Released: 2015, Razor & Tie Entertainment
Reviewer: Peter Atkinson
Correct me if I'm wrong, but The Sword used to be a pretty decent, and pretty heavy, stoner/sludge/doom type band, right? They opened for Metallica at one stretch a few years back, and did some sort of cosmic metal concept album around the same time? Warp Riders. Yeah, thought so.
Well “that band” is mostly missing in action on the Texas quartet's fifth and latest album. Though The Sword have never been shy about experimenting, especially over their last couple albums, they’ve always rocked pretty hard. High Country though, isn't particularly sonically challenging - and it certainly isn't especially heavy. What it does offer is plenty of narcotic haze, lots of funk – of all things – and a calculatingly retro-fied air that rings more hollow than anything else.
High Country finds the band taking a fuzzed out classic rock approach that announces itself with the rattling bass and keyboard throb of the instrumental intro “Unicorn Farm.” But where there used to be thundering riffs and beefy tempos, what follows here are jangly grooves and the occasional - and very brief - Allman Brothers-like jam, oddly buzzing bass lines, frisky but understated drums and ethereal harmonies. Add some organ peals, tambourine shakes, a few Tower of Power-like horns and surprisingly laid-back production and you've got the whole chill hippy package.
Need more proof. Howzabout the opening lines to the title track: “Brothers, sisters, listen closely, to the Earth/Dawn arrives, the rooster wails, clouds enshroud the mountainside like a virgin's bridal veil.” Far out, man.
The pulsing synths and squalling guitar of the instrumental “Agartha” take things briefly in a proggy, Pink Floydian direction before settling back into earthy crunchy mode again with the keyboard chirp and female harmonies of “Seriously Mysterious.” The instrumental “Suffer The Fools” kicks up the tempo and delivers some extra muscle, making it, along with “Ghost Eye,” the album's hardest rocking song – despite its intrusive synth line. Here we can hear The Sword of old, but again, it doesn't last long.
Indeed where The Sword once wrote epics – and had a sound to match – High Country is a collection of, for lack of a better term, ditties: simple, pop-like songs delivered with an almost pleasant ease. And while many of the songs are quiet catchy, they lack much impact – though the album does end on a high note with the terrific “The Bees of Spring,” which is about as monumental as things get here.
Perhaps instead of taking such a giant leap with their sound, The Sword might have taken a smaller step and made the transition a little smoother. High Country isn't evolution so much as it is a complete transformation. And it's a bit too much to handle all at once.