Venture forth into the world of heavy metal and you'll discover a place as sprawling and complex as J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle-earth. Betwixt dark skies and molten land, there are burly riff-smiths (Cattle Decapitation, Meshuggah), monastic drone merchants (Sunn O))), Author & Punisher) and black-metal wizards (Liturgy, Krallice) at every turn.
For every wise sorcerer, though, one must also beware of tricksters and false prophets who've poisoned ancient tradition with bizarre, even heretical sonic alchemies (rap- metal, folk-metal, "Djentstep"). However, there are also those who still play heavy metal as the gods of yore originally conceived it, with great power and force.
Chief among these faithful disciples is The Sword, a band from Austin, Texas, composed of singer and guitarist J.D. Cronise, guitarist Kyle Shutt, bassist Bryan Richie and drummer Santiago "Jimmy" Vela III. Paying heed to the scriptures of Black Sabbath and Rush, they deliver immense riffs with warmth and crunchiness. Vela, who joined last year, lays down a swinging groove with the agility of a mythical gorilla beast.
The band made a noteworthy contribution this year with Apocryphon, an album that came out recently on Razor & Tie. It finds the quartet conjuring images of decaying cities and beautiful sorceresses and exploring the idea of hidden knowledge. "Tell me, O Mountain, what secrets do you hold / Buried deep beneath the earth in hidden walls of stone?" Cronise cries in "Arcane Montane," his demonic wail resembling that of Ozzy Osbourne.
The album's title refers to the Apocrypha, a collection of ancient texts that some Christians have excluded from the Biblical canon. To Cronise, it alludes to the fact that those in authority often distract the masses with self-serving deceptions and omissions.
"If you rely on these sources of authority for guidance, they're going to guide you in the way that is most beneficial to them, not necessarily you," Cronise says. "It's kind of a reminder to be mindful of where you're getting your facts and your knowledge from.
"But, you know, it's also just a cool album title," he adds.
In the land of heavy metal, critics often lump The Sword in with the bong-puffing barbarians of the "stoner metal" clan. Indeed, the band goes well alongside weed-friendly metalers High on Fire (though High on Fire's 2012 effort, De Vermis Mysteriis, sounds far crustier). For all their stonerly, elephantine riffs, though, The Sword signaled a direction toward a tighter, more classic-rock approach on its 2010 album, Warp Riders—a path they continue on with Apocryphon.
They've honed their precise sound by studying the songs of Rush. They'll often listen to a CD of slowed-down versions, making it easier to take in the Canadian trio's nuances.
"It's awesome. You should try it out," Cronise says about the unique exercise. "Geddy Lee could play the bass, play the keyboard with his feet and sing all at the same time. So, there's definitely something to be learned from that."
In recent years, they've also been met with tests of agility while on tour with thrash-metal saints Metallica. Playing on a 360-degree stage, they jumped to and fro to entertain the entire crowd, while Cronise made sure to reach the microphone in time for singing parts.
Not all bands rose to the challenge, apparently.
"I'm not going to name any names, but there were other bands on that tour—that may or may not have had our slot on other legs of that tour—that did nothing," Cronise says. Instead, they "just stood there on one side of the stage and didn't even go over to the other side of the stage, depriving half the audience of actually seeing the band."
On Apocryphon, their fourth album, the band has an eye toward doom and gloom. One can easily imagine a horde of sword-swinging warriors pillaging a once-peaceful village to the tune of "Execrator," a hard-charging track with a bruising, double-guitar attack and crushing lyrics: "You know nothing! / You see nothing! / You get nothing! / You are nothing!" On "Dying Earth," they balance a razor-sharp lick with slower, more reflective moments as Cronise recounts a gradual apocalypse.
Yet, Cronise supports peace, not violence. Asked if he or any of his bandmates have ever been in a barroom brawl, he says no and adds that he hopes no listeners would ever want to get into one after listening to The Sword.
"Try to just reserve that energy for rockin' out," he advises.
In the end, that's what The Sword is all about: rocking out. That's partly why Cronise takes issue with the "stoner metal" label. In the world of heavy metal, bands certainly have their differences, but they can find common ground in the act of rockin'—and in tokin', too.
"All rock is stoner rock, at the end of the day," he says. "Loud guitars sound good no matter what state of mind you're in."
The Sword plays with Gypsyhawk and American Sharks at Brick by Brick on Thursday, Dec. 13.