Wednesday, 5 August 2015

The Sword - 'High Country' (Album Review)

By: Phil Weller

Album Type: Full-Length
Date Released: 21/08/2015
Label: Razor & Tie Recordings


The length of the album, at 15 tracks, does make getting acquainted with this record a slow process, but in the end you’ll discover there aren’t any dips in form. ‘High Country’ is rich in consistency and across its span, Cronise, Shutt and co. dispel any fears you may have about this release all the while oozing a slick professionalism. They’ve been at this song writing malarkey for a while now, they’re hardened pros and this stands testament to their brilliant legacy.’

‘High Country’ CD//DD//LP track listing:

01. Unicorn Farm
02. Empty Temples
03. High Country
04. Tears Like Diamonds
05. Mist And Shadow
06. Agartha
07. Seriously Mysterious
08. Suffer No Fools
09. Early Snow
10. The Dreamthieves
11. Buzzards
12. Silver Petals
13. Ghost Eye
14. Turned To Dust
15. The Bees Of Spring

The Sword is:

John D. Cronise
Kyle Shutt
Bryan Richie
Santiago Vela III

The Review:

Few modern bands, it could be argued, have so lovingly crafted an arsenal of razor sharp, ‘why-didn’t-I-think-of-that?’ type riffs as The Sword has. John "J. D." Cronise & Kyle Shutt, inspired by everything from Blue Cheer and Black Sabbath through to Sleep and High on Fire, have been schooling their compatriots on the art of the riff with a resolute ease which has earned the band a formidable reputation.

Nine years ago they introduced themselves with the venomous grooves of ‘Age of Winters,’ but since then they’ve continued to develop, to recreate themselves with every release and build on what came before rather than simply recycle. ‘Warp Riders’ was, upon its release in 2010, a coming of age in a way; they’d perfected their own signature brew, finding the balance between heaviness, infectious hooks and lean never over-saturated song writing to make a cocktail for the rock loving masses to savour. Two years later saw a new experimental flavour to that blend however, adding grumbling synthesizers which split opinion greatly on ‘Apocryphon.’ It was a record where the guitars, at points, took a more passive, or at least a less audaciously battering approach; it was a record which was an equal summation of all the band’s parts in order to accommodate the synths, resulting in some of their most commercially digested music to date.

Which brings us to the present day, and amidst the fallout of the marmite impact ‘Apocryphon,’ had upon their riff worshipping fan base, you’d forgive people for approaching ‘High Country’ with an air of trepidation. I myself, while a fan of ‘Apocryphon,’ had a faint whisper in the back of my mind – a craving that this record will be more hard-hitting, jugular-swiping stoner rock n’ roll revelry. The reality is that their fifth record is the complete opposite of that. The overdrive dials have been rolled down, that emphatically fat guitar tone has been on something of a diet and this is, without a doubt, the Texan quartet’s mellowest offering to date. Yet, this release doesn’t reflect a failure to adhere to the wants of much of their followers; it is germane to their persistent evolution as a band and is, quite simply, an absolutely killer album.  It’s not what was craved by so many, but it takes little time in convincing you that this is the right option. Put beside previous offerings, it stands as both an individualistic collection of finely written songs and a great accompaniment to their discography.

Thematically, talk of witches (‘Seriously Mysterious’), mythology (‘Empty Temples’) and Lovcraftian fashioned tales (‘The Dreamthieves’) is still present. But the musical DNA has more in common with 70s acts like their fellow statesman ZZ Top and the harmony-lavished works of Thin Lizzy than anything like the more metallic edge that those first few records were embellished with. There are touches of the likes of MC5, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Grand Funk too. This is out and out American rock n’ roll and it is done exceptionally well.

That’s not to say there isn’t the crunching of bones at points on ‘High Country,’ it’s not that they’ve gone soft on us; ‘Suffer No Fools’ and ‘Buzzards’ are evidence of that. The prior, an instrumental, has a definitive punch to it and it’s a track tailor made to start circle pits while the latter is chock full of snarling fuzz. Both sound like classic The Sword tracks. As do ‘Empty Temples’ and the title track itself which are arguably the most representative for what this record is on a whole; heavy stonerisms and mellow musicality dancing together before a still and star smattered night sky.

The instrumentation of ‘High Country’ is broader than any of its predecessors, there’s a definite ambitiousness and playfulness in diversifying and adding to their sonic palette. As a result, the songs are enriched greatly.  One of the highlights of the record has to be ‘Early Snow’ with its surprising but ultimately tantalising brass sections. It comes across so classy, making you want to put on your most dapper suit, grab a whisky and click your fingers till sunrise. It swings brilliantly, the grooves illuminating their tones – darkness isn’t always the be all and end all – and that swing bleeds perfectly onto ‘The Dreamthieves.’ This track benefits from an almost AOR like layering of ‘aah,’ ‘oooh’ backing vocals – only if AOR weren’t shite that is. 

Another song benefitting from this broader use of instrumentation is ‘Seriously Mysterious,’ a short, synth led bounce which, in a way, has a real resemblance to Deep Purple’sDemon’s Eye’. Lurking in the background throughout is the elephantine parp of octave pedalled guitar licks – think The White Stripes, Rage Against The Machine, Royal Blood - which open up the song effectively, giving it a greater sense of dimensions. When those guitars come in they affect you just like every fretboard stroke of mastery The Sword has done in the past. It’s moments like this that really win you over.  Elsewhere, ‘Silver Petals’ consists of a lonely but gorgeous acoustic guitar: A chilling composition that flows nicely into the slow and steady roll of ‘Ghost Eye’ which itself boasts some chunky and delightfully gritty classic rock moments. ‘Turned to Dust’ is subtly Floydian with its haziness; it’s a slow, dreamy track full of some luscious lead work that floats along like a leaf down a river.

The length of the album, at 15 tracks, does make getting acquainted with this record a slow process, but in the end you’ll discover there aren’t any dips in form. ‘High Country’ is rich in consistency and across its span, Cronise, Shutt and co. dispel any fears you may have about this release all the while oozing a slick professionalism. They’ve been at this song writing malarkey for a while now, they’re hardened pros and this stands testament to their brilliant legacy.

‘High Country’ is available here and folk in the UK can order here



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