Swinging Toward The Future With The Sword

Photos by Julien Carr

Embarking On A Journey With New Possibilities

At their inception, The Sword was what you got when you crossed the hell-raising, hard-partying energy of Ozzy Osbourne with his very own diehard fans. High tempo and high energy, laughing maniacally in the face of limitations before blowing past them, leaving a trail of bong smoke and hazy-eyed mornings after in their wake. Traversing landscapes of pre-feudal Scandinavia, the mind-destructive emptiness of space and beyond, this Austin, Texas quartet trains their eyes on the illusion of control in our world, the futility of declaring borders or war while we're all living on borrowed time. Used Future comes to us from Razor and Tie, who has been distributing hits from The Sword since 2012’s Apocryphon. The group have had an incredibly impressive run since their debut in 2006, dropping new albums like clockwork about every two years.

Outside of their studio album releases we've seen a split and a couple project albums, and last year the heady group of mystics released their first live album. It should be mentioned that their head-turning 2015 release High Country received a response in the form of the unplugged Low Country the following year. The visuals for Used Future depict an epic journey full of battles against increasingly difficult foes in the style of yesterday’s Final Fantasy games. The Sword is like a time capsule, cultivating an image soaked in eighties fandom nostalgia and  late sixties futurism. Most impressively, they do this without falling into the trap of becoming a gimmick.

Their lyrical diction is elevated, but their sound is pure grimy crunch. The mids are scooped from their wave of sound, just like Metallica on their earlier releases. The guitars harmonize through leads and low-pounding riffs at great speed and proficiency. The bass player joins in on long note runs while the drums keep the beat, never too ostentatious. In the style of the bluesmen and country rockers that came before them, the drums tie everything together with a neat little bow. Lead singer and guitarist John Cronise is the well from which we receive their lyrical writings, a lanky mustachioed man sporting a jersey tee and a Greg Kinnear haircut. The good Mr. Cronise went so far as to pen a science fiction narrative that accompanies/informs on Warp Riders, their 2010 release. While that album may have been their best attempt at creating a universe of their own, one cannot ignore their chameleonic ability to create different concept albums that grip from start to finish. It's rock written for the Twilight Zone fan, each episode we peer into a different fantasyland created for our amusement, and perhaps, containing a secret lesson.

In the hours leading up to their show at Thalia Hall, I communed with these incredibly chill, mighty wizards of mystical metal. From the outside, they seem to glide past the violence and drama often tied to the mainstream metal scene. In 2010 original drummer Trivett Wingo left the group, for reasons undisclosed. He comes around to shows occasionally, guitarist Kyle Shutt describing their interactions as pleasant. After 80 canceled tour dates and a stint with accomplished studio drummer Kevin Fender, the group called up drummer Santiago “Jimmy” Vela III, who has been with the band in studio and onstage since they recorded Apocryphon in Baltimore.

Sitting with Kyle and bandmate Brian Richie in one of the opera boxes, we discussed how Used Future came together. It wasn't the first album for Jimmy, but he was part of a very new songwriting process for the Sword. Brian leaned in, “a lot of times a drummer is in a given situation where he writes to the songs… what Jimmy did was put a bunch of drum beats in a drop box at 'x’ bpm, which then allowed us to write to that.” The new process appears to agree with the group, Kyle mentioning that there were still quite a few unused options that might surface on their next album. Richie’s stepped up into a new role, writing for bass as well as synth, a new duty for him on this go-around. Prior to the tour, Brian made it a point to practice bass and keyboard simultaneously, because why would you write the music if you couldn't play it live?

Used Future comes with a new look, just like its predecessors. The album cover sports a stark photo of a car parked in the desert, darkness looming in the background. Mad Max style, there’s a cow-pusher on the front, looking as though it may have been a classic Thunderbird in a former life “We just like badass shit” muses Kyle, rocking on the back legs of his chair. “..most of the badass shit was made in the time period when we were kids,” he grins, his chair resettling as he gets more animated. “It's like... Back to the Future 2, or Barbarella, anything sci-fi, really,” Brian chimed, his face lighting up as well. We chat a few more moments. Brian takes it back to his preteen years, growing up and watching Star Trek: The Next Generation, and how much he hated the holodeck episodes, which draws a friendly argument from Kyle and I before we part ways.

So what is The Sword now? J.D. has been open about his exhaustion with metal and the metal scene. When they began, it seems The Sword was an outlet for open and uncut rage. Frustrated with aspects of life and society, Cronise could pluck them and place them inside a different narrative. A new coat of paint on a prevailing problem, helping the rest of us look at things from different perspectives. Their music has mellowed some. There aren't as many high-speed riff-laden tracks as before. The vocal tone that has been their signature from the beginning still remains, and I gotta tell you, I still hear J.D. sounding like a young Ozzy from time to time, and in that moment, I'm transported back to the first time I listened to Age of Winters in 2006, mouth agape, yelling “that's gotta be Ozzy’s baby” to a friend over the volume of the stereo.