Needless to say, heavy music has seen a wide rash of changes to it's old guard over the last decade or so. Crusty, bearded grumpsters have become the norm, and gone are the days where nu-metal appeared ad nauseam on at least a handful of high profile hessian zines and sites' end of the year lists. Mastodon have become the poster children (or rednecks, depending on the way you look at it) for the metal genre as a whole whether you're privy to it or otherwise, and the style that the Mastodudes and their many compatriots in the progressive-sludge-post-core sub-genre (seriously, fuck modern categorization) has quickly become the go-to approach for younger metal musicians with quirky ideologies, prodigious musicality and talent to garner mass amounts of critical acclaim.
Enter Austin based retrograde D&D nerds The Sword. Since bell-bottom wearing frontman JD Cronise and The Sword found themselves on the heavy music map unexpectedly following the inclusion of their single "Freya" off of their debut album Age of Winters on the first installment of Guitar Hero, their brand of heavy, down driven riffage and smooth, melodious guitar work has been carefully cultivated and tweaked, resulting in this year's release Warp Riders. The biggest knock on The Sword heading into their junior effort was a lack of dynamism and an over reliance on a retro sound that closely mimicked past riff heavy greats like Sabbath and early Zeppelin. Simply giving Warp Riders a quick listen proves that those criticisms were taken to heart by Cronise and his cronies (come on, too easy), put in their collective pipe, and chiefed quite awhile back.
What results is yet another concept fantasy album, yet this time around, The Sword have chose to flirt with what is commonly agreed upon as masterpiece. The riffage is there, the discussion of ethereal planes of existence and places only imaginable are there, and the retro-metal influence is certainly there as well, like we always expect from The Sword. What has changed however, is their ability to craft not only catchy songs, but sonically engaging ones that grip you by the balls and take you for a ride. A warp ride to be exact. Concept aside (which involves a story arch involving Ereth the Archer and his quest to aid the Chromomancer in use a cosmic orb to save his home planet Archeron... Awesome, right?), Warp Riders, not unlike Mastodon's 2009 acclaimed Crack the Skye, takes the already refined sound of The Sword and improves upon it massively. While more modern, thrash-infused heavy hitters with a sound we're used to from The Sword lace the album ("Arrows in the Dark"; "The Chronomancer I: Hubris,"; "The Warp Riders"), they comfortably add in other styles without compromising their signature sound nor come off as if they're reaching for variety. The highlight of the album comes in the very middle with "Lawless Lands", a track that would be at home on Master of Reality or IV, yet still retains modern day metal appeal. Cronise and co-lead guitarist Kyle Shutt duel back and forth throughout the track, while bassist Bryan Richie and newly-departed (more on this in later posts) drummer Trivett Wingo provide a perfectly crafted rhythm section to guide the plodding track along. Other highlights include "Astraea's Dream", an uptempo headbanger that would make Dave Mustaine proud, "Night City", which at times resembles Guns N' Roses' "Nightrain", and the eerie organ-synth bookends of the album. While the back end of the album can't quite hold a candle to the brilliance of the first half, and over-enthusiastic listeners may be left disappointed by only two uses of the hair-rising synth passage that circumvents the record, there are practically no other knocks that can be laid down on Warp Riders. Cronise has fronted an effort that will be mighty difficult to follow up, but with a band this young showing they've clearly entered their prime, it's most certainly possible for these Texans.
Simply put, The Sword have put together a tried and true album that begs to be listened to from front to back, but unlike Crack the Skye, it's a concept album with catchy riff laden songs that can easily be listened to on their own when desired. Warp Riders may do exactly to The Sword what their protagonist Archer does throughout the majority of the story; launch into space. Cronise and co., the youngsters who's career was sparked by a synchronized video game, have crafted what could turn into a heavy music classic. Yeah, you heard me. Believe the hype.
- Jack Attack