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One of rock’s great traditions—and paradoxes—is the band that revisits its roots in order to evolve. That isn’t to say the Sword have become Dylan holing up in Woodstock to make John Wesley Harding. But Warp Riders, the third album by these heavy merchants from Austin, Texas, finds the Sword indulging a subtle, but distinctly Texas-flavored sense of groove and swing. This deep-seeded part of the band’s DNA is helping guitarists J.D. Cronise and Kyle Shutt break even further away from metal convention and carve out a unique domain among modern heavy rockers.
The Sword were never easily lumped in with the modern metal pack. In the seven years since the band came together, they’ve become one of the standard bearers for a stylistically diverse and loosely affiliated society of metal-influenced bands. Along with Witch, High on Fire, and Priestess, the Sword eschews many of metal’s more aggro, cliché, and consciously flash elements and instead look to Black Sabbath’s chugging riffery and Grand Funk’s and Thin Lizzy’s backbeat-driven grooves—as well as the more melodically raging sounds of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal—to create a more soulful metal/heavy-rock hybrid.
Warp Riders is a hard-hitting refinement of that heady brew. Wrapped around a sci-fi tale (in part about a planet with one hemisphere locked in perpetual darkness), the album also links the Sword to a narrative tradition that runs from the Who’s Tommy to Rush’s 2112 and even Hüsker Dü’s pop-hardcore classic, Zen Arcade. Warp Riders doesn’t disregard the band’s metal roots entirely—not by a long shot. But check out the hooks that propel “Tres Brujas” (Three Witches)—not to mention the nod to Texas’ favorite heavy boogie kings in the song’s title—and it’s pretty clear that the Sword may have been thinking as much about tumbleweeds and greasy ribs as whiplash thrashing and the black magic and mystic herb invoked in the lyrics.
And so it goes over the course of Warp Riders. Space trucking, vocal-based songs like the title track and “Night City” give way to full-throttle instrumentals like “Astraea’s Dream,” replete with 64th-note runs and pick-squealing savagery, before settling back into thunderous grooves propelled by Cronise and Shutt’s muscle-car riffery and the thumping bass and drums of Bryan Richie and Trivett Wingo.
Nods to Foghat and heavy boogie aren’t the only deviations from metal dogma that set Warp Riders apart. Lead singer Cronise’s rich tenor vocals steer clear of the affectations that define much of contemporary metal. And Cronise and Shutt often opt for a restrained and economical lead style that, while almost anathema to the metal and heavy rock gospels, tip the cap to Thin Lizzy’s Eric Bell and P-Funk’s Eddie Hazel.
On the day I interviewed the affable and articulate Cronise and Shutt, the band were fresh off a video shoot near Death Valley that left a few of the crew hospitalized with heat stroke. It doesn’t get much more heavy—or rock ’n’ roll—than that. And by all rights, the guitarists should have been exhausted. But they were still quite eager to talk about new directions, hidden influences, and why the next record may end up being death metal anyway.
Shutt, Cronise, and Wingo performing live at Waterloo Records and Video in Austin, Texas, August 23, 2010. Shutt is playing a Les Paul Custom, Cronise has his trusty 1979 Gibson Explorer II, and a Laney head driving an Orange 4x12 cab is visible in the background. Photo by John Carrico
Did you make a conscious decision to adhere to a story or make a concept album early in the writing process?
Cronise: Compared to most concept records that I know, it’s really more of a story record. Some concept albums are just about a related subject, in a general way. But this really tells a story.
Shutt: It’s almost a soundtrack to a story or a rock opera, really.
Were you challenged to expand your guitar textures to illuminate or tell the story?
Cronise: I stuck with what I’ve been using— and my Orange amps are a big part of that—but I tried to write rhythm parts that were a little simpler and would come across better in a live situation. But Kyle would play a lot of insane solos to counter that and fill things out.
Shutt: I think my natural growth as a musician and curiosity for wanting to get different sounds took care of that. I started using a Tube Screamer for all my leads and threw in a wah to give them a bit more variation. But I didn’t really feel the need to do that for the story’s sake. If it worked out that way, it’s just a nice coincidence. The lyrics have always been the last thing to come in a Sword song, and in the case of this album, the story that J.D. had in mind became the lyrics, so the music was pretty well formed before it evolved into the Warp Riders story.
How do you work out songs?
Shutt: Usually J.D. and I will just bring riffs to practice. We’re pretty tight at this point, so the song’s skeleton will usually come together in one or two practices and take shape from there. We spend a lot of time playing things over and over again until we get bored with the parts. Then they become new parts and the song evolves that way. The good stuff usually sticks. We keep working it until every little screw is tightened and everything is polished, and then you have a Sword song.