THE SWORD's Low Country: A Track-by-Track Review
Low Country, as the name would suggest, is not a new Sword album but rather an abbreviated acoustic re-imagining of last year's High Country, which was released around this same time last summer to mixed reception, including here on Metal Injection. While taking serious chances stylistically, many fans found the album a little too experimental for its own good… if not maybe a bit undercooked in the process. Low Country might therefore be viewed as an attempt to consolidate the strengths of High Country while eliminating some of its excesses, in turn highlighting the strength of its compositions by eliminating many of its more controversial production choices. Does it succeed? We'll attempt to answer that question through a track-by-track comparison:
1. Unicorn Farm – a 50-second intro on High Country that grooved heartily but didn't stick around long enough to function as anything more than a preview of new sounds to come, this acoustic rendition serves pretty much the exact same purpose here… though the fuzz lick on the original translates into a surprisingly funky folk blues lick. Still little of lasting substance, but the metal world has long become accustomed to pointless intros and outros, so no harm no foul.
2. Empty Temples – one of the better, more traditional tunes on High Country, the acoustic version features more pronounced "ooooh"-ing backup vocals than the original, and the guitar playing cuts through clean and lean, but it's difficult to prefer this rustic version to the powermad original. I will say J.D. Cronise's cleaner singing works better on these stripped down versions, though, whereas on the originals they lacked the muscle to keep up with the stoner rock aspirations of the instrumentation.
3. High Country – in my review of the original album, I criticized this clunky ZZ Top + Allman Brothers as being "all pastiche, no substance". This rendition converts the derivative dual guitar harmonies into a weird sort of carny folk that doesn't do anything to improve its chances. At least the chorus doesn't evoke Rio Grande Mud this time.
4. Mist and Shadow – here the band wisely skip the jam room workout "Tears Like Diamonds" and move on to "Mist and Shadow", one of the strongest, most Sword-like tracks on High Country. The muscular riff from the mother track translates the best we've heard so far into an acoustic alternate, with Cronise's understated vocals quietly highlighting the soulful backbone of the original, exposing the song as straight up Delta blues at heart. A highlight so far, though that's admittedly not saying much.
5. Seriously Mysterious – "Agartha", a fairly worthless filler organ-centered interstitial from High Country, is understandably skipped in the track listing here, but it's interesting what the band have done with "Seriously Mysterious", a real clunker of a pseudo-funk track that is here reimagined as a stripped down, rudimentary dirge that is more interesting in how it diverges from the original than it is compelling in its own right.
6. Early Snow – bypassing the jam-heavy "Suffer No Fools" – which might have actually made for an interesting acoustic rendition, maybe say tripling down on the guitars – we arrive at "Early Snow", a clumsy Clutch knockoff in its electric version that is actually pretty appealing in this stripped down context, although they cheat a bit on the "acoustic" part with electric bass. The stomping kick drum is also retained, making this by far the liveliest tune on the record so far.
7. The Dreamthieves – so the original version of this track was actually a fairly good Clutch knockoff, with a cool early 80's guitar tone and B.O.C.-style "ooh" backing vocals. The latter is obviously that much more emphasized on this acoustic version, much as on earlier track "Empty Temples", and you even get some modest strings toward the end, but while this song works fairly well in this context it's yet another one where it's kind of hard to prefer this over the original… or even consider them equal-but-parallel achievements.
8. Buzzards – alright, now they're just fucking around. This "acoustic" version of "Buzzards" starts off with electronic keyboards and what has absolutely gotta be a drum machine. "Buzzards" was actually one of the better tracks on High Country, so this overhaul – adventurous in all the wrong ways – is a total shitshow.
9. Ghost Eye – "Silver Petals" is skipped here, having already been an acoustic song on the original album. As for "Ghost Eye", I didn't really have a strong opinion about it one way or the other the first time around, but damned if this isn't a dramatic improvement in a minimalist acoustic context. Everything sounds great here, from the arpeggiated strumming to Cronise's oft-iffy singing. With one song left to go let's just go ahead and chalk this up as the best track on the album.
10. The Bees of Spring – ….. and they lost me again. "The Bees of Spring" was probably my favorite song on High Country, but this half-length acoustic version just feels like filler. Not terrible, just terribly inessential.
Final thoughts: a real missed opportunity for The Sword to get folks to re-evaluate High Country. Actually, if anything Low Country mostly reaffirms that only about half of these songs bear any real heft to them at all, as many as not betraying a struggle to adapt to a new songwriting approach. There's a sort of apologism that often springs to a band's defense when they try and mix things up, that apologism implying that anyone who isn't into the new stuff either "doesn't get it" or "just wants to hear ____ Pt 2". Nah, sometimes a band tries something new and just doesn't do a great job at it, which has unfortunately been the case with The Sword this album cycle. There's enough promise on High Country that they may well pull off a successful reinvention if they continue in this direction, getting a little more experience under their belts and tightening up the songwriting somewhat, but thus far High Country and its companion piece Low Country feel too much like they were expecting credit just for trying.