The concept album, from The Who’s Tommy to Queensryche’s Operation: Mindcrime have always divided the hearts and ears of the fans and repelled the critics. Back in the days of yore, when you decided to cut class and stay home, delving into some happy smoke and the warmth of a new vinyl double album, you had sleeves full of lyrics and artwork as your guide. The listening was an event, a commitment to the story or concept of songs that were connected together, and always came to some sort of moral resolution, as the stylus slid towards the record’s center.
But who has time for that today? We are now born to divide and conquer our hopes and dreams through a myriad of multitasking by the minute. Could an album like that catch on in this era of ear buds, invisible files and songs that are plucked from the digital ether for a dollar apiece?
The Sword, Austin’s own purveyors of the current metal revival, have brought us their answer with Warp Riders. A ferocious ten-track tale of an archer named Ereth, who has been banished from his planet. The planet Atheron, in the throes of a “tidal lock”, is divided. One side remains engulfed in eternal darkness while the other is burned by the forever-ness of constant daylight.
Conceived by guitarist/singer JD Cronise, the album’s narrative is pleasantly pummeled into place by the lethal thud and throttle that Sword fans have come to know and worship.
Songs like “Arrows in the Dark” pack a mighty wallop, with Cronise and fellow guitarist Kyle Shutt slinging sturdy riffs back and forth as a fiercely savage soundtrack to this ethereal science friction. One can almost picture Ereth reaching back for his quill with aplomb while under attack on the dark side of his troubled world as blurry fingers blaze guitar necks from the horizon.
The hero’s journey continues in songs like “The Chronomancer”, where his task to restore balance to Atheron takes shape in a savage and bestial showdown. During the title track he surges on a wave of purged thunder and crushing percussion doled out with power and precision by drummer Trivett Wingo. The fantasy seems unrelenting at times, but with massive production by Matt Bayles (Isis, Mastodon) the band’s sound and range have expanded effortlessly to enhance the heavy theme. The Sword is bigger and better for it.
And heavy it is. The narrative comes full circle with the caustically epic “(The Night the Sky Cried) Tears of Fire”. Battle lines are felt colliding amidst a wrath and perseverance of sculpted riffs, with the hearty bottom of Bryan Ritchie’s bass propelling through the rhythm like a blunted fist in the night.
The story melds quite perfectly with the sound, with additional help from the clarity and oomph of Cronise’s vocal work. His voice soars with a sense of purpose and cries out with vision via a hero’s quest convincingly here and he’s never sounded better.
And what of the lack of a pull- out double vinyl sleeve to critique the art and follow lyrically along with? You won’t miss it. Warp Riders moves the fantasy along with its enthralling track list and exquisitely metal maelstrom within the song/story parallels. Close your eyes, throw on some headphones and your heaviest gauge chainmail. As you turn the volume up to eleven, somewhere behind your eyes and between your ears you’ll be dashing towards the thrash of the front line as the arc of arrows lights the sky.