For years now, the Sword has served as something of a standard-bearer for Texas heavy metal. The Austin group’s epic, throwback riffage made a big splash upon their debut in 2006, and they’ve been trotting the globe ever since, preaching vintage distortion and high fantasy over three more well received discs. For better or worse, they’ve been perhaps the highest-profile heavy metal band out of Texas since Pantera.
It hasn’t always been a comfortable fit. Never much suited to leading a movement, the band has watched a thriving, underground doom metal scene spring up around them in the state with something like flattered unease. Though certainly in league with Texas doomsters’ ecstatic Sabbath-worship, the Sword never set out to be a part of anybody’s heavy metal subgenre. This year, they aimed to prove it.
High Country, the band’s fifth full-length, was released in August. It represents a departure for the group, both literally and figuratively. “High Country” is a nickname for the Appalachian region of North Carolina, the state where Sword songwriter, singer and chief riffmeister J.D. Cronise has resided pretty much since the release of the Sword’s last album. It ain’t much like the ever-more-bustling Austin there, and that’s just fine with him.
“Just getting out of Austin kind of gave me a little bit different perspective,” Cronise says. “I definitely found my environment up here to be pretty inspirational. Basically, I don’t like to write songs about people or be real heavy on the social commentary, or write about personal relationships. What I found inspiration in was the natural environments — the world apart from humans and their comings and goings and their business.
“I was interested in what goes on when they’re not looking, I guess,” he adds.
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What Cronise found was the space to do a little stretching, and the new ideas are evident straightaway on High Country’s intro track, “Unicorn Farm,” a funky little electro number that sounds like Thin Lizzy covering Herbie Hancock’s “Rockit.”
“As far as that opening track, that was definitely kind of a calculated move to open the album with a very different-sounding song,” Cronise says. “We definitely knew that we were putting stuff on this record that hadn’t been on previous records. That one was actually kind of an improvised, in-the-studio thing based on that idea of having an intro that really would inform the listener that they were in for an atypical album from a band like us.”
In other words, the Sword are not being coy: Having long since mastered the punishing majesty of classic metal guitar, the band has turned to the same cryptic tool that their forebears Sabbath and Priest did in the ‘80s: the synthesizer.
“Honestly, I really like a lot of later stuff by a band like Sabbath, which, especially early on, we got compared to the most,” Cronise says. “To me, on the last couple of Ozzy albums, they started to really do some out-there stuff for them and write some different kinds of songs. It probably wasn’t really appreciated at the time, but for me, coming into it later, you start to appreciate where they were able to take it.
“When you get into something, you might latch onto this one sound from a band,” Cronise says, hinting rather strongly. “But you learn to appreciate their other facets, as well, as you grow with them.”
To be sure, Cronise has lost none of his talent for writing incredible guitar riffs. They can still be found in abundance on High Country. But there are also cooing background vocals, slick electronic blues and shuffling trap percussion—not to mention the full-on country folk of “Silver Petals,” reminiscent of the gentlest bits of Led Zeppelin III.
Digging deeper into rootsier sounds was probably always in the cards for the Sword, Cronise says.
“That’s really what I feel connected to the most,” the guitarist explains. “I listen to a lot of blues and blues-based music, and it’s just something I felt like I needed to explore more. Blues music and folk music and old Appalachian bluegrass and gospel is all very resonant with me, and something I find very powerful. It was something that was always bound to make it into my music at some point.”
Particularly at a time when the Sword seems to be chafing a bit at the expectations placed on them. With many around Texas hoping to see them become a true scene champion, the band has conspicuously dialed back the volume from 11 to try out some groovier new expressions. It’s a bold move, particularly in the often change-averse world of heavy metal.
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But the alternative, Cronise says, was even more unsettling.
“Once you get labeled a doom-metal band or a stoner-metal band, it gets a little difficult to make people accept you as just a rock band,” he says. “I think we found ourselves kind of getting pigeonholed, and we’re not comfortable with that, because we don’t really consider ourselves that limited in musical ability and musical vision.
“We listen to all kinds of things; we want to play all kind of things and experiment with all kinds of things,” he continues. “It’s always, at its core, going to be us, because we’re making the music. As far as how we present it, we’re always open to new ideas.”
The Sword swings through Houston on Sunday, October 11, at Fitzgerald’s (2706 White Oak), with special guests Kadaver and All Them Witches.