I'm still wearing black. Nearly a month after the death of Gary Gygax, creator of the Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game, I still wear only the blackest of garments, to absorb the sun's rays even as I reflect outward the bottomless chasm that is my empty little geek heart. My coffee? Black as a lich-lord's shadow, and twice as cold.
All of this makes me a bit less conspicuous at metal shows lately, and vastly increases my appreciation for demonic-sounding chords and head-bangy goodness. After all, there's an undeniable dialectic between heavy metal and dorky fantasy themes. Gygax's legacy, tricking pubescent males into reading fantasy literature just as heavy metal hit its stride in the '70s, created a perfect storm that forever links might and magic to the majestic discordance of guitar rock. The ride of the Rohirrim in The Two Towers, screaming "Death!" as they charged Sauron's hordes? Metal as all get-out. And what are we to make of bands like Austin's the Sword, whose lyrics could just as easily be punctuated by the clatter of rolling dice as by Sabbath-inspired solos?
Some metal bands gloss over the seamy relationship with fantasy literature. There's a vein of anti-intellectualism that runs through a lot of American music scenes, a blue-collar distrust of anything too artsy-fartsy or elitist. Ivory towers are only tolerated if they have wizards or naked chicks in them. Plenty of metal heads in the '80s were little more than Brownshirts with long hair and sweet Slayer patches, as many of us nerds experienced firsthand.
The Sword, playing Saturday, April 19 at Slim's in San Francisco, wears its geeky literary credentials on its sleeve, playing up the pulp-fantasy imagery to the hilt. Images and sly references seemingly cut and pasted from the pay-by-the-word fantasy and horror of Robert E. Howard, H.P. Lovecraft, and George R.R. Martin, are generously slathered over no-frills riffage that so heavily evokes early '70s metal one could mistake it for a smirking, postmodern parody of the genre. The band almost seems to be encouraging its fans, daring them to read and catch their references.
Perhaps this is why they've sometimes been tagged with the unfortunate epithet of "hipster-metal," a term that seems to imply wry insincerity at best, and false metal at worst. It's a label they've done their damnedest to shake off, with an aggressive touring schedule and the release earlier this month of their sophomore album, Gods of the Earth, on Kemado Records. The album, recorded mostly at the band's home studio in Austin, has garnered mixed though enthusiastic reviews. They're not exactly breaking new ground or redefining the genre, but for people who like old-school, tuned-down metal, the Sword's sound has been hailed as a welcome, not to mention sincere, addition to stoner-rock's hall of heroes.
The hard work seems to be paying off, putting the band dangerously close to the double-edged blade of rock stardom. Gods of the Earth debuted at number 102 on the Billboard Top 200 this month. On April 12, MTV2 began running its video for "Maiden, Mother, and Crone." At the same time, the band announced a slew of European dates this July opening up for Metallica, which has taken a personal liking to the young band, calling them "one of our favorite bands of the last few years" on their web site.
"Lars [Ulrich, Metallica's drummer] is probably the most famous person to ever help me with my gear," said drummer Trivett Wingo, recalling the band's show at Slim's last year. "That was a surreal experience."
Coming fresh off of a tour of the UK, guitarist and singer J.D. Cronise sounded a bit world-weary on the phone, but couldn't hide the dorky enthusiasm in his voice about his favorite part of the tour: "We got to see sunrise at Stonehenge," he said. "That was pretty fucking awesome." Cronise, for whom the Sword's 2006 debut Age of Winters began as virtually a solo project, still wrote most of the songs for Gods, but two years and more than a dozen tours has made the band a much more collaborative unit.
"Kyle [Shutt, rhythm guitarist] wrote a lot more for this album," Cronise said. "We've been playing a lot since the last album, so it's different than just writing songs in my bedroom."
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