In the Great Backlash Against Throwback Metal Bands of 2006, The Sword seemed to have taken the full brunt of it all. Not commercial enough to be ignored like Wolfmother, not swooped up by a major label to a ho hum re-release like Priestess, Age of Winters was panned by most of the indie media while the band garnered critical praise from more mainstream outlets.
And after two years of stewing, Gods of the Earth was released to the malign of many, earning supremely high marks from publications like Entertainment Weekly and Rolling Stone while Pitchfork gave it a 5.3 and The A.V. Club gave the album a dismal D+. In comparison, the new Mariah Carey earned a B from The A.V. Club. And while I agree that Mimi has returned to some vocally strong relevant pop music with E=MC2, the rift between those two scores shows more than just a distaste for the authentic brand of heavy metal that The Sword brings to the table. It shows evidence of personal opinion swaying critical review.
Mainly, however, Pitchfork and The A.V. Club were forced to pay attention. Both of those publications ignored the band's debut, even after my glowing praise. And The Sword are a band worth paying attention to.
On their 2008 release, Gods of the Earth, the first noticable difference is the lack of a gut shattering low end in the production. Instead of riding the low-end train to loosened bowls and jaws agape, the band toned down their production and opted for a more live sound. What this allows them to do is place more intricate thrash riffing throughout the album with little muddy backwash coming out the speakers.
Age of Winters was a demonstration of force. The riffs were big, the album was full of bombast and power. In comparison, Gods of the Earth is built on more subtle ground. Still present are the shin-kicking riffs, thundering drums, and howling vocals - but with enough elbow room to let in some classical acoustic guitar bridges and intros. Most of you will hate me for saying this, but Gods of the Earth is a more cerebral work. It forces the listener to pay attention. And in that way, the band shows their true selves more clearly - four skinny dudes from Austin, Texas who play heavy metal for the axe and broadsword crowd; namely, the band has outed themselves for the nerds that they truly are.
And should we expect anyone outside of this crowd to really understand or appreciate the album? I highly doubt the Pitchfork reviewer spends his nights queuing up Blind Guardian or Sonata Arctica as a soundtrack for an all night WOW binge. In fact, the A.V. Club reviewer even wrongly described Final Fantasy as a tactical RPG, when everyone already knows that Final Fantasy is NOT a tactical RPG, necessitating the series offshoot Final Fantasy Tactics. Whatever. The point is, if you're not a fan of the genre, you're not going to like The Sword. But regardless of how it stands, The Sword are one of the only bands around who play honest to God Heavy Metal. They don't skimp on the details. They don't borrow this from here, that from there, and mix it in a stew with a post-hardcore sensibility and free jazz song structures. They play goddamned Heavy Metal. Capital H. Capital M.
"The Frost Giant's Daughter" serves as a perfect example of the liberties the band has taken on their new release. A focused collection of riffs, the song opens with the operatic tension and drama one would expect of Iron Maiden, the lyrics telling the story of, you guessed it, the daughter of a frost giant. The guitars are unlimited in where the band wants to take them. They have to be reigned in with shepherd's crooks, soaring across the snow-falling winter's eve winds. The song progresses in movements. To counterbalance, "Fire Lances of the Ancient Hyperzephyrians" is a full out thrash fest that makes even 1986 Metallica wanna hide their heads in shame. Whatever. The Sword doesn't need to prove themselves to anyone.
This follow up has all the right markings to place it higher in my rankings than their debut, but in a sad twist of fate, the album doesn't hold the newness factor that Age of Winters does. And even though Gods of the Earth will receive many more spins, it'll never be able to pull down the glory that Age of Winters erupted with.