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The Sword
Age Of Winters
Kemado Records

It's impossible to describe The Sword without some attention to the convoluted scene politics that surround the band's genre, so let me briefly contextualize. A few years ago indie-rock hipsters latched onto metal as the next cred-sanctioned movement. But the discovery of great new bands like Mastodon led not to a full-scale exploration of the Relapse, Roadrunner, or Century Media rosters, but rather to an emerging set of indie-sponsored metal. Thus we got, for instance, Early Man on Matador and Pearls & Brass on Drag City. As might be imagined, the more extreme elements of the metal scene-blast beats, Cookie Monster vocals, etc.-are absent from this burgeoning indie-metal movement, which instead looks to more palatable reference points, ranging from 80s thrash metal to the deep, heavy grooves of so-called "stoner rock."

The Sword, on hip Kemado Records, falls very much into that latter camp, dishing out lumbering slabs of Sabbathy riffage. And while the metal extremists who lamented the more accessible moments on the latest Dillinger Escape Plan LP are unlikely to embrace Age of Winters, anyone without a profound emotional investment in the seriousness of metal is likely to enjoy this album, as deeply ridiculous as it is deeply fun. Brief opening instrumental "Celestial Crown" sets the tone, with dual guitars crunching out chords that linger for several seconds before outweighing the air and falling like boulders to crush anything beneath them. Similarly doom-inflected intros mark "Winter's Wolves" and "The Horned Goddess" later on the album; indeed, if Age of Winters is marred by one notable flaw, it's a certain repetitive aspect to the songwriting. A few riffs seem recycled at points, and the vocals (the credits decline to attribute specific duties to the members) almost uniformly recall the echo-intensified chant-like Ozzyisms of "War Pigs"-era Black Sabbath.

Despite this, the Sword achieves frequent sublimity through its intransigently serious cheesiness. The band never once acknowledges that its whole existence is a joke, but instead peppers its musical landscape with indicators the size of Stonehenge (the real one, not the Spinal Tap version!). The magnificently overwrought riffs are one such clue, but then, High on Fire employs similar bluster with undeniable seriousness. What ultimately proves this band is some kind of postmodern joke are the lyrics. "Bane of the demon lord/Slayer of the spider-priests/Spiller of the silver blood" on "Barael's Blade" sounds like a hilariously drunken attempt to emulate Dungeons and Dragons poetry, but the best lines come on the alliterative affectations of "Lament For The Aurochs": "Laboring in the liquid light of Leviathon/Spectres swarm around the sunken cities of the Saurians." There's more where that came from in the song's eight minutes (who can forget the "huntsman's hounds"?), but that gives an idea.

As jokes go, this is deadpan humor at its finest, giving us an endless supply of mythological fantasy references and medieval warmongering. It could use a little more plague and pestilence, but the "instrumental in eight movements" "March Of The Lor" compensates for a lot. The band even creates some tension with its two-guitar approach; from the album's opening seconds the threat of dueling solos looms overhead, and the Sword defers release by showing solo-restraint for much of the album, such that when one such solo erupts midway through "Iron Swan" at track six, it carries cathartic power. That song is probably the album's standout, with a soft, folky intro giving way to the band's most aggressive riffing.

Not everyone will appreciate the Sword's approach to metal; surely compelling arguments can be made that Age of Winters is a work of smarmy pandering to a niche market too self-consciously ironic to embrace the scowling bands of the "authentic" metal scene. Philosophically, there may well be something to that criticism. But if you want philosophy, read Kant. The Sword scoff at such pretentiousness; "I would mount your heads on bloody spears," they sing, "and watch as the crows pick out your eyes," perhaps addressing their critics. Forewarned is foretold. For those unencumbered by such dedication to depth, this is a Sword worth swinging.

-Whit Strub

Track listing:
1. Celestial Crown
2. Barael's Blade
3. Freya
4. Winter's Wolves
5. The Horned Goddess
6. Iron Swan
7. Lament for the Aurochs
8. March of the Lor
9. Ebethron

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