What…the…hell? The Sword’s “High Country” was one of the most anticipated records of 2015, with all manner of exaggerated expectations being flown in a hundred directions to and fro; strong references to the band’s previous catalog predicted unprecedented greatness.
Yet for all that, it’s hard to imagine anyone expected this.
For “High Country,” The Sword has completely shifted gears, taking an abrupt turn away from their groovy metal roots and accomplishments to try their hand at a highly experimental record that dabbles in seven or eight heretofore untouched genres. As soon as the electro-boogie of instrumental opener “Unicorn Farm” begins, the fog of expectation evaporates and gives way almost to a feeling of disbelief – was this a joke open? The answer to that ends up mixed.
“Empty Temples” gets the listener back on more familiar footing, as The Sword puts beats to pavement in a style that is perceptibly classic rock. The undulations of rhythm and timing make the song feel out of time; a pleasantly performed anachronism from a previous musical age. Vocalist and ideaman J.D Cronise leaves his usual metal wail behind and composes for himself a vocal palette that is more relaxed and easy-going in an attempt to fit the band’s new sound better. The general thrust of this revolutionary idiomatic upheaval continues through the title track and into “Tears Like Diamonds,” the last of which sounds most like a Sword song. It’s here that Cronise reprises his usual vocals and gives us a listenable song that would have sounded at home on 2012’s “Apocryphon” with a little more depth in the bass department.
This is where “High Country” picks up a little – “Mist & Shadow” is the album’s first track that offers us a glimpse into the possibilities of The Sword’s experiment; a heady combination of deep, throaty bass and meticulous but simple melodies that combine to generate a naturally powerful and punchy tune.
There again though, the album changes, and we go back to heavy electronic influence for “Seriously Mysterious,” a song that bounces along with artificial beats and no particular melody. Cronise teams up with fellow Texan and Austin scene darling Jazz Mills to sing in that flat monotone that never quite worked for the early 90s alternative scene and combines it with a bopping cadence that’s reminiscent of the time before electronic music matured and it was safe to admit you liked it. For all that though, there’s something about this cut that works, whether it’s the oddball inflection of the pure oddity of it all in contrast to what we know of The Sword.
The album’s back half hits and misses (more on this in a minute,) but undoubtedly the jewel of the B-side is “Ghost Eye,” a variably thudding and articulate song with a huge singalong chorus that similar to “Mist & Shadow” captures the imagination of what The Sword was, is and can be.
Nevertheless, “High Country” feels unfulfilling. And before somebody says it, it has nothing to do with the new style. No one here is going to fault as accomplished an artist as The Sword for branching out and doing everything in their power to not be stagnant – there are plenty of bands who could learn a lot from the confidence it takes to make “High Country.”
Rather, the album is unfulfilling because it lacks in bite. Comparisons have abounded declaring that The Sword has made the move from Black Sabbath to Led Zeppelin, but the key to Led Zeppelin’s music was the unbridled vitality that permeated all of their best compositions. Sure, Zep had some slow tunes, but they were always juxtaposed by the sheer power of Page, Jones and Bonham. The Sword in this instance is more like Thin Lizzy or similar bands of that second-tier ilk – talented yes, but lacking in conviction and edge. There’s little punch here, just a lot of songs that are fine for what they are, but can’t or don’t turn heads and demand rapt attention.
Additionally, when you purchase “High Country,” there’s a big ol’ sticker on the front that openly boasts “15 new songs!” and that’s only sort of true. The record has four instrumental tunes on it, all under three minutes, which seem like unexplored ideas. “Suffer No Fools” in particular is like listening to J Dilla’s “Donuts”: there’s a worthy idea here, but it’s never extrapolated to its conclusion, leaving the listener to wonder what could have been. Continuing the point, “Turned to Dust” ends almost in mid-thought, the abrupt ending coming as a jarring juxtaposition with the song that follows.
“High Country” is one of those rare instances where the name on the front of the record grants some measure of benefit of the doubt. It took a long time for “Apocryphon” to really open up for me, so maybe it’s the same for this album.
That said, it’s hard to really go to bat for “High Country” when the album has some obvious and glaring flaws that can’t be covered up with greatness from the surrounding tracks. The Sword makes a laudable effort to do something new and it’s not a failure, but it’s not a rousing success, either.