Sword and tailor

Warp Riders brings a new concept to metal
By JONATHAN DONALDSON  |  October 13, 2010

THINKING MAN’S METAL “People still find a way to mosh at our shows,” says J.D. Cronise (left). “But I want them to be able to sit back and listen to the music.”

The concept of the rock opera strikes fear into the hearts of many — and rightly so. Rock operas give birth to songs about drunken bakers who find scarabs and hidden doors behind convection ovens or blind boys playing pinball — songs that, though awesome in their own right, make little sense outside the context of the album. Yet heavy metal since Zeppelin has always been friendly to hobbity tales of mirth and mayhem. So maybe making a sci-fi-themed rock opera with their new Warp Riders (Kemado) isn't such a strange decision for Austin metallurgists the Sword. "I was thinking to myself, what would my heroes do?" says vocalist and guitarist J.D. Cronise from the road in Seattle. "So what were we going to do — tell ourselves that we couldn't do it? If Led Zeppelin could make one half of Zeppelin III acoustic and have it still be one of their best albums, then why shouldn't we take a chance like that?"

Far from being just a bunch of guys sniffing Borax and dreaming up concepts, the Sword are æsthetic heads and metal heads wrapped into one. Warp Riders' 10 tracks stick close to the script of minimal pounding riffage; it's old-school metal with a dash of stoner and a hint of doom. No screaming, no false harmonics, nothing even to make fun of. One look at the Dan McPharlin–commissioned, sci-fi-paperback-influenced artwork (a spacecraft flies through some kind of asteroid belt) tells you that they're not messing around. As the chief author of Warp Riders' futuristic tale of an archer living in mythological realm where half the world is always day and the other half always night, Cronise is a serious guy with little time for trifling metal stereotypes. "It doesn't come from a place of anger," he reasons. "The purpose of the music is to allow people to enter a trance state that will allow them to just see whatever is there. People still find a way to mosh at our shows. But I want them to be able to sit back and listen to the music."

Like a heavy-metal George Lucas, Cronise used a variety of sources — "ideas of light and dark, perceptions of time" — to create what he hopes could be a new myth for our age. Inspired by Queensrÿche's Operation: Mindcrime, his tale mixes Castañeda's The Teachings of Don Juan, the legend of Atlantis, the films of René Laloux (Fantastic Planet, Time Masters), and, of course, vintage Heavy Metal magazines. Ambitious? Yes. But if you no one told you that you were listening to a rock opera, you probably wouldn't guess. Underneath the fanciful title, opener "Acheron/Unearthing the Orb" keeps a sharp instrumental focus. And though a song titled "The Chronomancer I: Hubris" might be a little difficult to put on a mixtape for your sweetheart, its Sabbath-like elegance could suggest that maybe you've been chasing the wrong type.

Is it possible to create a new myth? Hasn't every story already been written? "I don't know," Cronise pauses, in no hurry to claim victory. "I really don't. That's a good question."

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