'Apocryphon' - The Sword (6/10)
Something I’ll never quite be able to understand is the fascination with the throwback riff metal sound. Although I’m as much a fan of Black Sabbath as the next guy, the idea of taking the sound of the 1970’s and reviving it forty years after the fact has rarely appealed to my taste as a listener. Mind you, as this sort of music goes, The Sword have long been at the top of their class. With each album leading up to “Apocryphon”, they have managed to up their game somehow, whether it was through developments in their style or improvements in the way they brought their retro-rock to the recorded medium. On “Apocryphon”, this experience and momentum has certainly paid off, and as a result, it’s one of the tightest-sounding records you’re bound to hear this year. Sadly, The Sword fail to back up their expert craft with the sort of innovation I’d hope for from a band with such a bold reputation. For the listener looking for some swell riffs and rich guitar tones, “Apocryphon” is ideal. Regardless, I’m left feeling a little underwhelmed.
First, I’d like to say that The Sword are masters when it comes to the execution and presentation of their product. In both the production- which is organic and expertly mixed- and the gorgeously psychedelic artwork, The Sword have a perfect frame to present their tunes through. Although the studio has translated the gritty guitar distortion into something very clean-cut, there’s no shortage of heaviness in their riffs. The drums and bass are equally powerful, with Santiago Vela’s percussion coming across as especially impressive. Stylistically, I found myself almost instantly reminded of Black Sabbath, as if “Apocryphon” was picking up where the first three or four Sabbath albums left off. There’s tons of Iommi worship in these riffs, although the heaviness is offset by a moderately psychedelic atmosphere and extremely melodic set of clean vocals, both reminiscent of where Mastodon took their sound last year with “The Hunter”. Although the riffs tend to stick to the bluesy pentatonic realm of classic metal canon, there’s plenty of meaty energy behind each lick and power chord.
Of course, The Sword are not the only ones who have narrowed in on this particular way of doing things. Although it’s been executed with excellence, there’s little else about “Apocryphon” that helps it stand above the hordes of other stoner metal records out on the market. Although “Cloak of Feathers” and the closing title track each distinguish themselves for their strength of songwriting, the songs on “Apocryphon” tend to rehash the same increasingly tired tricks. Granted, there are a few curveballs thrown along the way- I definitely wasn’t expecting a synth intro to the closer!- but The Sword’s songwriting generally tends to play it safe, eschewing any sort of intent to grow beyond what they have done on albums past.
Although the album seems to trail off anti-climactically, therein lies one of The Sword’s most brilliant ideas on “Apocryphon”: it feels the structural intention of the album is to listen to it on cyclical repeat, rather than an ordinary ‘start-to-finish’ affair. With the band playing the album tracks in reverse live and certain lyrics (“The serpent eats its tail”) as clues, The Sword seem to have very subtly incorporated a conceptual element to the album. Of course, it may simply be e looking for an added layer of cohesiveness in an album that feels lacking something important. In spite of its killer production values and impressive musicianship, “Apocryphon” feels bland, and in need of something to break the blues riff-induced monotony. It makes for an enjoyable afternoon, but I think some innovation to the style could have made the album great.