(Kemado Records, CD)
Today's metal bands owe a massive debt to genre progenitors Black Sabbath. But some acts, such as Australia's inexplicably popular Wolfmother, are mere copycats with attention-getting hairdos. This isn't the case with Austin's The Sword, whose monolithic sludge is vital and original. The quartet knocked 'em dead at this year's South by Southwest festival, and their new disc, Age of Winters, proves why.
The album is sonically straightforward. No acoustic interludes or prog-rock keyboards here - just detuned guitars, pinwheel percussion and old-fashioned melodic vocals. The music is alternately complex and crushing, with an unbridled spirit that harkens back to the days when garage bands didn't have publicists.
Originality is hard to come by in doom-metal; its unhallowed ground has already been well trod. But instead of coughing up fourth-generation "Iron Man" riffs, these dudes offer intricate tunes that bear repeat listens. Like their peers High on Fire and Pearls & Brass, The Sword challenge the assumption that stoner rock is only for burnouts.
The lyrics, when I could make them out, sounded cartoonishly occult. This isn't surprising; doom-metal has always been inspired by dark fantasy. The stunningly heavy "Barael's Blade," for instance, references demon lords and wizards, with absolutely no pretense to irony. I raise my chalice.
"Freya" is either about the Norse goddess of fertility, or that hot chick behind the counter at the 7-11. It hardly makes a difference: With its iron-smelting riffs and baleful vocals, the track positively slays.
The Sword come unsheathed on "The Horned Goddess," which rockets along on an express rail to the underworld. It might just be the most Sabbath-esque cut on the album, with red-hot bass and guitar licks surging like molten lava from some heavy metal hollow.
"Iron Swan" edges close to thrash territory, with a double-time assault that cuts through the sludge with a vengeance. The following number, "Lament for the Aurochs," opens with a twisting riff that takes a full measure to untangle. When it does, the earth rumbles.
Although they're unabashedly heavy, The Sword have a feel for dynamics, as shown on "March of the Lor." The tune starts off somewhat restrained, then builds into a martial groove that packs gale-force punch.
If badass riff-rock is your bag, there's no going wrong with Age of Winters. Hear The Sword with Seemless and Inertia in a 7 p.m. early show at Club Metronome on Sunday, December 10.