it's an extension of their identity and a logical progression.

You'd think the album would be entirely a rock affair if you've read a recent interview J.D. Cronise (vocals, guitars) did. He said the following: <i>“I’ve been listening to a lot of blues and roots music, even country music, a lot of old country music. This record reflects more of our current tastes... I don’t really listen to that much extreme music anymore, or really even that much of what you’d call heavy metal."</i> (<a href= "">Read the full interview</a>) It's not though, there's still a lot of stoner metal/rock here, they just added more ingredients to their tex mex taco and it's just tastier. He also mentions that playing super heavy doom would had been “playing a part” and that there's not enough individuality in the metal scene. I certainly agree with what he said and The Sword managed to break off of their own mold, sure it's not as thundering or intense as <i>Gods of the Earth</i> but I'm happy they didn't release an album akin to Death Magnetic (a record clearly written to please the fans who were demanding some true 'Tallica!) and that they were honest with themselves. What's the point of playing a genre of music you're bored with?

The structure of the album may seem jarring as it has 15 songs but I don't think it was problematic at all. There's a good flow between the tracks and there's enough variety to keep us hooked throughout its duration. Some of these are interludes like the superb krautrock influenced “Agartha” or the accoustic charm of “Silver Petals” and they add a cool groove to the record. They still deliver solid heavy songs like the great “Early Snow” and its big band blues section (trumpet, saxophone and trombone!). It's High Country's finest moment and I wish it would had been even more present. Cronise and Kyle Shutt didn't stop writing huge guitar hooks (the AOR/glam riffs of “The Dreamthieves” are excellent). I've seen them and it's a strong guitar duo in the purest rock tradition. They're strong musicians overall and there's a lot of (vintage) feel in the leads and the bass (Bryan Ritchie handles the synths as well) is a subtle yet tight and vivid presence.

Cronise's lyrics aren't quite better this time around but they're still at least entertaining, they were always fun especially on the Sci Fi concept album Warp Riders. There's some sort of rural/agriculture theme going on (the introduction of the album is called “Unicorn Farm”) and it fits the vintage psychedelic approach they took. There's some funny innuendos like “give me your honey, spare me your stings” in the great last track “The Bees of Spring” but he will not win any literature prizes with his prose, he's still quite juvenile. I mean, he's still speaking about witches and like he said in one of the tracks “it's nothing new”, eh, I have no problem with that after all. His vocals were never The Sword's strength and it's still not the case but I do think they're stronger and aren't as buried as before. They're entertaining and highly catchy and possess this interesting pop flair. He's very good on the soft moments of “Ghost Eye” or the western ballad “Turned to Dust”. He's certainly not John Fogerty but he doesn't try to be either and he's a good fit for the sound of his band.

High Country could be seen as a way to get a foot in the door of the recent vintage stoner rock revival (they'll bring both Kadavar and Royal Thunder with them on two different tours this year), if it's the case, it's done with honesty, skills and vision and shows that The Sword can adapt themselves. It's not a lazy effort, it's a real combination of influences in a package that doesn't feel dated or archaic despite the vintage inspirations. Anyhow, the band has always been in possession of a crossover appeal between rock and metal, they just made it clearer with this. Let's boogie with The Sword, my ass is already shaking.

1 comment:

~listen_carefully said...

I enjoyed your review. Well written and with lots of name-dropping that usually leads me to find some new artists to enjoy. Thank you!