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The middle of this decade marked yet another significant shift in heavy music. Bands such as Saviours, Torche and Early Man were dropping debut albums; at the same time, more established indie-metal bands like Mastodon, Killswitch Engage and Shadows Fall were signing major label deals. Headbanger’s Ball was back on the air and tons metal festivals were crisscrossing the globe with fans of all ages supporting metal acts that spanned close to 40 years. And for probably the first time in the last 15 or so years—rather, since Smells Like Teen Spirit showed up—it seems like the general public was finally ready for some gut-wrenching, ear-splitting, honest-to-goodness metal.
In comes The Sword from Austin, Texas. After spending a few years recording music on his own, guitarist/songwriter J.D. Cronise reached out and found some like-minded musicians—guitarist Kyle Shutt, bassist Bryan Richie and drummer Trivett Wingo—to help put the finishing touches on their debut album, Age of Winters (2006). When this album first hit the streets, its heaviness seemed to resonate with anyone and everyone and, just as Moby and Crystal Method were supposed to put “electronic music on the map,” The Sword were poised to do that exact thing again for metal. Unfortunately, metalheads weren’t having it, and somehow The Sword, in all their doomy grittiness, were dubbed “hipster metal,” which may or may not have had something to do with signing to Kemado. “They weren’t known so much as a rock label really,” Cronise explains. “But I don’t know why people thought of us like that really. None of us have put an ounce of gel in our hair or a dot of eyeliner on. So who knows? Anyone who thinks we're still hipster metal still should come to one of our shows and see who's there. It's just dudes who want to rock out."
Over the past few years, however, Kemado has signed Danava, Saviours and Priestbird, as well as put out the best collection of independent heavy music to date, Invaders, which features everyone from High on Fire to Witchcraft. It’s apparent that the people making decisions on how to invigorate the label’s persona just love all kinds of music, and from what other artists on the label claim, they are very “band friendly.” Stepping away from the idea to sign to a more traditional metal label, Cronise says, “When they were initially interested in signing us, the fact that there was nothing else like us on their label showed us they were really into it. We weren’t just another rock act to add to their roster—they were genuinely into it.” And why would a band want to get lumped in with another 30 metal/grindcore/hardcore/slowcore/___core acts, when they could actually stand out among the masses? So Kemado it was.
Age of Winters was critically acclaimed, but that opened the door for critics to make claims that their music isn’t authentic, and The Sword was classified as some pseudo-tribute band without truly giving the album an honest listen. These critics couldn’t be more wrong. “There are bands around that are definitely trying to recreate sounds from the past and doing a very good job of it,” says Cronise. “but I think if you really listen to The Sword you can’t really say, ‘Oh, this sounds like this song.’ or ‘That sounds like this song.’ We’re not directly trying to recreate a sound from another band or from another era. I think people look at us or look at our song titles and make these comparisons without even listening.” When a critic keeps a few popular metal bands in their back pocket for reference, they’ll pop in a metal album and have no real basis for comparison, which then leads to an inaccurate portrayal of band or genre. And if that happens in a large arena, say, an intern at Rolling Stone, it could result in a lot of damage control.
Gods of the Earth, due out April 1, 2008, does more than demolish the idea that The Sword were a fluke. It shows more of a full-band effort in the songwriting process, therefore making the overall magnitude of this record heavier and more robust. Age of Winters, according to Cronise, “was all demoed out ahead of time and the guys heard all the songs before they even joined the band. Now, since we can rehearse the songs and get together on a regular basis, it’s a lot easier to come up with things in our off time and bring it in. Now everyone has a lot more input.” And after touring the world and playing hundreds of shows together, they couldn’t be any tighter. And they have a message to send to the naysayers, and that message is the 2-minute opening track, “The Sundering.”
“The last album started with a slow, droney instrumental track,” Cronise explains, “so we thought it would be a change of pace, but still consistent, to start with another instrumental, but maybe a more aggressive one. It was something that came real quick, and we thought it would be a good intro to do.” This song is essentially a snapshot of what’s to come on the rest of the album. An acoustic arpeggio gives way to a pounding riff and a blood-curdling drum beat, then few seconds later, soloing, huge riffs, pitch harmonics and that’s that—let the journey begin. And before you can even get your jaw off the floor, The Sword are kicking your teeth in with even faster, heavier brain-splitting songs.
It’s not hard for your imagination to run wild when looking at the titles of some of the songs off Gods of the Earth. For example, when Cronise says, “’Fire Lances of the Ancient Hyperzephyrians’ is probably my favorite to play because it’s a really fast one,” all you can really do is nod, scratch your head, then Google “Hyperzephyrians” when you get back to a computer, but still come up empty handed. Contrary to what the titles may sound like, Cronise says they aren’t mythological. “There are a lot of literary references. ‘To Take the Black,’ for example, is from a series of books by George R.R. Martin called A Song of Ice and Fire, and that song’s about a particular element of that story,” he continues. “Then there’s ‘The Black River,’ which is somewhat inspired by the Robert E. Howard story, ‘Beyond the Black River.’ There’s a song that’s not on the promo called ‘The Frost Giant’s Daughter,’ which is directly inspired by the Conan story by the same name. Even the title of the album, which is not directly taken from, but is a slight reference to an H.P. Lovecraft story called ‘The Other Gods,’ which should be read by anyone who’s interested in that kind of thing. There’s also an Arthur C. Clark reference in there, but people are gonna have figure that out for themselves.” So head over to Barnes & Noble and get your read on if you really want to understand what these songs are all about.
The entire recording process has changed for this album as well, and it really comes through on songs like “Lords” and “Mother, Maiden & Crone,” where it truly feels like each member of the band have contributed to the song with their own style. A majority of the album was recorded at the band’s studio, Folkvang (in case you were wondering, in Norse mythology, this was the dwelling of the goddess Freyja in Asgard), and the drums and some of the guitars were done at an “actual” studio in Austin. “We did the rest of it at a studio called Premium Recording, and we mixed it there too,” says Cronise. “It has some really nice analog gear and nice digital gear there for that matter—a lot nicer than our stuff, that’s for sure.” An engineer by the name of Andrew Hernandez handled the mixing for the album and all of the production was handled by Cronise himself.
“I don’t do the engineering,” he admits, “like I don’t know where to put the mics. Bryan knows more about stuff like that. I’m more the guy who figures out what parts needs more reverb or adding some crazy shit right here—more about the overall sounds. Bryan is more of an engineer. He’s really into recording and does that in his off time and records other bands and stuff. He’s kind of a tech-head studio guy and he engineered the first record entirely, and he and Andrew co-engineered this one. We know what we want it to sound like, so we want to keep it close.”
Gods of the Earth has all the elements of Age of Winters, but this album is a step up on every aspect of the recording process. The vocals, songwriting and musicianship in general are deeper and even more colossal than ever before. The recording sounds raw and gritty in a good way, but Cronise said that’s because the promo pressing that went out isn’t going to sound like final product, so all of you out there who downloaded the leaked version of the album have to go buy it when it drops. But all-in-all, this album pounds you into the ground, inciting uninhibited air-guitaring that would put the great Bjorn Turoque to shame. And in a live arena, they go could head to head against some of metal’s greats and put up a good fucking fight. “There were times when we were mixing this album, where it was really a challenge,” Cronise confesses, “and we were thinking we maybe should’ve had someone else do it, but in the end I am really happy with what we got.”
More on The Sword, including tour dates, here: www.swordofdoom.com
Related articles: The Sword Live at the Troubabour (March 2007)