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Napalm (2012)
Rating: 9/10

The world of metal is full of bands who innovate, and bands that perfect an existing formula. Austin, Texas-based The Sword is one of the latter. Doom metal is nothing new, but in the hands of vocalist / guitarist John “J. D.” Cronise and his band mates it is moulded for a new audience.

The Sword are obviously fans of the classics, and have been churning out Black Sabbath-inspired songs since their debut LP Age Of Winters in 2006. Where Apocryphon shines is in the band’s ability to build on a tried and true foundation to create new sounds.

The Sword are not another Black Sabbath clone. True, Cronise’ voice bears more than a little resemblance to Ozzy Osbourne, and many of the riffs offer a tip of the hat to Tony Iommi, particularly during the early years of Sabbath (think the self-titled debut or Paranoid, both released in 1970), but the fuzzy twin guitar tones of Cronise and Kyle Schutt are reminiscent of the legendary guitar sound of Saint Vitus. And the psychedelic leaning of many of the guitar solos brings to mind Trouble at their best. The Sword mixes doom, stoner rock and the psychedelic sounds of hard rock gone by to bring forth a new creature built of familiar parts.

‘The Veil Of Isis’ opens Apocryphon with something I rarely expect to hear on a doom album – a sing along chorus. The shifting rhythms and tempos move from brooding doom riffs to mid tempo rock. Much respect must be offered to drummer Santiago “Jimmy” Vela III for handling the challenge of constant time changes admirably on his first release with the band. This track also sets the lyrical tone of the album. The dark, apocalyptic lyrics address spiritual themes and fantasy elements, all common ground for anyone familiar with the works of Black Sabbath, Trouble, or even Uriah Heep.

‘Arcane Montane’ is a prime example of the lyrical territory covered. This upbeat track, more stoner rock than the doom that is so prevalent on much of this release, addresses the spirit of a mountain. ‘Hawks And Serpents’ includes biblical references, à la Trouble, such as beating plowshares into swords, and the most high watching us. All of this is delivered over a series of chugging guitar riffs that remain surprisingly clear, where so many other bands which have adopted this style have released muddy output with little sonic clarity to boast of.

Another area The Sword shines in is the proficient musicianship showed by all members. ‘Seven Sisters’ is pushed forward by a drumming that would make Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham proud. ‘Dying Earth’ is interspersed with blistering guitar solos, whilst the powerful delivery of ‘Execrator’ is due in large part to the rumbling foundation laid down by bassist Bryan Richie.

Complex time changes, and even full on stylistic shifts during songs show the depth of musicianship among The Sword, and offer an interesting listening experience. From the punishing doom of the verses of the aforementioned ‘Seven Sisters’, the listener is swept into a calm oasis, only to be slammed back to reality when the song returns to a metal focus.

No song on Apocryphon shows how diverse The Sword is among their contemporaries as well as the title track. The keyboard intro that sounds like it may have come from an Atari video game gives way to full speed riffing in the style of Slayer, then into a Black Sabbath inspired dirge. This song is a prime example of why The Sword are so enjoyable to listen to.

While firmly planted in the realm of doom, The Sword reaches beyond, creating landscapes and storylines that draw the listener in. Apocryphon is the best doom album I’ve heard in some time, and certainly the most inventive. This is where the genre should go, and The Sword is leading the way.

Jim McDonald

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