Doom-metal giants settle into a kinder, gentler realm of metal: “We are entering a new phase,” declares frontman J.D. Cronise. The band kicks off a North American tour next week, incidentally.
BY KELLY DEARMORE
Since forming in 2003, and especially since releasing records since 2006, the Sword has forged a sound that’s often compared to metal greats of the past, but ultimately, have proffered a singular sound all its own. Mystical concepts of fantasy and the supernatural have been laid underneath thick-ass grooves and stoner-iffic riffs to create not so much a formula as much as a signature sound for the Austin-born group.
With the recent August release of the Sword’s strong, surprising new record, High Country (Razor & Tie) the group seems to have taken a stylistic flight on the wings of one of the odd creatures that’s inhabited past albums such as its 2006 debut LP Age of Winter, and 2012’s stellar Apocryphon. It’s not as though sax, trumpet, trombone, and to a lesser degree, synthesizers, are typical ingredients found in a standard doom-metal cauldron. But they can be heard on the new record, and they work just fine. To be clear, High Country is still a rock-solid metal album, and it’s not a drastic departure for fans with even a half-way open minded approach when giving the record its initial spin. J.D. Cronise, the Sword’s lead-singer and chief songwriter, is quite comfortable mixing up a few new metal recipes.
“It is a new adventure in a way, but it is very much still a Sword record,” Cronise says, just before High Country saw its release on August 21. “We are entering a new phase collectively as a band, and as individual musicians. This record doesn’t represent a conscious effort to change anything, or to not sound like our older stuff, so I think our flavor is still there.”
For the many Sword-loyalists across the globe, things could sound wildly different now, even compared to the newer southern rock, and prog-rock elements that have been introduced into the group’s canon with this new record. However, what began as a bit of an inside-band goof did send Cronise, lead-guitarist Kyle Schutt, bass man Brian Ritchie, and drummer Jimmy Vela into a mental realm where new ideas were fleshed out for mass consumption.
“We used to joke about, and we even got pretty far into the planning stages of, doing a joke country album a couple of years ago,” Cronise explains, without even a hint of laughter in his voice. “It was a way for us to kill time on the road, and we’d come up with funny song titles and lyrics, but obviously, we never actually did that. But thinking about those silly ideas, we became sure that if we had done it, we would’ve made a true Sword-version of a country album. Now, we’re confident we can figure anything out if we’re really into it.”
And the self-assured, exploratory vibe Cronise speaks of is evident in tracks such as the slow-burning, FM-rock of “Turned to Dust,” the British folk instrumental “Silver Petals,” the crunchy, free-wheeling southern rock “The Bees of Spring,” and yes, the horn-inflected “Early Snow.” But that’s not all, in-terms of Sword development. In each of High Country’s songs, the clarity of Cronise’s vocals and lyrics claim a greater prominence than ever before.
“A lot of times, in metal, the lyrics are formed around the instrumentation,” he explains. “And you can tell there are plenty of bands with a singer that happens to just be the guy who would volunteer, and not because he is the right singer. These days, I try to create lyrics that are going to resonate with people, or express my own thoughts on certain things. In the past, many of our lyrics have been set-dressing for the riffs, but with these songs, I wanted to lyrics, the vocals, and the music to not be separate items.”
Perhaps most notably, “Seriously Mysterious,” a prog-rich, beat-heavy number which certainly rocks out with its metal out, does so in an evolved manner that will likely send many reaching for the repeat button to fully grasp what was just played. While the arrangement is damn-near danceable, an oddity unto itself, Cronise goes into a real-life religious realm not traversed by his band before. In fact, what can be heard in High Country, is a happier, kinder, but no less rocking, Sword.
“We did record in a church, so some of that vibe seeped in, I think,” he says. “That song is about tapping into the energy of our surroundings. I’m not really a religious person, but I see the power of gospel and soul music that has strong spirituality and a positive energy to it, which is something I tried to infuse into many of the new songs. During the writing, I thought a lot about why it is that I play music, and what music is really all about, and I think that’s why this record sounds different in many ways.”
Cronise, for now at least, is more interested in good vibrations than menacing overlords and the complex tales of ominous alter-universes that have starred in past Sword records.
“I want this record to be an uplifting thing,” he says. “I want it to be something that helps people get through hard times. I didn’t want this record to be doom and gloom. I’ve said all I can say about the apocalypse, for now, I think. I’m more worried about the overall energy we’re putting out as a band and hoping we can be more spiritual and positive.”
In the end, any differences between High Country and the fine records in the Sword’s past have more to do with a group of artists hoping to grow and having confidence their audience will grow with them.
“It’s weird to me when I hear a band play the same stuff in the same way forever,” Cronise explains. “I had to change it up some. We’ve done the super-intense, dark stuff, but we’re all older now, more chilled-out, and definitely, not as angry as we were before.”
The Sword kicks off the North American leg of their High Country tour on October 9—view the tour dates at their official website.