Over the course of four previous albums, Austin Texas’ The Sword have established themselves as an excellent if not slightly predictable stoner metal powerhouse. Their first record, Age of Winters, was excellent geek metal, bristling with aggression and a deafening production mix reminiscent of High on Fire and other luminaries of the genre. One of the things helping The Sword stand out among the others was lead vocalist J.D. Cronise’s singing voice: a throwback to a time before the raging shouts of Tom Araya, the Mega-Bro roar of Phil Anselmo or whatever it is that you would call what Dave Mustaine does. No great singer, Cronise always gave his best effort to get a modicum of a tune hefted over the mountain of storming metal he and the band were creating in order to pass on tales of Norse gods, fictional warriors, space operas, mages, etc. His singing is as much a part of The Sword’s identity as their guitar sound or lyrical subject matter. Up until now, not much about the band has changed, although they have seemed to make little tweaks that differentiate each effort from the last, usually to good effect.
2012’s Apocryphon represented the band’s Zenith. Production was cleaner and the tighter songs showed increased clarity and variety without sacrificing their trademark storytelling and ferocity. Where to go from there? Judging from the pleasantly baffling The High Country, the answer to that question is “about forty years ago”. The guitars have been tuned higher, older production techniques have been applied, the synthesizers are out of mothballs and the whole production positively drips with the seventies.
Opening the album is the short intro track “Unicorn Farm” which is under a minute of hopping drums and electronic noise serving as the lead in to “Empty Temples”, a song which is a solid indication of the album you’re getting into. If you hate this one, don’t be surprised if the rest of High Country doesn’t make your year-end list. Definitely tuned up. Guitars are fuzzy, not crunchy. Vocals remain unimpressive but don’t have to be yelled above the noise so Cronise sounds like a different, mellower vocalist with a lower range. While for most of the song’s length it seems satisfied to rock out in Thin Lizzy fashion, there is a nice break at the end that references older, heavier Sword. On a lyrical level, however, verses like “let go of all that binds you / your god will always find you” sound almost, I don’t know, hippy. Can that be right? Let’s see: Cronise himself said the album’s title “might mean mountains and literal high country, but it can also refer to a plane of being; a place of wisdom and enlightenment.” Indeed, things have changed since the days of “How Heavy This Axe”.
Some tracks, such as “Tears Like Diamonds” very much sound like an uptuned version of the band that was, with lyrical references to the Egyptian god Osiris blending into an excellent throwback solo for a stomping good time. “Ghost Eye”, with a little tuning, wouldn’t be out of place on Gods of the Earth. Title track “High Country” is another such, swinging and heavy with a sort of desert rock vibe and- Jesus, is that a cowbell?
There are also several instrumentals on this LP, which is puzzling not for that fact of their inclusion but more for their content. “Agartha”, with its old-timey synth intro, sounds like incidental movie music from the 70s, probably involving a good-guy car being tailed by a bad-guy car. Distant guitar wails and menacing electronics with jazzy brushed cymbal percussion evoke a man with feathered hair looking anxiously into his rearview mirror. I don’t think the scene turns into a chase though; the song certainly never turns into a rock song. If a chase did break out, I reckon the high energy buzz and serious 1978 synthesizer action of similarly vocal-free “Suffer No Fools” would fit the bill nicely. Late Track “Silver Petals” is an instrumental for a different, hippier movie. Maybe a young romance; something that could use folksy acoustic guitars, hand drumming and flutes. Yes I know what flutes are and they are on this Sword album. At least, synthesized ones are.
The best songs on High Country are the ones that most successfully blend the new sound with the old one. “Mist and Shadow” utilizes nighttime cricket sound effects and a twangy intro. Mellow, reverb-heavy vocals and muscular, rolling riffs conjure a July night spent in one’s garage, wrench in hand, worn denim-clad legs sticking out from under some old car. “The Dreamthieves” is hands-down the best track on this album and perfectly realizes the ambitions The Sword have for their new direction. Atmospheric and super effects-heavy, “Dreamthieves” turns into an excellent stoner rock jam, with great riffs that roll and develop organically. This is the Sword I wouldn’t mind seeing them change into, though they don’t show up often enough on this album for my liking.
As far as misfires go, “Early Snow” gets first prize and a participation ribbon that reads “OK so you tried but don’t do that anymore”. Mainly because it’s a song about getting through winter and surviving until the rebirth of spring, the reward for which is apparently a hysterically upbeat finish featuring a horn section. A. Horn. Section. Experimentation is one thing. Evolution is one thing. I offered no complaint about the flutes. But horns on a Sword album? Stop it.
High Country is a pretty good album with a lot of guts and a sincere hunger for reinvention. It’s a bit silly at times and it’s going to lose a lot of long time fans of The Sword who prefer the band that was singing about The Night’s Watch before HBO knew Game of Thrones was a thing. However, I’m willing to trust the band if they believe they were creatively running out of road, and I’m willing to change course with them provided it looks like they’re headed someplace fruitful. It may turn out to be The High Country after all, but ultimately it doesn’t matter to me as long where we’re going, there aren’t any horns.