It’s strange how a young band could sound as creatively tired as the Sword did on their second album, but there wasn’t any doubt that 2008’s tepid Gods of the Earth showed that the Austin band needed some tweaking. You can only lazily mimic the proto-doom of Black Sabbath, Saint Vitus, Pentagram, and Sleep so long before people realize that if that’s all you’re going to do, they might as well go back to listening to those bands rather than listen to a pale imitation. Gods of the Earth, while not incompetent, sorely lacked the exuberance of the band’s 2006 debut Age of Winters, the production stifling, the vocal melodies uninspired and buried in the mix, everyone seeming to go through the motions rather than sounding larger than life like the best bands of this genre do on record. Sure, the Sword’s fanbase was steadily growing, but there were still plenty of improvements to make.
The best thing that could possibly happen to the Sword was for them to hone their craft on the road, and when Metallica took the foursome under their wing as opener for the majority of their world tour, the timing was perfect. Now, two and a half years after the release of Gods of the Earth, the improvements on their third album Warp Riders are striking. This is a much tighter, more musically versatile band than we’d all gotten used to hearing, they’ve made enormous improvements in the vocal department, and best of all, the band has ditched the doom metal in favor of a broader, all-encompassing sound that embraces everything from 1970s hard tock, to Southern rock, to the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, to even a subtle helping of funk. Toss in the fresh perspective of producer Matt Bayles, who takes over the reins after singer/guitarist JD Cronise handled the previous two albums, and you’ve got a winning combination.
By downplaying all the sludgy tritone riffs and focusing on a much more exuberant sound, not to mention throwing themselves headfirst into a joyously over the top concept album storyline, the Sword sounds like a new band on Warp Riders. It might serve as an overture in the rock opera sense, but if anything, the spirited opening instrumental “Acheron/Unearthing the Orb” serves as a statement that there’s more to these guys than stale “Dragonaut” rehashes. It’s on the following track “Tres Brujas”, however, where we hear all the significant improvements at once, not to mention the valuable addition of Bayles. Not only is the song built around a Southern-tinged heavy rock riff a la Mountain or Grand Funk Railroad, but Cronise’s singing is so much stronger than it’s ever sounded on record, which Bayles smartly puts right up front in the mix.
Cronise recently told yours truly that Warp Riders “is like a soundtrack to a movie that doesn’t exist”, and however comprehensible the storyline turns out (the press was not supplied with lyrics), one thing’s for certain: the band absolutely nail the feeling Cronise describes. Songs launch into unexpected jams that feel like they’d fit perfectly as the score to a Heavy Metal style film. A terrific example is the fabulous, bleary-eyed groove of the near-eight minute “The Chronomancer I: Hubris”; while not a real stylistic departure from the first two albums, it’s a much hookier piece this time around, drummer Trivett Wingo giving the song a much-needed swing. Elsewhere, traces of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Street Survivors and Tres Hombres-era ZZ Top dominate “Lawless Lands”, “The Chronomancer II: Nemesis” has an absolute blast tinkering with dynamics while keeping things surprisingly cohesive, while “(The Night Sky Cried) Tears of Fire” combines fantasy and nimble riff rock as well as vintage Blue Oyster Cult.
Top marks, though, go to a pair of consecutive songs late in the album. The title track is the single catchiest song the Sword has ever written, its simple stop-and-start riff a product of the band’s “less is more” approach inspired by classic arena rock, giving Cronise the freedom to really showcase just how commanding a voice he now has. “Night City”, meanwhile, is Thin Lizzy through and through, from the wicked staccato opening riff, to the twin harmonies by Cronise and Kyle Shutt, to the groovy verses that are carried simply by Bryan Richie sitting in the pocket with a one-note bassline. Sure, it’s not original, but the way the entire band proves to be both so versatile and so dead-on in their homages (to put it politely) is too much fun to regard cynically. It’s a rousing climax of an album that finally shows everyone that the Sword can be something a lot better than merely a good retro doom outfit. The potential was always there, but this is the first time they’ve actually lived up to it.