Part two of a two part series. Part one: High Country album review
GUEST CONCERT REVIEW by UNCLE MEAT
THE SWORD – London Music Hall, London Ontario 04/12/2016
I don’t think we ever found out the name of the first band that played on this night. They had some great riffy moments, nothing too spectacular but a good way to warm up the crowd. Seconds after they finished their set, Tom turned to me and said, “Never too old to enjoy a Rock Show.” A month earlier we had enjoyed another Rock Show, catching ZZ (that little band from Texas) Top when they rode into town. Ironically enough, tonight was all about seeing The Sword, another band of Texans who actually cite ZZ as a major influence. Six degrees of integrity, or something like that. Thus begins yet another musical journey, and yes Thomas is right. In our 40’s and still lovin’ the Rock Show.
I had the pleasure of seeing The Sword once before as openers for Kyuss Lives: Relentless hard-rock riffing personified. We realized that this would be quite the different experience. Not only because they were playing a headlining set, but more importantly, we were seeing a completely different band than they were just a few years ago. Debuting in 2006, The Sword released four great metal albums. Albums that I definitely enjoyed, but apart from a few exceptional tracks, to me they were just another metal band. While I can still appreciate a good thrashing once in a red Satanic moon, the genre as a whole has kind of taken a nostalgic back seat for me. Before their latest album High Country was released, I didn’t LOVE The Sword. When I read comments from The Sword that basically stated that this new album would reflect more of who they really are, and that if they made another similar “metal” album it wouldn’t be authentic, it instantly intrigued me. From the first listen I connected with the polarizing High Country in a serious way. So much so that I actually over-played it and had to put it away for a bit. However “metal” fans had a different take on it. Almost every review I read was negative and most of them could have been summed up with three words: “not heavy enough”. That’s OK, cement-heads. They didn’t make this album for you. They made this album for themselves, and apparently me. Several songs on High Country tap into the 70’s soft-rock genre (Ambrosia/Little River Band/Bee Gees) that I am a huge sucker for. Thank you The Sword.
Since this is the home of Record Store Tales, I should include this. While we were in London we stopped by the Record Store Tom used to own in London. I don’t think the name of this particular chain can be mentioned around these parts, but I swear it doesn’t rhyme with “Pete Rose Con”. Anyways, I witnessed first-hand that while record stores are a dying breed, there are still gems to be mined out there. Tom’s face lights up as he finds a new copy of a Spiritual Beggars CD being sold new, at a used record store. Irony ensues as we find out that the store manager that ordered in that particular CD was a guy Tom trained 20 years ago. Sowing the seeds of Rock. But I digress.
Second opening band Royal Thunder took the stage and began doing a…umm…sound check? Considering there was a fair crowd in the London Music Theater at this point, this was something I haven’t seen very often, if at all. After their first song which understandably sounded pretty shitty, the female lead singer goes on a bit of a tirade about problems at the border and that Canadian cops are assholes. Aha! Live sound check explained. Royal Thunder had some great groove moments, but too many scattered riffs going nowhere. And too much “plinkilly plinkilly” with the guitars going on; it overall needed some more beef to it. Female lead singer/bass player certainly had some good pipes on her, but and I quote from Tom, “I liked their sound check better than most of their set.” To me they kinda sounded as if Bonnie Tyler developed an affinity for Satan and became the singer of Concrete Blonde. I also enjoyed that the drummer looked like our friend Tyler Generoux or 1971 Ian Paice, and he played like 1971 Bill Ward. In all reality their whole set acted as a glorified sound check for The Sword anyways. Step aside…this is High Country.
The lights go down and before The Sword come out, Christopher Cross’s “Ride Like the Wind” blares through the theater and it’s a glorious confirmation to me. This band is making a statement right away. High Country’s opening track “Unicorn Farm” plays as the hombres walk on stage. Launching into the album’s next track, Empty Temples, all sound issues have been corrected and they sound great. It’s during this song that it hits me. The Sword is one of my favorite bands and I don’t know even the first name of any band member on stage. I can still tell you off the top of my head that the classic lineup of Ratt is Stephen Pearcy, Juan Croucier, Bobby Blotzer, Warren DiMartini and Robbin Crosby. I even know how to spell them. But I have to use Google to find out the names of the members of one of my favourite bands. That’s just freakin’ stupid.
Lead singer John D. Cronise (who also plays rhythm/lead guitar) never had your typical heavy metal voice, so their new direction sits right in his wheelhouse. His partner in axemanship, Kyle Shutt, is the most rambunctious one in the band, and these two guys trade rhythm/lead guitar with the grace and prowess of combos like Adrian Smith/Dave Murray or any or all of the twin guitar combinations within the under-appreciated Thin Lizzy, and the great Wishbone Ash. Watching these guys together was a pure joy. Perhaps the most interesting musician on stage was bass player Bryan Richie, realizing early on that the standing synthesizer and keyboard foot pedals surrounding him make it possible for them to play some of the more eclectic material from High Country on stage. The band’s new direction has basically made him the most important member of the band, for live performances. Last but not least, in the immortal words of David St. Hubbins…“Great drummah…great drummah”. Fittingly enough, he even has a Spinal Tap-esque name. His name is Santiago “Jimmy” Vela III. You just can’t make that shit up. But seriously, he was a very solid drummer. Every few songs he would ride that cowbell all the way to Valhalla! There is just something about the cowbell that cuts clean through, especially with live music. It’s powers certainly worked on Tom and I, as we often found ourselves screaming ROCK SHOW!!…ROCK SHOW!!, in appreciation of The majestic Sword.
Staying mostly within the hallowed fields of High Country, more aggressive tracks “Ghost Eye” and “Suffer No Fools” actually conjured up a mini mosh-pit, which thankfully faded away as fast as it started. Who needs that bullshit anymore. Stand-out track “The Dreamthieves” was executed perfectly with background vocals and keyboards abound. The mind-blowing portion of the night comes when they play the robust “Mist & Shadow”, putting everyone in a rock and roll haze. I have been calling this song “The ‘Layla’ of hard rock” since I first heard it, and the patience in the composition and performance of “Mist & Shadow” defines not only this show for me but what this band has become.
The Sword left and subsequently returned to the stage for their encore. This is when I believe the band made its most profound statement of the night. I am sure that the metal fans wanted to hear their classic riffer “How Heavy This Axe”: Great heavy tune off their second album that I wanted to hear as well. Almost seemed to be what they should do. Instead, they chose to play the two tracks on High Country that are the most un-metal songs of not only the album, but their career. It was a brilliant choice and the message was clear. A message that became clearer as the lights come on and America’s “You Can Do Magic” starts playing. The look on some of the stunned faces around me in the crowd were pretty comical, and made me almost me feel proud of this band for not taking the easy way and going through the motions with just another metal album. This is what happens when musicians know who they are and what they want to become. Maybe the message is that once you get to this magical place that The Sword are in musically…You can do magic. You can play anything that you desire.