The Austin metal merchants channel a complex brew Sabbath, Zep, Frazetta and Lovecraft, yet Gene Simmons is their marketing model. Frontman J.D. Cronise explains.
BY A.D. AMOROSI
Space travelers, maidens, warp-speed walkers and fans of Uriah Heep-meets-Frank-Frazetta graphics have been into The Sword—hard—ever since guitarist/lyricist J.D. Cronise laid his Ozzy-like howl and staccato riffing into smartly told fictions that’d spoil any game of Dungeons and Dragons starting with 2006’s Age of Winters. Together with guitarist Kyle Shutt, bassist Bryan Richie and drummer Trivett Wingo, Cronise went on a fantastic metal voyage (from Austin TX, yet) that didn’t rely on helmets with horns, long beards or clingy black t-shirts. Instead, The Sword laced its crunching complex rock with complicated tall-tale telling. No sooner than they moved from fantasy to science fiction and epic metal into something leaner and meaner on 2010’s conceptual masterpiece Warp Riders in 2010, they were set to conquer this mortal coil—that is, until Wingo left abruptly. Now fully recovered from the loss, Cronise and Co have a new misty mountain hopping drummer Santiago “Jimmy” Vela III plus latest album Apocryphon (Razor & Tie) that benefits from big metal riffs and its singer’s way with big science.
BLURT: Do young fans get the old Black Sabbath reference points in your music? Do those within your throng discuss this with you? I always wonder where metal kids are at in terms of the past.
Well, the comment we get more often than anything else is, “You guys are like the new Black Sabbath!” I’m not saying that’s good or bad or even accurate, but I think a lot of our fans see us as sort of picking up where they left off. I think Sabbath and Zeppelin are still universal among most hard rock and metal fans, regardless of age. I hope so, anyway.
Whose idea was it to go with the consistent sleeve imagery of foxy ancient space maidens empowered or in distress? What was that conversation like?
There was no conversation about it. That was the blueprint I laid out before the band even formed. Everyone knew what they were getting into when they joined.
Did you guys ever consider dressing the part?
What, you mean spikes and armor?!? Or like foxy space maidens? In either case, no. We’re a band, not a performance art troupe.
Do any of you have aspirations to write science fiction narratives that go beyond a musical setting?
Perhaps. Time will tell.
Did the Sword ever experiment with a different lyrical and musical base?
We once considered doing a country album as sort of a joke, but we never found the time or motivation to get much farther than the song titles. We often jam on different kinds of stuff in the rehearsal room, though, like reggae.
Was your musical direction a shock to those in Austin who knew you when?
I don’t think so. It takes a lot to shock people there.
Your initial feelings when you guys lost your longtime drummer Trivett Wingo?
Anger and frustration. We couldn’t believe we had to cancel a tour halfway through. It took a few days for us to actually accept the reality of that.
What did you know instinctively that your next drummer had to have—and how does Vela suit/fit that bill?
When I asked them the question, “Who’s your favorite drummer?” the only answer I wanted to hear was John Bonham. One look at Jimmy’s drum kit answers that question. Not to mention he’s a monster behind that kit.
There’s been some streamlining going on since Warp Riders, sonically at least. Why not continue on with the thick complexity?
Simplicity is what translates better live. That’s a lesson I learned from ZZ Top and KISS. Gene Simmons always said KISS stood for “Keep It Simple, Stupid”. The more complex your riffs and arrangements are, the more likely you will either make mistakes live or it will just come across like a bunch of noise.
Seriously, name your favorite Robert E. Howard, H. P. Lovecraft and Arthur C. Clarke works. I totally get their inspiration on/in your previous works.
My favorite Howard story is “Beyond the Black River.” I liked it so much I wrote a song about it. My favorite Lovecraft is “The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath,” and my favorite Clarke would be “The Songs of Distant Earth.”
Going through the new album’s lyrics, I don’t see a through line—how does this album relate to Gnostic Christian secret teachings?
The information therein is more personal and deals much more with real life concepts rather than fanciful narratives. I decided I was finally old and wise enough to impart more of my experiences and world view into the lyrics. Therein lie the secret teachings.
What was the toughest song—and most rewarding—to get through, to convey its true intention/feeling most clearly on the new album?
I’d have to say the title track, “Apocryphon.” We were going to keep that as an instrumental because I had written lyrics for all the songs except that one, and we traditionally have an instrumental or two on our records. But there was always the nagging feeling in the back of my mind that it was meant to have words and needed them to be complete. I was reading VALIS by Philip K. Dick while we were recording. I ended up finishing it and writing the lyrics for “Apocryphon” the night before I recorded the vocals, almost literally at the eleventh hour. They’re some of my favorite lyrics on the record, though, and I think they sum up a lot of what I was thinking about during the writing and recording process.
If there was a band such as The Sword when you were growing up, would you have been its biggest fans?
I think so. That was the idea when I started The Sword. I wanted to be in a band that filled a void that I saw in heavy music. I always approach everything from the perspective of a fan and ask myself, “would I like this?” or, “would I think this is cool?” So yeah, I’d like to think that if I weren’t in The Sword, they would be one of my favorite bands.
The Sword’s latest tour started last week. They are in Louisville tonight (Oct. 31) and in Memphis tomorrow night, then all hell breaks loose in the heartland…