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By the Sword

Austin metal band becomes a big, heavy deal.

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Formed in 2003 as the brainchild of guitarist/vocalist John "J.D." Cronise, Austin's the Sword has become one of the more refreshing success stories in the world of underground metal. After work-shedding for several years and releasing two demos, Cronise pulled together the Sword's original lineup of guitarist Kyle Shutt, drummer Trivett Wingo, and bassist Bryan Richie in time to take advantage of the fact that the world's biggest music-industry convention and festival happens to occur annually in their hometown. The quartet blew away audiences at South by Southwest in 2004 and 2005, and it was after the second of these performances that they were promptly signed to Long Island hard rock and metal-focused indie label Kemado Records.

Kemado soon released the Freya 7" EP and the band's debut full-length, Age of Winters (2007), material written by Cronise prior to the band's formation. A split EP with Swedish retro-doom metal favorites Witchcraft and a second album, Gods of Earth (Kemado), came next in 2007 and 2008, respectively, and the band established themselves as full-time road dogs. The Sword's sound during these first several years was informed by mid-'00s contemporaries like High on Fire, Mastodon, the Melvins, and Jucifer but primarily drew inspiration from not-so-modern sources: Black Sabbath, early Judas Priest, Pentagram, and other notables associated with the new wave of British heavy metal.

But the Sword was not to be lumped in with the growing number of '70s-obsessed outfits that seemed perpetually locked in retro autopilot and unaware of any form of metal made after 1980. The second historical phase of metal the quartet liberally draws from is the all-important late-'80s. The Sword's albums and live sets were rife with nods to classic riff-depositories such as Metallica's ... And Justice For All or Slayer's South of Heaven. But just as important as the band's stylistic grounding in metal history is the band's own utilization of intensified melody in the building of riffs and Cronise's seemingly seasoned, traditionally clean vocal lines.

Gods of Earth reached a high point of 108 on the Billboard 200 chart and once-headlining bands (Clutch, Machine Head, Lamb of God) found themselves supporting the Sword as the quartet established themselves as a formidable live show. But the reward for the Sword's time on the road came in mid-2008, when they were picked by Metallica as openers for the thrash veterans' European and American tour. The Sword saw their first two albums reissued as a box set, and by this point the band had contributed two songs to the Guitar Hero game series.

Metal fans have their own issues, with elitism being at the top of the list. The Sword had always weathered allegations that they were an "indie-metal" band or not true metalheads. Still, the sincerity and quality in the Sword's brand of heavy metal speaks for itself.

While 2010's Warp Riders (Kemado) allegedly alienated some of the Sword's pickier fans with its subtle detour away from thrash and infusion of prog-rock courtesy of a running science-fiction narrative (based on an original story written by Cronise), these concerns were made irrelevant when the album debuted at 47 on the Billboard 200.

Apocryphon, the band's fourth full-length, sold a whopping 23,000 copies in just three weeks. These are amazing numbers in this era of industry instability, sure, especially considering that Apocryphon is heavier and less reliant on classic hard rock than its predecessor.

The Sword plays the Hi-Tone Cafe, along with Gypsyhawk and Eagle Claw, on Friday, November 23rd.

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