Wait, is this a joke? That's an understandable reaction when encountering the clobbering metal riffs of The Sword, and it's not the only time in recent years a new hard rock/metal act has elicited such a response. In the semi-proud tradition of Andrew W.K. and Wolfmother, this Austin quartet is so maniacally devoted to its head-banging sources that it's hard to know whether the whole thing isn't just a put-on. (For example, take frontman J. D. Cronise's flat bellowing of his sincere lyrics stuffed with Norse imagery: Is he actually satirizing the teenage D&D nerds who board themselves up in the basement with their buds to smoke a bowl and ponder Master of Reality?) But where W.K.'s amped-up frat rock is stupid-brilliant and Wolfmother's Led Zep act practically a minstrel show, the Sword sound as divinely inspired by its influences as Jack White is by his.
Age of Winters (2006) and the brand new Gods of the Earth eschew the mad excesses that turned metal into a cliché. Cronise's solos are more straight-ahead propulsive than flashy wank-fests, and there's little worshiping of Satan going on. But whereas Winters was mostly a solo project written and recorded before Cronise found his supporting band — drummer Trivett Wingo, guitarist Kyle Shutt, and bassist Bryan Richie — Earth feels like a unified team effort. The new album features several doom-laden misty mountain hops, but the album reaches its peak with "The Black River," a typical tale of Tolkien drama. Without worrying about something as simplistic as a hook, many of the record's 11 tracks will appeal to genre aficionados who measure their delight by sheer heaviness, but "The Black River" is an exception — an epic with immediacy that stretches out its tension to almost six minutes, building from its slow opening into a storm of furious power chords.
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The Sword doesn't reinvent metal the way Metallica did back in the early '80s. Instead, Cronise aims to make the form respectable again after years of mascara-wearing bozos cheapened its urgency for pop success. Because metal's reputation has languished for so long, recent hard-rockers hoping to appeal to the wider rock audience had to hide behind jokes or nostalgia to avoid being laughed off the stage. The Sword is trying to map out some new alternative, and even if the group hasn't figured out the route completely, Cronise seems to be on the right path.