Sound — 8
The Sword has been heavily compared to Black Sabbath since they've come out, though I haven't personally felt like that line of comparison was as strong as some. I have, however, enjoyed the retro-metal vibe they had going on, which had a distinct stoner-metal sound to it. With the release of "High Country," they've left a lot of their previous sound behind, but the "stoner" quality to their sound remains - maybe more like stoner rock than metal on this one. If they were previously like Black Sabbath, then with this album they are more like Led Zeppelin. "High Country" has 15 tracks with a runtime of approximately 50 minutes. The title track, "High Country," was released as the lead single from the album in mid-July. Several other tracks from the album were leaked/released ahead of time through various websites.
The album opens up with the track, "Unicorn Farm," which is a short 50 second instrumental utilizing some synthesizer and midi-drums and turntable sounds - I think that track is mostly to mess with a lot of people worried about how the band's sound has changed. "Empty Temples" is the first "real" song on the album, which utilizes some interesting guitar riffs and vocal harmonies in the background of the lyrics. The lead single, "High Country," is next up, and it is also a largely riff-driven track. At this point in the album on my first listen is when I really started appreciating their "new" drummer - Jimmy Vela. He's surprisingly good at using dynamics and being actually interesting with the drum parts on this tracks these past few albums he's been a part of. "Tears Like Diamonds" stood out for the guitar solo that seemed to somehow come straight out of the early '70s, and really made me want to get my guitar out and spend several hundred dollars on fuzz pedals. "Mist & Shadows" has a clean intro with some jazzy drumming, and melds into some good ole stoner music - the bass and vocals come in together, and the vocals have a healthy dollop of reverb that gives the whole track an otherworldly feel to it. "Agartha" opens up with some weird synth stuff going on, and is an instrumental track. "Seriously Mysterious" has a weird thing going on - again, a lot of synthesizer going on, but incorporating regular rock instrumentation and a weird little lead guitar flourish. "Suffer No Fools" opens up at a good pace, and the lead guitar line that comes in pretty early in the song and sticks around for a minute is pretty extraordinary to me. The track changes gears a few times and stays interesting. This is another track without any vocals, though it has some really interesting lead guitar work. "Early Snow" is riff-driven (of course), and this is another track with some fairly simple but phenomenal drumming. "The Dreamthieves" opens up with a traditionally metal riff, but the lead part comes in with a much more '70s prog thing going on, then the vocals have choral "aahs" going on in the background which all add up to make a seriously interesting track. "Buzzards" opens up with "He is a deadly and desperate man/ On the run with a gun in hand" and has a kind of metal cowboy thing going on. "Silver Petals" is a mostly instrumental acoustic track, and it slowly transitions to a happy song from the melancholy intro. If anything, the initial transition takes a little too long in the song, as it always feels like it is getting boring before the first change. "Ghost Eye" opens up with a vintage metal opening, and in some ways is more similar to the band's earlier stuff - but "Ghost Eye" may be the coolest song title on the album. "Turned to Dust" has a long instrumental intro, and when the vocals come in they have a slight delay on them - the lead guitar is what makes this track work, though it is mostly just at the end part of the song. The album closes out with "The Bees of Spring," which somehow had a Doors vibe to it, though I couldn't pinpoint what about it gave me that impression. I absolutely enjoyed this album, but it may be because I am an album person and not a song person.
Lyrics — 8
J.D. Cronise is a competent vocalist in his style, but isn't what I would normally categorize as a "singer." He definitely fills out that space in the band, but he carries it mainly because of his lyrics, which are strangely psychedelic and range between abstract and narrative. The rest of the band provides backing vocals, and some guests in the studio helped with backing vocals on a few of the tracks as well. The lyrics is where the vocals really shine, with most of J.D.'s vocals sounding more like poetry. As a sample of the lyrics, here are some from the title track and lead single, "High Country": "Brothers, sisters/ Listen closely to the earth/ Dawn arrives, a rooster wails/ Clouds enshroud the mountainside/ Like a virgin's bridal veil/ Summer nights, silent trees/ Fireflies like galaxies/ Encircled by black butterflies/ Up the road, side by side/ Down the valley come raging storms/ Dying just as fast as they are born/ On summer nights, among the trees/ Fireflies like galaxies/ Taking flight upon the breeze/ Butterflies of ebony." Awesome lyrics.
Overall Impression — 8
In the spirit of full disclosure, the first several times I listened to this album I was listening while I was multi-tasking and doing other things, and I felt slightly disappointed in the album. The first time I sat down and listened without anything else going on was probably my third full listen. I felt a lot better about the final product when I listened to it this way. My favorite tracks on the album are going to have to be "Empty Temples," "Mist & Shadows," "Agartha," and "The Dreamthieves." I really feel like this is a well-made album, and the performance on it by each of the musicians is immaculate. Special note that Jimmy Vela did an exceptional job on the drums. I would strongly recommend this album, but I do realize that some people aren't going to like the change in the band's sound.