As a metal connoisseur, I’m always looking out for the perfect show to recommend to my open-minded, indie-rockin’, metal-curious friends. These recommendations can be dangerous, though. A band could be too cheesy, too evil, too grim and frostbitten, too noisy, or too serious. Metal singers make things even tougher; growly vocals are an instant turn-off for most people.
So, when I heard The Sword were coming to the 9:30 Club, I knew this would be the perfect opportunity to enlist new members for our metal army. The Sword play “retro metal” which would fit well on the radio alongside Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath. The vocals are clean; the songs are rooted in sci-fi. But most importantly, this band knows how to write a killer riff that any music-lover can appreciate. Monday night’s show was a constant barrage of excellent guitar licks, played flawlessly and cranked up loud.
When I arrived at the club, it was at about half capacity with metal-heads scattered around the floor, watching Karma to Burn. They delivered a solid set of heavy, mostly instrumental stoner rock. The Sword took the stage about an hour later, launching straight into some of the best material from their new album Warp Riders, like “Tres Brujas” and “Arrows in the Dark”. The whole show sounded great – the mix was perfect, and the guitars and vocals complemented each other throughout the night. The headbanging gave way to moshing about halfway through the set as the music (and/or beer) caused people to lose control.*
Even though they got through most of the tracks from their new album, they still blazed through some of their best, older material like “How Heavy This Axe” and “Fire Lances”. The highlight of the night for me was “Freya”, which I (along with many other dudes) recall note-for-note from its feature in Guitar Hero II. They added some harmonies to the guitar solos, which was a nice addition. Really, this is a great band for guitar players (and 5-button joystick players) – they deliver riff after riff that sounds old-fashioned, but it’s new, and it makes you wish you had played it first.
During the show, I thought about the nature of ‘heaviness’ and where The Sword fits in to the metal world. Their style is restrained; it evokes 70s heavy rock more than any metal from recent history. Their guitar tone is warm and full of mids, but their tones are never piercing or aggressive. They weren’t running around on stage and shouting at the crowd like mosh-pit cheerleaders – they were more like masters of their craft, focusing on driving riffs into our ears.
I wondered what would happen if the singer started screaming – not necessarily a guttural death-metal growl, but just a face-scrunching yelp here and there. Sure, his subdued vocals give more room for the riffs to breathe, and lots of people can’t stand metal vocals anyway…but I couldn’t help but feel like the music was missing some intensity because of it. The vocal melodies struck me as filler between the riffs – they were never that exciting on their own, and I barely noticed the lyrical content.
In my mind, metal bands are always trying to out-heavy each other, to create something louder and more brutal than anything else on record. The Sword choose not to compete in that particular arms race. Part of me want them to aim for the excess of Mastodon. Hell, they’ve already got a concept album full of classic metal riff-age; so they just need to grow better beards, get a new graphic artist, and buy a projector. But maybe that’s just not how they do things in Austin?
To end the show, The Sword followed “Freya” with a couple speed-metal tracks. I looked around and saw heads banging left and right. As I left the venue, I was humming riffs all the way home. Sometimes a couple of good riffs is all I need to get through the week.
* I hate to be a backseat mosher, but y’all started moshing during “The Horned Goddess”, which is kind of slow and epic, instead of waiting for the very next song “Iron Swan” which is full of speed-metal riffs! Amateurs.
** Check out the full photo set from the show!