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Judging by the knotty outer space drama enacted on 2010’s science fiction concept album, Warp Riders, vintage metal stalwarts the Sword appeared resigned to leaving behind the planet of their birth (Austin, Texas) in search of more accepting audiences across the galaxy. After all, in spite of the well-deserved critical acclaim and respectable sales achieved by the band’s first effort, Age of Winters, and, to a lesser degree, its sophomore doppelganger Gods of the Earth, the Sword nevertheless endured rather prejudiced “hipster metal” dismissals from self-appointed defenders of the metal faith. Shows you headbangers really care that much about haircuts! Then, adding insult to injury, founding drummer Trivett Wingo announced he’d had enough, taking both his skills and fabulous name out of the picture after the third LP’s release, and forcing his former band mates to soldier on without him both on tour and into a period of great change.
And so 2012’s eerily named Apocryphon inaugurates a new era for the Sword Mk II, marked not only by the introduction of Wingo’s replacement, Santiago “Jimmy” Vela III, but the involvement of first-time producer J. Robbins, and, to top it all off, a new business relationship with respected independent label Razor & Tie. The band’s themes, likewise, beat a hasty retreat back down to earth (or a parallel, Robert E. Howard-envisioned dimension thereof, in any case) to once again indulge in vibrant tales of wonder and imagination, wizardry and fantasy, horror and bloodshed — all of them ideally suited to the band’s Neolithic riffing barrage.
However, the musical streamlining undertaken on Warp Riders continues on Apocryphon, where tracks like “Veil of Isis,” “Arcane Montane,” and spectacular standout “Dying Earth” consistently repeat their choruses for maximum cranial penetration, keep guitar solos melodic, sizzling but to the point, and prioritize leaner working frames (i.e. no excessive instrumental episodes or endless riff-mongering allowed) than compositions past. Other, more temporal and/or discreet alien sounds include a smattering of classic rock elements — twin guitar harmonies, bluesier licks, cowbell! — spread across “Cloak of Feathers,” “The Hidden Masters,” and “Hawks & Serpents,” often swinging them as close to Thin Lizzy as Black Sabbath-like construction. And a final unexpected smirk is saved for the title track’s pogoing video game synth pattern — which against all reason works stupendously well with its bludgeoning surroundings. All in all, Apocryphon basically sees the Sword inching its well-established aesthetic along, slowly but surely; cautiously dabbling in new sounds rather than drastically altering their direction, it’s true, but nevertheless operating less timidly and with more satisfying results than anything released since that classic first album. Good to have you back on planet Earth, boys. —All Music