Album Review: The Sword – ‘Low Country’
Album Review: The Sword – ‘Low Country’
The Sword. Whether you got to know them through ominous riffs, through catching them at a festival or through the joys of Guitar Hero; it’s hard to believe that they have been on the scene now for over thirteen years. The barbaric guitar in the ‘Age of Winters’ was a sure fire hit and it was happy days in the festival sun listening to ‘Freya’ or the internal organ rearrangement courtesy of the, ‘Celestial Crown’. That album was followed by, ‘The Gods of Earth’ and then, ‘Warp Riders’. It was a trilogy of albums that defined the Texans as a festival favourite. Bouncing, bounding riffs that filled the venue. ‘Warp Riders’ was a masterpiece in the stoner metal genre and sparked immediate growth in the number of bands taking this musical direction. The technical joy of , ‘Warp Riders’, was replaced by the big sounds of, ‘Apocryphon’, in 2012 and it was like a watershed, like we were in a holding pattern. Good album, but different from the first three and told you that the band were just shuffling but a solid direction shift was coming up.
‘High Country’ was released in 2015 and it divided opinion. It was a Black Album moment with new fans rushing in and the old guard of fans wondering what happened to the waves of guitar and the bleak and stark soundscapes. Here we had thick production and treatment of the vocal that was very different from previous albums and harked backed to early 70s, except here we have a pristine recording trying to sound like an old recording. When I reviewed it at the time I enjoyed it though struggled with the vocal in the mix. Seeing The Sword a couple of times on that tour reminded me why I had climbed on-board back in 2005 but talking to a good cross section of the crowd told me that thoughts were divided. Some had loved, ‘High Country’, though found the first few albums inaccessible and too heavy. The old guard found the new album over-produced and too clean. Something about you can’t please all of the people, all of the time…
So here in 2016, in what I consider a touch of genius, The Sword have released, ‘Low Country’, which, if you haven’t guessed already, is an acoustic version of, ‘High Country’. So that nervous shuffling that I felt back in, ‘Apocryphon’, days became a new direction and then a huge punt into the unknown.
Don’t for one minute think that, ‘Low Country’, is a simple acoustic treatment. It’s far from that. It’s a stripping back of each song from, ‘High Country’, and reinventing it. Every word, line and nuance is crystal clear in the vocal and it’s superb. However, never did I imagine reviewing The Sword and typing the phrase, ‘horn section’. True story bro, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. The flow of the album is the same and so we start with, ‘Unicorn Farm’ which is acoustically very pleasant and implies that we are getting some country treatment. If anything, ‘Empty Temples’ and ‘High Country’, sucks us in even further and its country, perhaps a bit western as well, but its plain acoustic versions. Awesome though; as it’s clean and straightforward.
Bouncing over a couple of tracks, a couple of straight up acoustic tracks, we come to the immense, ‘Early Snow’, with a very mechanical sound and underpinned with the grove of machinery. It’s acoustic and digital at the same time. At the three minute mark, just as we have the low saw-tooth of a synth, we get the horn section. It’s a whole new ball game. Loved every bizarre, uneven, groove of this song. Just to prove they don’t give a flyer, it ends with what sounds like the subway heading off into the night. What next?
It’s, ‘Dreamthieves’, bringing back some acoustic norms while a drum machine and a synth introduces, ‘Buzzards’. This is the stand out of the album for me. It’s a complete song as it’s balanced and has the production qualities that should have been present on the, ‘High Country’. It’s a stupendous treatment of what was already a great track. It’s so immense that next song, ‘Ghost Eye’ is sort of missed as we are still wrapped up in the, Buzzards’. That’s going on again.
So, all too soon it’s the last track and it is, ‘Bees of Spring’, with the opening riff on what appears to be a ukulele, or a tenor guitar, but it’s a simple rhythm. This is a slow ponderous track that’s unfortunately gone in a flash at just over in two minutes but a great track to round out the album.
We all check out of bands at some stage. I left Queen at, ‘Hot Space’, and Rainbow at, ‘Bent out of Shape’. Anyone who checked out at, ‘High Country’ needs to listen to this. Just listen to it as it’s the band stretching their wings, being comfortable in who they are and learning to use the studio. Experimentation is a great thing as we get unusual music and we learn new things about the bands that we have followed. We are very quick to dismiss bands that produce the same album year after year, so we should celebrate a band that takes opportunity in a musical industry that has long since decided that adventurous bands have no place in the mainstream.
I’d urge you to have a listen and get the, ‘Low Country’, and the, ‘High Country’ at the same time. Those of you still in denial, well… whack on,’ Barael’s Blade’, onto repeat and hang out in 2006.
Reviewer: Craig Grant