Something funny happened on the way to Ozzfest. Namely, heavy metal became really uncool.
Blame it on Kurt Cobain. The early-'90s alt-rock revolution effectively pounded the nail into the coffin of metal as we knew it. Gone forever were the days of Aqua Net and spandex as many hard-rock fans were forced to trade in their black denim for flannel. And if video killed the radio star, then Nirvana killed the metal video star. Headbanger's Ball was cancelled, and metal fans had to watch Beavis and Butt-Head marathons in order to see clips of their favorite bands.
Some bands survived to tell the tale—the Metallicas, Slayers and Guns N' fucking Roses (well, kinda) of the world—but Whitesnakes were charmed, Warrants were dropped and Wingers were clipped. All while the Columbia Records marketing department scrambled to cut Layne Staley's mane so they could sell Alice in Chains as a grunge band.
The late '90s and early '00s were even worse. Metallica waged war on its own fans (via the Napster fiasco) and released crap albums (Load? More like Load of Shit) while Limp Bizkit and Korn (Why, God, why?!) were the closest thing radio had to metal.
But then something happened. Around 2003, it suddenly became cool to like metal—and even its androgynous cousin, hair metal—again. The record industry apparently didn't anticipate that all the kids who grew up honoring the (Black) Sabbath were eventually going to start their own bands.
Soon, Ozzfest replaced Lollapalooza as the go-to summer fest, ushering in a new breed of acts that even uppity indie labels noticed. Beers were drunk, black was worn, boobies were shown and hands were finally liberated to make devil horns. Thank Lucifer Almighty, we were free at last!
This is the road that led to The Sword and a new melting-pot metal scene where indie geeks, hipsters and even some sorority girls bang their heads alongside the standard leather-clad longhairs. Bands like The Sword (along with the likes of Early Man, Meshuggah, Priestess and Mastodon) are finding their audiences and bucking scenester elitism for a shared ideal: You don't have to be metal to enjoy metal.
“It's all walks of life at our shows,” Sword singer/guitarist John “J.D.” Cronise says. “There's young people, but there's also old metal dudes who were way into Black Sabbath back in the day.”
The Sword broke out in late 2005 after Cronise and drummer Trivett Wingo moved from Richmond, Va., to Austin, Texas, and hooked up with guitarist Kyle Shutt and bassist Bryan Richie. After releasing their debut, Age of Winters, alongside releases from bands like the ones mentioned above, The Sword found themselves the reluctant leaders of a new metal movement.
The national music media (including MTV, which resurrected Headbanger's Ball on MTV2 the same year as The Sword's debut) sang the band's praises as they beat the drum of metal's triumphant return with grandiose proclamations like “the new classic-Black Sabbath platter you have been waiting forever for the old Sabs to make” (Rolling Stone) and “The Sword means retro-metal business” (The New York Times). Uh, OK.
Wingo—who's known to sit at his drum kit wearing nothing but skivvies—offers perhaps the best explanation of the phenomenon:
“People are really hype-ish,” he says. “The press is especially hyper-obsessed with genres. ‘This is hipster metal with doom elements' and ‘Hey, there's a resurgence in heavy rock music.' And I'm like, ‘Are you fucking serious? You're just blowing word vomit out of your anus. We're talking about real rock 'n' roll here.”
Well put, but The Sword's music and beastly live shows certainly helped them live up to the hype. Their new album, Gods of the Earth, isn't a huge departure from Winters, with its Slayer-inspired thrashing and Cronise's channeling of Ozzy. But the songs on Gods are more cohesive and thematic, with lyrical themes that Cronise describes as typical metal subjects like “death, destruction, doom and gloom.”
With nary a riff wasted, the band's shows (which Wingo describes as “sonic war”) are filled with face-melting solos and Bonham-inspired drumming. The mixture is impressive enough to land The Sword an opening slot for the somewhat rebuffed Metallica (metal fans are quick to forgive) on an upcoming tour of Europe and Asia along with an invite to play the former hippie-fest Bonnaroo this summer.
But wherever they go, wherever they play, The Sword anticipates that nothing will ever again be able to derail the Crazy Train of music they love so much.
“It's just starting to get really good again,” Wingo says. “It had been there—but in an unrealized form. And some bands are starting to bring it out and do it right. But it was nothing new. It never slowed down. People didn't stop liking the rock.”
Perhaps now it's just safe to show it again.
The Sword performs at 9 p.m. Thursday, April 17, with Slough Feg and Children at The Casbah. 619-232-HELL. www.swordofdoom.com