The Sword Plunges Back Into Houston
Photos by Francisco Montes
The Sword, Kadavar, All Them Witches
October 11, 2015
Upon their emergence from the very loudest corner of Austin’s music scene more than a decade ago, the Sword were decried by quite a few around the country as a gimmick band, merely aping the monolithic riffage of Black Sabbath and Thin Lizzy. The conventional wisdom was that the nostalgia couldn’t last. Five albums later, the Sword has put that sort of thinking to rest. Now a stalwart of American heavy metal, the group has helped inspire a new wave of interest in throwback guitar thunder, and not least of all in their home state. Whenever they play Houston, their local fans give them a welcome befitting conquering heroes.
Fitzgerald’s already felt full by the time opening act All Them Witches arrived onstage Sunday night. The Nashville quartet proved an excellent sonic fit for the evening’s proceedings, unspooling deep and heady jams with just enough crunch to get some hair bouncing out on the floor. Bassist Charles Michael Parks, Jr. put the audience into a trance with a Morrison-esque bit of spoken word that was delivered over a sumptuous stoner groove, and when the band transitioned into a long, bluesy psych-out, heads began to bang as if by post-hypnotic suggestion. The experience was a terrific icebreaker for the guitar fireworks to come.
The next band up was Berlin’s Kadavar, a stomping power trio for whom the 1970s never ended. Guitarist Christoph "Lupus" Lindemann had fans up front howling as he worked over his wah pedal, but it was his wailing solos over the hard-charging rhythm section that really flattened them. The guitar slinger was in fine voice, as well, as his warm warble shimmied through the cracks in the heaviness in the best tradition of Blue Cheer. Another excellent fit for the Sword’s fanbase, Kadavar enjoyed the rapturous crowd response due a headliner on Sunday as they bashed through tight rockers like “Living in Your Head.”
After Kadavar’s set, the outside balcony at Fitz was crammed full of smokers as we waited for the Sword to appear. The techs took their time setting up the stage, but when the PA sprang to life once more, folks flicked their butts on the floor and dashed inside. What they heard in there seemed to confuse them a little. The Sword took the stage to the weird strains of “Unicorn Farm,” the swaggering synth intro to the band’s new album, High Country. The instrumental is a major departure from the slavish Sabbath devotion that has defined the Sword’s sound for so long — evidence of the band’s refusal to be boxed into some retro-rock formula. Many fans didn’t quite seem to know what to do with it.
But then the guitars came alive, and the audience sighed with ecstatic relief that the Sword is still the Sword. No keyboards were in evidence onstage, and the weeping guitar harmonies between front man J.D. Cronise and lead guitarist Kyle Shutt were as heavy and affecting as ever. The rich scent of quality hydro began to waft into the rafters as drummer Santiago Vela III crushed his cymbals on a couple of tunes from 2012’s Apocryphon. The Sword’s titanic riffage is expressly designed to herd everybody on to the same wavelength, and out there in the dark, heads banged as one.
Cronise and crew delivered tunes from throughout their recording career on Sunday, but they were clearly most proud of their new stuff. Fans heard at least half of the High Country material, including the swaggering title track and the rollicking punch of “The Dreamthieves.” Most of the assemblage wasn’t yet familiar with some of the softer, moodier new stuff, such as groovy “Tears Like Diamonds,” but it didn’t matter. There are plenty of bands nowadays pimping vintage guitar riffs, but very few arrive as beautifully refurbished as those offered up by the Sword. The crowd was game for whatever they wanted to play.
After the band closed out their set with the high fantasy of “Cloak of Feathers,” fans hooted, stomped and clapped in unison until the Sword returned once more. It was already Monday morning by that time, but nobody seemed in any hurry to go home. People just can’t get enough of those heavy, tortured guitar harmonies, and maybe that’s been key to the Sword’s continued success. The riffs may sound old, but they never get old — not when they’re done this well.
Personal Bias: Born after the ‘70s.
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The Crowd: Born WELL after the ‘70s.
Overheard In the Crowd: “Halloween is not about dressing like a slut! It’s about being something that you aren’t!” That was… revealing.
Random Notebook Dump: Felt strange hanging out in Fitzgerald’s when it had been stripped of all its artwork, posters and ephemera. There was only blackness. Hopefully the new management has a plan in place to decorate the old dump a bit.