By: Andy Little
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Released on September 23, 2016 via Razor & Tie
Austin, Texas, stoner rockers The Sword’s 2015 High Country album saw a left turn into a classic rock direction with mature and smoother crafted songs, and nuanced guitar hooks. Resulting in a sound which nods towards Judas Priest’s Rock ‘n’ Rolla, and Thin Lizzy’s Johnny the Fox albums, plus a tinge of fellow Texan legends ZZ Top infected influences, thereby relying less on previous Black Sabbath leanings.
This change of direction was met with mixed reviews, but justified when it expanded their chart success beyond the impressive number 30 on the US billboard charts, to also enter for the first time in the band’s history at number 74 in the Australian, and number 91 in the German album charts. They then proceeded to tour for the next nine months before going back into the studio to record this companion piece titled Low Country.
Produced by bassist Bryan Richie and mixed by J. Robbins this is a stripped back, unplugged, acoustic version of the aforementioned mother album High Country. Trimming the original plugged in album from its 15 tracks to a round 10 songs. ‘Tears Like Diamonds’, ‘Agartha’, ‘Suffer No Fools’, ‘Silver Petals’ and ‘Turned to Dust’ are all omitted. They have previously dipped their toe in acoustic territory with the instrumental ‘To Take the Black’ from 2008’s Gods of the Earth record. But this whole album’s worth of electric free riffage, like most acoustic offerings, concentrates on the bare essentials of each song. There is always a risk that songs de-amped may indeed lose some of their power without distorted comforts. Or, in stark contrast instead can add considerable depth, even emotional power, when they are laid bare and given an opportunity to breathe.
So, how do the original ten songs devoid of The Sword’s familiar guitar riffy heavy frontal attack transfer to a quieter, softer setting? The vocal harmonies are given ample room to take a more central stage as on ‘Empty Temples’, and in the most successful acoustic makeover of the entire album with ‘Dreamthieves’, where it actually enhances its dreamlike, drifty quality. While ‘Buzzards’ has organ to add an alternative, less robust atmosphere, to the original. There are some nifty acoustic guitar picking on ‘Empty Temples’, and ‘Shadows and Mist.’ And the album is given a brief lift with thumping drums and a heavier dirtier bass sound in ‘Early Snow’ at roughly the mid-point section of the record.
There is also a minimalist approach to a few songs to give them a very low key feel as on ‘Ghost Eye’ and ‘Seriously Mysteriously’, which the latter drifts by pretty much unnoticeable. While ‘Bees of the Spring’ is way too short so feels unfinished after a promising start.
Overall, Low Country is a mixed achievement, some songs make the acoustic transition successfully others less so, and although this isn’t a bad album it does on the whole leave an underwhelming impression. In essence, Low Country may be for The Sword devotees and record completists only. High Country though is a different beast and is a recommended listen for fans of melodic classic rock guitar loaded hooked songs. There is of course the potential if approaching these set of albums by listening to Low Country first the view could be different.