[8 April 2008]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
The lead singer is always the focal point of any rock ‘n’ roll band, but nowhere is the role more important than in metal music. It’s always been all about projecting flamboyance, aggression, theatrics, or a combination thereof towards every audience member in a venue from the front of the stage, to, as Iron Maiden’s Bruce Dickinson once said, reach that one kid in the back row, and make him or her go, “Who, me?” Deena Weinstein put it best in her influential book Heavy Metal: The Music and Its Culture:
The emotional impact of the music is augmented by the sound of the singer’s voice. It is not flat, maintaining a studied lack of emotion, as in the punk genre, but goes to the opposite extreme, betraying the influence of the blues and its cri-de-coeur spirit. It is only by dint of much training or great repression that human beings fail to be touched by the strongly expressed emotions of others. At the metal concert the emphasis on relaxing constraint and desublimating, on being open to the performer’s emotions.
Whether it’s gaudy power metal, funereal doom, brutal death metal, or black metal at its grimmest, the lead vocals forge that crucial connection between performer and fan. In other words, metal bands had damn well better convey passion in their lead vocals, otherwise we’re left with something that sounds as boring as Pelican.
Unfortunately, especially when it comes to new American metal, many young acts seem to lack charisma in the lead vocal department, especially the cleanly sung variety, while the majority of their European peers go all-out, completely devoid of shame. Whether it’s an unwillingness to make that leap at risk of sounding too “cheesy” (note how the otherwise brilliant 3 Inches of Blood feel they have to augment the glorious howl of Cam Pipes with generic hardcore screaming), or a simple lack of real vocal talent these days, there’s an incredible dearth of classic metal-inspired singers coming from the States these days.
Which is where Austin, Texas’s the Sword comes into play. Falling neatly in between the proto-doom of early Black Sabbath and the rampaging extreme hesher tunage of the masterful High on Fire, their sound is tremendously appealing, as 2006’s spirited Age of Winters proved, first with fans of classic doom metal, then with indie scenesters looking for a fun, aggressive respite from the usual self-aware music they listen to, and even with the kids, as the throttling “Freya” proved to be one of the mightier wrist-killers on Guitar Hero II. Built around the massive guitar sound of J.D. Cronise and Kyle Shutt, and anchored by bassist Bryan Richie’s and drummer Trivett Wingo’s formidable rhythm section, it wasn’t until Cronise started singing, however, that some doubts started to creep in as to whether the band could make it last more than one album. Boasting the kind of unpretentious, casual demeanor that instantly draws comparisons to Ozzy Osbourne circa 1970, Cronise’s singing on Age of Winters was only barely passable. The melodies were strong enough to just hold up, but that stoner-style apathy in the singing was a far cry from duplicating the Ozzy’s inimitable appeal.
Now with the much-anticipated follow-up upon us, the Sword has made significant improvements on all fronts, save for the vocals, which have not only been buried deeper into the mix than the previous record, but have Cronise crossing the line from charmingly lackadaisical to just plain lazy. A real shame, too, because instrumentally, the foursome sound fantastic. Incorporating more of a thrash-inspired speed and crunch into the expected classic doom sound, the record moves with a much more arrogant swagger compared to the lumbering Age of Winters, a song like “Lords” moving with a New Wave of British Heavy Metal-inspired gallop not unlike the great Witchfinder General. The opening moments of the barnstorming “Fire Lances of the Ancient Hyperzephyrians” (a title that would make Nile’s Karl Sanders proud) are enthralling, as the song builds momentum before alternating between frantic thrash speed and explosions of Sabbatherian simplicity. “Maiden, Mother & Crone” continue in that Master of Reality vein that always draws us in, enslaving us to the will of the Mighty Riff, and the 13-minute climax of “The Black River” and “The White Sea” has Cronise and Shutt displaying more texture in their punishing guitar work than ever before.
When it comes to the vocals, though, Cronise never delivers on the same level as the rest of the band’s work, and the longer Gods of the Earth goes on, the more distracting this weakness becomes. In more capable hands, the aforementioned songs would be guaranteed arena anthems, but Cronise’s perpetual detachment in his delivery, whether intentional or not, sounds like the condescending demeanor of a hipster tourist, not a metal god, which in the metal community, is the kiss of death. Although Gods of the Earth is far from a complete failure, all it takes is one listen to an album like Sahg’s brilliant, recently released II or Isole’s powerful Bliss of Solitude to realize just how much a talented lead vocalist can elevate classic doom metal. The Sword is harmless fun, but if folks think this is the be-all-end-all of contemporary doom, they don’t know what they’re missing.