A 'Winters' tale

October 15, 2006


  • For many hipster rock fans, the knee-jerk reaction to any album boasting song titles such as "Barael's Blade," "Lament for the Aurochs" and "March of the Lor (Instrumental in Eight Movements)" is to snicker and invoke the ghost of Spinal Tap. But the Austin, Texas, quartet the Sword is winning a measure of respect for its debut album "Age of Winters" that's well-deserved, and the disc is winning over devoted metalheads as well as more alternative types (or snobs, if you prefer).

    "We have noticed that -- being accepted by people who aren't necessarily metal fans -- and we think it all comes from the songs," bassist Bryan Richie says. "It definitely takes some musical appreciation to be able to play metal: It's not something that you just pick up and are able to do, you have to have some real ability. But the song is ultimately what's most important. I was just thinking about that the other day with some bands I saw live -- I'll let them remain nameless -- because there were no songs involved. It was just like, 'Let's see how fast we can play this s---.' That's cool, and I'm into that personally, but I don't see how you're ever going to retain any sort of mass audience like that. Our s--- can be heavy as hell, and we can riff out, but there needs to be a song there."

    With influences that include stoner-rock gods Sleep, art-noise monsters the Melvins and death-metal masters Slayer, as well as more old-school metal heroes such as Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden and Deep Purple, the Sword joins a growing list of new bands that mix a number of sounds from the varied underground-metal subgenres -- Mastodon is another good example -- as well as groups that aren't afraid to wave the pothead freak flag, even if that means skirting parody (as Wolfmother does).

    Veterans of several other bands that used to share bills around Austin, Richie, guitarist-vocalist J.D. Cronise, guitarist Kyle Shutt and Trivett Wingo (whose drumming is as cool as his name) came together as the Sword about three years ago. "J.D. listened to Sleep and loves Black Sabbath, and his take on it was that he saw a void where there wasn't a band like the Sword that was heavy but with a pop sensibility, as far as the melodies he sings and the major pentatonic scales we're playing and things like that are friendly to people's ears," Richie says.

    "When I joined the band, I was given a CD of songs that had already been written: It was all J.D. performing them with a drum machine, and it was basically the blueprint for Side A of the first record. Then we kind of put together 'Iron Swan' and 'Lament for the Aurochs' as a band, though J.D. was still kind of the lead idea machine on all of those. With some of the newer stuff, we've got Kyle coming in and laying forth his deadly riffs and whatnot, but we're not really like the jammy kind of band. We can jam, but we don't jam to write, if that makes sense. We can fool around and come up with some slick-sounding psychedelic stuff, but nobody just starts galloping on a riff and then everybody else comes into it."

    From the beginning, the group's live shows have won some influential fans -- "You know how Indians used to hunt buffalo by forcing them off a cliff, and they'd fall to the rocks? That's kind of what they sound like," Spin's Chuck Klosterman wrote, proceeding to call the Sword the best band at the South by Southwest Music Festival in 2005 -- and the band attracted the attention of several labels, including Kemado Records. But the twentysomething musicians were impatient to begin recording, so they simply started doing it on their own, in Richie's basement.

    "Kemado was interested, but their lawyer was really taking his sweet time, and months would go by without any sort of communication," the bassist says. "The album had been written and in the can as demos for a long time, since October of 2004. So we were like, 'Let's just record it ourselves! Then we'll take it to record labels, and if they want it, great, and if not, screw it; we don't have anything else going on!' So that's what we did, and Kemado ended up loving it, and that's what everyone has gotten to hear."

    Since the album's release last February, the Sword has been on the road almost constantly, playing with metal bands as well as hard-core groups. "It's been hard, because it's difficult remembering to pay the bills and stuff when you're never home," Richie says, laughing. "But it's great, because when you tour and play every night, you just become like this insane machine-tight unit capable of calculus-like thought processes while playing!" Not to mention dreaming up the backstories to flesh out the elaborate fantasy world portrayed in the songs.

    Richie laughs when I ask how many of the band's lyrics are tongue-in-cheek.

    "None of them!" he says. "We're all sci-fi and fantasy buffs. The song 'Freya' is based on Norse mythology, but there are other things that J.D. just kind of made up. Like, he says the Lor is an ancient race of spider beings, and we're like, 'Alright, dude!' But we're definitely all for the idea of trying to take listeners somewhere different. If you can close your eyes and envision this giant battle happening, well, we're all for that."


    When: 6 p.m. Tuesday

    Where:Metro, 3730 N. Clark St.

    Tickets: $18 in advance, $20 at the door

    Call:(773) 549-4140