The Sword - High Country (2015)

As much as we like to pretend that our favorite artists are entities frozen in time, only thawed to churn out another album and return to an icy slumber, it simply isn't true. Their art, the music they've put to digital and physical media, remains set in stone for as long as we exist. It doesn't change. But with age and experience, even the best and most unique acts are prone to that dangerous "p" word we dread: progression. The Sword are no different. In their early career, they brought to mind the mighty Black Sabbath, a band that fell victim to the evolution of their sound several decades before. But nearly a decade after their debut album hit the masses, it would be foolish to expect the same distortion soaked riffage you've loved or hated all this time. Still, High Country exists under The Sword moniker, and, as a result, has an audience that is automatic.

But those who came looking for the sleepy stoner and doom riffs of Apocryphon might have found the adjustment period difficult. Sure, the opening prelude, Unicorn Farm, has much of the fuzziness you crave. But from there, this is a band who have pulled back many of the crusty used layers of their sound, in favor of something more concise. There is a great deal of focus on the songwriting here, something that could be debated about their other releases. Because they've taken a large stride toward the blues rock side of the equation, it allows for a more organic growth within each song. In Mist & Shadow, the intensity of the groove is intoxicating, rolling flawlessly from verse to chorus to lead. It's hard to call what The Sword are doing "stripped down," as the production and sheer depth of sound are still massive in their construction. Yet, somehow, it translates into a confident, vibrant piece of stoner rock. By the time you've reached the electro groove of Seriously Mysterious, all bets have been thrown out the window. It is another in a line of short, oddly experimental anthems on the album that don't quite fit in, yet seem right at home.

Having released a handful of tracks early, it would be almost impossible to be surprised by what you're hearing, though there will always be a standout along the way. Suffer No Fools might be exactly that, with a brief injection of energy into an otherwise mid tempo album. It brings back a little of that stomping guitar riffing the band has done so well for so long. If your goal is to find the lame duck of the album, you might find it harder and harder with each passing tune. Like them or not, The Sword does what they do exceedingly well; that hasn't changed anywhere on High Country. What they're doing, though, has. There is a great amount of 70's inspired psychedelic rock, like that of The Dreamthieves, to be found throughout the album. Granted, it is still done with an edge that a band from that era might have lacked. That is to say, it is unarguably The Sword at the helm. But becomes a matter of if the album strikes that chord with you, as opposed to when. There is most definitely a metric ton of material here, fifteen tracks in all, but it might lack the "sure thing" amongst the many. It isn't quantity over quality, as many have mentioned, but sifting through a mountain of good to find great.

This album, for all of the beautiful production and fine tuning that went into the album - led by former Grupo Fantasma guitarist Adrian Quesada on the former and Apocryphon producer J. Robbins on the latter - is going to be one of the most divisive heavy records of recent memory. Fans of the bands early material might find themselves turned off by the progression away from the Sabbath-esque sound, much in the same way Opeth fans felt when the death metal influences were stripped from their last two albums. The difference here is that, for better or worse, High Country is a well above average album from a band with a firm grip on how they want their careers to go. It, at no point, could be called lazy or uninspired, or even phoned in. It's fifteen distinct tracks that, on any given day, could be your favorite song, or one you skip on shuffle. And just like you used to have that patchy faux beard ten years ago and shaved it, they've taken this next step away from The Sword of 2006, and become The Sword of 2015. And I'd say it's working out just fine for all of us.


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