Back to the Blues
The Sword’s newest album, Low Country, is a captivating catalog of various blues styles. Although often touted as champions of the stoner rock and doom metal genres, The Sword are also one of modern rock’s most versatile blues bands. Low Country manages to instill the band’s characteristic acoustic blues sound with Norse mythology and poetic lyrics. The album’s subject matter is infused with a love for literature and human experience; and the effect is intense introspection on behalf of the listener. The acoustic quality of the album positively contributes to its inward-looking qualities. However, the songs of Low Country are also able to establish a much fuller sound than that of more subdued forms of acoustic music. All in all, Low Country contributes to The Sword’s complex identity, expanding it beyond the constraints of “stoner rock.”
Much of Low Country focuses on The Sword’s unique take on the blues. Tracks like “Unicorn Farm” showcase Kyle Shutt’s ability to play Mississippi Delta slide guitar. It maintains a strong rhythm section of claps, which is accompanied by soaring solos. In a way, “Unicorn Farm” effectively encapsulates the sound that The Sword seek to capture throughout Low Country – a sort of overture to one of the many facets of this band. “Mist and the Shadow” captures a feeling similar to that of “Unicorn Farm,” but this time lead singer John D. Cronise offers his own lyrical contributions. He asks lofty questions like, “why do people wonder if there’s evil in the world?” whilst also observing the natural environment: “high in the mountains, deep in the pines.” Musically, “Shadow” begins with a blues lick and a tambourine that accentuates the 4/4 beat. The song is rhythmically simple, yet elegant. After the song opens with a blues solo, an off-phrased rhythmic guitar enters the fray, providing the backbone of the song’s structure. Ultimately, the song is a prime example of The Sword’s unique combination of blues and lyrical poetry, setting a precedent of the blues-poet, an archetype rather unheard of in the American musical landscape.
Although The Sword are surely adept in their blues soloing, many of the album’s songs also boast strong riffs. These more riff-based songs show clear influences from Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath. The title track, in particular, is quite different from the preceding works. It begins with harmonized pentatonic riffs that work to capture a folksy, Asian gamelan feel. Power chords provide shape to the song, occasionally joined by female backing vocals. The pounding rhythm of the acoustic guitar and reverb-inflected slide solo demonstrate how The Sword’s songs can simultaneously offer great riffs and blues soloing. “Seriously Mysterious” offers one of the most memorable riffs on the entire album. Its blues notes and bends, paired with some high-pitched background vocals that mimic the the melodic leads, manage to capture a sound that is highly reminiscent of Zeppelin. Meanwhile, the song’s dark, bluesy atmosphere and creative lyrical imagery help it to retain its singularity.
Some of the songs featured on Low Country also boast unique rhythmic structures. The acoustic guitar rhythm of the album’s second track, “Empty Temples,” offers an incredibly catchy riff. The lead singer maintains a particularly bluesy inflection throughout, as he bellows, “let go of all that binds you/your kind will always find you.” Backing choral arrangements enhance Cronise’s lyrics, before the song finally culminates in an impactful blues solo. Low Country‘s instrumentation functions more as a textural device, while its songs’ rhythmic qualities drive them forward. This is clearly evinced by songs like “Early Snow,” which begins with a thumping bass kick, showcasing its strong groove. The song maintains more of a pop or country tone, rather than the authentic Mississippi Blues feel that characterizes the majority of the album. Brass also make its first appearance on Low Country, adding to the textural landscape of the track.
In terms of creating a fascinating textural soundscape, “Dreamthieves” is particularly impressive. It begins with wistful “oohs” and “aahs,” which are layered behind Cronise’s poetic observation: “feel your spirit taking flight”. The guitar functions as a harmonic and rhythmic tool; however, it does not occupy the forefront, as on many of the album’s other tracks. Nothing is technically intricate. Instead, various instrumental textures are emphasized. The song finally concludes with a celestial blend of digital strings buried in the background, which slowly fade into a chorus of tinny percussion.
Low Country ends with “The Bees of Spring.” It seems as though The Sword wanted to end their album with imagery of life and hope. The song employs a simple blues form, and is arguably the best offering on the album. It begins with ukulele strumming, giving it a somewhat unexpected island feel. “Oohs” and “aahs” decorate the background, as Cronise urges us to, “gather [our] nectar, bees of the spring. A delay-affected electric guitar provides country-western textures that propel the song forward into an acoustic blues solo. Finally, “Bees” ends in a fade-out, slowly falling into lifelessness – a commencement of spring.