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Metal has been hipster’s music for a while now—at least long enough that tattoos, bad biker hair, and unkempt beards don’t necessarily signify the real deal anymore. Take the Sword, which not only looks the part, but sounds it, too, kicking out the kind of galloping, power-chord-hammering stuff that’s probably best listened to inside a large, American-made car or a smoky, Masonite-paneled basement. For the more nostalgic of the Sword’s potential listeners, let’s situate said basement in some no-hope Nowheresville like the ones they escaped to attend college—Wilkes-Barre, Pa., maybe. Or Wyndmere, N.D.
In other words, a place totally unlike the slacker mecca of Austin, Texas, where the Sword is actually from. And geography isn’t the only thing about the group that seems a little suspicious or smacks of effort. Singer/guitarist J.D. Cronise’s CV, which includes a stint in modern-rocky outfit Those Peabodys, is another. So is the fact that, like Matador act and current tourmate Early Man, the Sword is evidently more comfortable on an indie-rock label than a metal one, where it resides alongside Swedish import Dungen, avatar of another hipster music, neopsychedelia.
None of this would matter, of course, if the Sword were trying to push the envelope. But there’s little that’s progressive or expansive about the band’s long-playing debut, Age of Winters, an album that owes most of its prerelease buzz to hair-metal aficionado and Wyndmere native Chuck Klosterman. The single-minded new disc was composed as if little has happened since the early ’80s. Cronise & Co. behave much like popular underground act High on Fire, splitting the difference between two of metal’s earliest and most accessible archetypes—Black Sabbath’s slow-as-death doom and Motörhead’s revved-up thrash. It’s catchy stuff, to be sure, and Cronise, who produced, gives it the kind of spaciousness and sheen that make clear bassist Bryan Richie and drummer Trivett Wingo’s aspirations to be the greatest NWOBHM rhythm section that never was.
Anxiety of influence has obviously never troubled these particular heads, whether they’re well-banged or not. At no time is that more apparent than when Cronise opens his mouth. The Sword’s frontman is so clean a singer—and modern metal vocalization exists so close to the edge of laryngeal trauma—that he’s obviously taking cues from an earlier era. The guy adopts a reedy, note-stretching style that recalls no one so much as Ozzy in full Master of Reality wail. Yet what he chooses to sing might be too Heavy Metal Parking Lot for even that old bat-muncher to stomach—not to mention anyone this side of Darkness devotion.
Cronise’s opening vocal drone, in the first stanza of tumbling-riff workout “Barael’s Blade,” presages an album’s worth of funny-book scenarios: “Forged by the crowmage from shards of darkness/Honed by the half-breed to Vorpal sharpness/Behold!/The bastard’s blade.” In case you missed the tattoos and the hair and the beards, here are a few more metal signifiers—albeit jokey, self-aware ones. Ditto for the cover, which depicts a comely medieval lass cradling cold steel in highest Fillmore nouveau.
The W.B. Yeats quote on Age of Winters’ inside cover warns listeners of the escapism contained therein even more explicitly. But why flee from a world that is, as the poet writes, “full of weeping” when the substitute is just as depressing? In the Sword’s knights-with-guitars alternate universe, Cronise would mount “heads on bloody spears” (“Winter’s Wolves”), spill blood “with the singing of the scimitar” (“The Horned Goddess”), and generally punish the “legions of vermin” that surround him (“Iron Swan”). The imagery is pretty much interchangeable song to song, a fact underscored by Age of Winters’ unrelenting musical sameness.
Indeed, the only respite from neocon fantasy, eight-part instrumental “March of the Lor,” is anything but a radical departure. Granted, none of the penultimate track’s red-meat riffing and moderately spicy soloing would seem out of place elsewhere on Age of Winters. But stripped of vocals, the band seems suddenly, well, kind of serious. Perhaps it’s the exception that proves that these are indeed metal dudes, not dilettantes. Or maybe it’s just that irony—or jokiness, or whatever you want to call the Sword schtick—sounds better coming out of a wall of amplifiers than out of someone’s cakehole.
Sometimes-retro power trio BORIS, by contrast, was metal before metal was cool—or at least before indie-rock labels started releasing the stuff. The cult-inspiring Japanese act, which takes its name from a tune by Kurt Cobain fave the Melvins, has been making records in its current form since 1996 debut Absolutego, an 65-minute drone that went unreleased on these shores until 2001. In Japan, the album came out on the band’s own Fangs Anal Satan label. But aside from that forced reference to Lucifer, these former art students signify metal effortlessly. In addition to making what the band calls its “heavy” records as BORIS, it also releases just as many or more “experimental” sessions as boris.
Two examples of the latter, soundtrack Mabuta no Ura and Merzbow collaboration Sun Baked Snow Cave (both from 2005), display a selection of nonmetallic influences: groovecentric art rock, freak-flag-flying folk, and not-really classical music that sets the controls for the heart of the sun. But no amount of experimentation, apparently, will dissuade fans—or the band itself—from thinking of the “heavy” records as the main attraction. That, no doubt, is why American indie Southern Lord licenses only the heaviest of BORIS efforts, such as the band’s latest full-length, PINK. Like the Sword’s debut, BORIS’ new disc, which gets a domestic release in a matter of weeks, sports its share of ’70s-centric, stonerific hard rock. “Sukurin no Onna” in particular is so successful at channeling Led Zeppelin’s heavy blooz that Southern Lord probably ought to add Page & Co. to its royalties database.
In a recent interview, bassist/vocalist Takeshi claims that BORIS is nobody’s throwback; the band, he says, wants “something to connect us to now.” Accordingly, even the most classic-rockin’ all-caps-BORIS record is shot through with a sense of modernity. Perhaps the best illustration of this is PINK’s opener, “Ketsubetsu,” easily the most melody-rich tune in the band’s catalog. That track, which suggests a wilder, woollier My Bloody Valentine, retrofits the shoegazer genre with some real horsepower, creating the kind heavy ethereality that only Justin Broadrick’s postmetal act Jesu has also achieved. Elsewhere, too, the band is adventurous, revisiting Earth 2 (“Burakku Auto”), banging heads with Young Team (“My Machine”), and, ultimately, pledging allegiance to Daydream Nation (final track “Ore o Suteta Tokoro”).
That none of these songs are sung in English may be a stumbling block for some potential listeners. And the import’s lack of a translated lyric sheet is certainly a problem for any thorough criticism. But a look at the band’s previous Southern Lord–licensed disc, 2003’s Akuma no Uta (released here in 2005), which included English translations, gives at least a sense of the band’s unorthodox approach to metal songwriting. Sure, on “Ibitsu,” Takeshi, a punkish vocalist who nonetheless contributes a significant amount of melody, sings about “evil intentions” and “this wicked formation.” But on “Ano Onna no Onryou,” he intones some approximation of “I only hear persisting echo/With her hair waving la danse des morts/‘I’m gonna be taken away.’”
That kind of impressionism might seem alien to those who buy into the Sword’s rather old-school idea of metal. But anyone with any all-caps-BORIS experience is unlikely to quibble with the band’s cred. Real metal bands, after all, are both defined and limited by what were once the most marginalized aspects of their sounds: sludginess, speediness, a preference for the symphonic. So why not record a postrock soundtrack or get your drone on with an infamous noise artist? It’s all metal in the end. Takeshi and his bandmates get this; they know they don’t have to try all that hard to be what they already are. PINK may not encapsulate the entirety of their on-record interests, but as bold-faced metal goes, few records are this satisfyingly inclusive. CP