Words Ian Hawkins.
Austin’s heavy metal legends The Sword delivered their latest offering, High Country this week, and Desert Highways spoke to the man behind the towering guitars and monolithic vocals, John D. Cronise, known otherwise as J.D.
It has been about ten years since I first heard The Sword, watching my brother tap away on a plastic guitar, whilst his digital alter ego rocked out ‘Freya’ on Guitar Hero. Amongst a smorgasbord of trash, here was some music that was actually new and interesting. In what proved to be a turning point in my appreciation of metal, the Sword’s debut, ‘Age Of Winters’ paired riffs that sounded like Sleep being played by Metallica, with themes of the occult, science fiction and all things H.P Lovecraft.
‘The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath, that’s probably my favorite story of his, its kind of a Novella’, was what the wirey Texan voice that was beamed into my room told me. Over their next two albums, the band took the listener on hunts with wolves, back in time and through middle earth before touching down on the fictional planet Acheron with the album Warp Riders. Their last foray in the realms of Science Fiction, Warp Riders was based on a fictional story written by J.D. One question though has always begged an answer, was this story ever published, or was it simply a stepping stone to writing an album?
“Its not been published, but that’s not to say it never will be” was the answer I had always wanted to know. J.D added that “when we were doing the album, we originally wanted to have some sort of companion piece to it, a comic book or a graphic novel, but at the time we just couldn’t make that happen, it would have cost a lot of money to put that together. There’s probably a lot aspects to it that aren’t actually covered on the record, I kind of wrote the story then just chose little bits and pieces to write songs about”.
High Country is the bands fifth studio album, if there’s two words describe it, they are wisdom and subtlety. The colors of evil chord progressions and spacey lyrics are still present, but the textures are from uncharted territories for The Sword.
“They always say write what you know”, and certainly J.D seems to have picked up a lot in more than a decade playing metal. After spending so much time looking into un-reality, High Country is looking out on a new horizon, “Back in the day, especially when we were first starting out, I wasn’t really comfortable writing a lot of personal sounding lyrics, so I would use a lot of colorful imagery and tell stories and stuff like that. As we’ve gone along and I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten a little more comfortable with presenting more personal lyrics in ways that I’m more comfortable with”.
This is something that is carried across the album, a band that is more comfortable with sparser songs that still speak volumes. There’s a certain Texan feel to the guitar work, the intro ‘Mist & Shadow’ sounding more like some chilled out ZZ-Top-esque blues, but with the same feeling of a journey. The heaviness comes across less in tones but more in the melancholy of individual notes.
“A lot of the ways that the new songs are played and approached is more subtle than our previous records. That was something we worked on, things like not playing our guitars as loud as possible all the time, and tuning our guitars differently”.
Having looked deeply into the amazing production on all of The Sword’s previous records, I was surprised to discover a much larger production team was used for the recording of High Country. This album has seen J.D take a step back from the role of producer for the first time, handing the reins over to Adrian Quesada. “We wanted someone to come in and give us more outside creative ideas”.
With their regular instrumentation taking up less space, High Country brings in new elements, female backing vocals, more use of synthesizers and even horns. “That was the producers idea and he kind of reluctantly suggested that, he was in a Latin / funk band and was known for the sort of thing. He didn’t want people to think he was trying to turn us into some kind of salsa band”.
In some ways, fans of The Sword who were hooked in by the sheer intensity Age Of Winters and Gods Of the Earth may be a little setback here, especially the more intrusive use of synthesizers. Many bands say that they ‘tried something new’ or ‘got a new sound’ when discussing their next record, but too often it can be more of the same. Whilst The Sword of today may not have the thunder and lightning of 2005, few of their contemporaries can lay claim to such evolution of successive records. Certainly the band does not sound tired or repetative.
Preceding this latest record was 2012’s Apocryphon, which was the first to feature new drummer Santiago Vela the third, “All three Santiago Vela’s have just gone by Jimmy, some kind of family nickname, so we just call him Jimmy”. After the departure of Trivett Wingo (undoubtedly a manic beast of a drummer), Jimmy has taken a step back and delivers a more relaxed, hard rock style with a characteristic tightness, which I think adds to the maturity of this record. “He’s really easy to play and work with, he’s really open to anything and always has a good attitude”.
With four tight albums in the can already, High Country is by no means a winding down from the dizzying heights stoner metal the band have reached, more a re-assessment of what the band feels like saying. To have had such a characteristic sound built up already, it can be difficult to know when to turn the fuzz pedal off for a moment and work out what you want to do next. My top picks are Tears Like Diamonds and Mist & Shadow.
As for whether the Sword will be returning to our fair shores soon, this is what J.D had to say: “We hope to come back early next year. We’ve only done big tours down there (Soundwave, Metallica), but we’ve never really done any regular headlining club shows in Australia, so when we come down next year that’s what we hope to do”.
I’ll see you out the back of the Barwon Club when the day comes, but until then check out Mist & Shadow taken off High Country below.
The Sword’s High Country album is available now. Click on the link HERE for the Australian exclusive 2LP coloured vinyl + branded rolling papers set!