The Sword have heretofore never presented themselves as a particularly divisive band. One of their greatest charms is that – aside from a cosmetic change here and there – you largely know what you’re going to get out of a Sword album going in: charging, bluesy doom with a strong Sabbath influence, with maybe the occasional space rock or psych influence thrown in. Well, for once the band seem to have decided their fans have gotten a little too complacent – or that the band themselves have merely become too predictable – and with new effort High Country they aim to shake up those expectations.
At only 52 seconds, “Unicorn Farm” telegraphs from the first minute that this is not going to be your older brother’s Sword album: the guitars have crunch, but that groove is a little more funky, a little more upbeat than what we’re used to hearing out of the band. Mostly, though, it’s the swirling synth line that’s lifted straight out of Zombi. “Empty Temples” follows and represents a hedging of bets, a traditional Sword song – uptempo and catchy – with the only new wrinkle being J.D. Cronise’s clean-but-muted vocals on the verses. It nonetheless represents a high point from which the rest of the album vacillates wildly. “Buzzards” could have come off of any other Sword album and will likely become a concert staple, but from there it becomes increasingly hit or miss.
“High Country” is not quite the departure that many of the ensuing songs will take, yet it does take on a slightly strange juxtaposition of Southern rock trends, kicking off with twin melodic leads a la the Allman Brothers before switching to a crunchy ZZ Top lick for the chorus. The synthesis itself isn’t hard to pull off, obviously, but the band bring nothing new to the table in incorporating these new influences; it’s all pastiche, no substance.
It’s not that the experimentation fails to bear fruit altogether: “The Bees of Spring” and “Mist of Shadow” are both worthy additions to the canon, the latter a minor key collection of brooding riffs that actually add up to more of the sum of their parts – the exact opposite of what most of the album achieves with its stunted, rudimentary songwriting – with “The Bees of Spring” being a solid take on the proto-metal 70’s blues folk sound that so many of the “occult rock” bands have been taking up.
But for every one of those successful reinventions there are tracks like “Seriously Mysterious”, which sounds like some bizarre mashup of Eagles of Death Metal and affiliate project Boots Electric, an organ-heavy funk number that tries to romp but just falls flat (it’s interesting that many of the worst tracks on the album top out at three minutes or so, almost as if Cronise and co. realized they’d be testing long time listeners’ patience).
High Country is ultimately the Sword’s ill-fated attempt to make a jamming Southern rock LP a la other stoner-friendly rock luminaries Clutch or Kyuss, but their pared down approach here doesn’t really play to their strengths. Cronise proves to be a limited vocalist when asked to step outside his usual gut punch monotone, and otherwise there frankly just aren’t enough catchy riffs to put over the rudimentary songwriting approach.
In the end, the band have seemingly taken on too many outside influences through calculated deliberation rather than organic growth. There are still a handful of standout songs on High Country, but not quite enough to sell an album that is predominately littered with half-baked ideas and failed experiments.