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CD Review: THE SWORD Apocryphon

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Everyone rides that Sword jock nowadays – it's worn, broken in and smells pleasantly of oiled leather – but let's pause a moment to reflect upon the band's auspicious yet at one time controversial ascent.The scene is 2006; stoner rock was at least 15 years old by then but was still somehow a niche market that many metal fans continued to be dismissive of. "Serious" bands were the order of the day, with many a year end top 10 list consisting of the likes of forward thinking (read: progressive) albums like Katatonia's The Great Cold DistanceEnslaved's Ruun and Celtic Frost's inventive comeback Monotheist.

Enter a quartet of upstart Texans who dared pen songs with titles like "Freya" and "Iron Swan" with the audacity to shun the expected viking metal trappings in favor of Sabbath/Blue Cheer-era 70's nostalgia. They were hardly the only band mining such territory at the time – the much missed's online jukebox were filled with similar retro-pageantry – yet there was something about the band's debut, Age of Winters, that forced non-stoners to sit up and pay attention… this was an album everyone felt the need to have an opinion on whether the actual style of music was up their alley or not.

The majority of the attention seemed enthusiastic (much of the naysaying consisting of obligatory rebuttals to what non-fans considered gross, unforgivable overpraise on the part of those who felt they'd just discovered something truly awesome), but two years later when the follow up, Gods of the Earth, was widely criticized for being a stale retread of the first album, it seemed for a time that the naysayers were right (though a high profile gig opening for Metallica mitigated the credibility hit to a pretty significant degree).

Warp Riders sealed the deal. For all its faults as a model sophomore slump, Gods of the Earth wasn't egregiously bad, necessarily, and so those on board for Age of Winters were still largely singing the band's praises – if in a slightly more muted tone – when Warp Riders came along in 2010 and shut everyone else right the fuck up.

Nothing had changed in terms of musical approach, but the album nailed it on all counts: impeccable songwriting, tight musicianship, superb production by Matt Bayles (IsisMastodon). Suddenly everyone had been a fan of The Sword since day one.

Bygones being bygones, this year's Apocryphon comes into the world with tempered expectations, arguably the first of the band's efforts that can be fully absorbed on its own terms. By now even casual fans know exactly what to expect of a Sword album: catchy, uptempo riffs in the old school blues metal vein with strident, hollowed out vocals from J.D. Cronise, all recorded with a compressed analog-sounding warmth.

The primary difference here is that Apocryphon is the first album to exclude original drummer Trivett Wingo, who was forced to bail early into the Warp Riders North American trek due to anxiety issues related to touring as well as physical exhaustion. His (apparently permanent) replacement is Santiago "Jimmy" Vela III, who brings his own heavy handed yet nimble style to the kit. Mr. Wingo will be proud to know there's been nothing lost in the percussion department.

With any band as stubbornly resistant to experimentation as The Sword, its difficult to place an individual album in the grand pantheon of things, but Apocryphon is a logical continuation of Warp Riders with a bit of a trade off in heaviness in favor of accessible, memorable choruses. Also largely jettisoned is the extended jamming, most of the ten tracks clocking in reliably between the 4-5 minute mark.

With Warp Riders being the band's historic breakthrough – and the first many had heard by them – its unlikely that Apocryphon will decisively unseat that record as the group's best, but I can't imagine anyone being dissatisfied either (unless you expected The Sword to go full on prog, in which case you obviously don't know them too well). If anything there is less filler here than on any of the prior three records… all peak, no valleys, basically.

Grab the deluxe edition (who the fuck buys standard editions in 2012, anyway?) for a quartet of live tunes recorded in hometown Austin, plus a sweet cover of fellow Texans ZZ Top's beyond classic "Cheap Sunglasses".

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