Remembering “Hipster Metal” & The Sword’s Gods Of The Earth 10 Years Later
A Look Back At Metal's Dumbest Controversy And One Band That Got Stuck In It
Remember hipster metal? Beginning in about 2005, a mini-wave of hard rock and metal bands popped up, to great acclaim from magazines — there were still magazines back then — and websites that had previously ignored or scoffed at metal for the most part. Saviours, Witch, Early Man, and Wolfmother were all heralded as the second coming of the classic ’70s and early ’80s riff masters.
Of course, going through the review archives of some of the publications lauding these new bands revealed little or no affection for the bands they were so obviously descended from, which drove metal lifers berserk. As a result, the bands that were actually good were unfairly dismissed by many headbangers, who were convinced they were being sold a bill of goods.
The band that broke out of the hipster metal pack most effectively was the Sword, from Austin, Texas. Formed in 2003, they signed to the New York indie label Kemado after a performance at South By Southwest in 2005. Their debut album, Age Of Winters, was released in February 2006, and received solid reviews. Later that year, the single, “Freya,” was included as a playable track on Guitar Hero II.
When they first emerged, the Sword were a doomy stoner metal act that could easily have signed with Earache, Relapse, Century Media, or Metal Blade. The songs on Age Of Winters owed a lot to Sleep and early High On Fire, with more gallop and whomp in the rhythm section. Guitarists J.D. Cronise and Kyle Shutt cranked out big, headbanging riffs, supported by bassist Bryan Richie, while drummer Trivett Wingo was the band’s not-so-secret weapon, his dancing cymbals and thundering fills keeping the energy level high. Cronise’s vocals were (and still are) the band’s weakness; he’s got a strangled yelp with none of the grandiosity the songs demand.
After the album’s release, they busted their asses on the road like any other young band, playing with bands like Trivium, Clutch, and Lacuna Coil, and opening some dates for Lamb Of God in Japan. (That band’s guitarist, Mark Morton, had been an early fan, recommending them to Kemado.) And two years later, it was time for the follow-up. Cronise had written almost all of Age Of Winters himself, but now, they were a road-hardened unit, and their second album, Gods Of The Earth, reflected that.
Released April 1, 2008 — 10 years ago this week — the album was an immediate step beyond Age Of Winters. Like its predecessor, it kicked off with a short instrumental intro. The two-minute “The Sundering” was a thrashy sprint full of medium-difficulty guitar shredding. The first actual song, “The Frost-Giant’s Daughter,” named for a short story by Conan creator Robert E. Howard, had the throbbing roar of their earlier material, but Wingo had become a much more assaultive drummer.
Throughout the album, he drives the others hard, with a snare sound like hitting a wooden door with a crowbar and absolutely thunderous fills. Cronise and Shutt dig into the big, stomping riffs with caveman joy, and when they do the twin lead thing, it’s hard not to want to air guitar along. The album’s penultimate track, the seven-minute instrumental “The White Sea,” is one of its best, precisely because it’s a total bro-down guitar jam, with Wingo absolutely demolishing the kit.
Lyrically, the Sword were classicists — they dwelled in the post-Ronnie James Dio realm of sword-wielding fantasy, like 3 Inches Of Blood or Amon Amarth. Not only that, looking back now reveals them as serious nerds about that stuff. There are two songs on Gods Of The Earth taking lyrical inspiration from George R.R. Martin’s A Song Of Ice And Fire books — “Maiden, Mother & Crone” and “To Take The Black,” the latter of which gets an acoustic reprise at the end of the record. This is a full three years before Game Of Thrones came to HBO, back when Martin’s oeuvre was the property of total dorks and nobody else.
Which brings us back to hipster metal. The endless debate over who and what qualified as a “hipster” was one of the most poisonous subcultural phenomena of the 2000s. You could literally feel your life draining out your heels as people went back and forth, round and round, about this bullshit. When it came to the term “hipster metal,” “hipster” basically translated to “dilettante”; it was a charge leveled by headbangers who didn’t think bands like the Sword really lived it, maaaaannnnn. But I’m always reminded of a line from the comic book Groo The Wanderer: After the title character asserts his identity to a group of doubtful peasants, one who believes him says, “Who would pretend to be that, who was not?”
There are lots of easier ways to make a career in music than starting a metal band. Metal is music with extremely limited commercial appeal. It gets almost no radio airplay. The songs are extremely unlikely to be licensed for commercials, except as a joke (a stereotypical nerd, or a grandma, will be shown listening to hardcore or thrash in the privacy of their new car, for example). Its fans are diehards, but the wider world is generally disdainful at best and overtly hostile more often than not. So the idea that a careerist musician would want to be part of such an enterprise for material gain, or social capital, kinda falls apart after a moment’s consideration.
But even if the term “hipster metal” didn’t describe a sound, or a genuine phenomenon (indie rock fans were not about to start headbanging), labels really were gambling on heavier bands in the mid-2000s, whether they were majors like Universal, who signed Wolfmother, or Warner Bros., who lured Mastodon away from Relapse, or a big-name indie like Matador, who gave the world Early Man.
And cynical metal fans could be excused for sneering, since other than Mastodon, these bands simply weren’t as good as their peers.
A true metal label like Relapse or Earache would never have signed Early Man, whose wavering vocals, ramshackle drumming, and practice-amp guitar sound gave their 2005 album Closing In the feel of a demo. Saviours combined NWOBHM gallop with Motörhead-esque biker-gang rawness, but never quite learned to write songs. Witch, who were on Tee Pee, were noisy and primitive, too, with shrill vocals buried in the mix, but that was to be expected from a J. Mascis side project. Wolfmother’s debut had a few decent jams, but they were more like a holdover from the garage rock revival of three years earlier, with some ’70s hard rock riffs thrown in.
No, the reason the Sword got over wasn’t that they had a high-powered publicity team behind them; it was that their songs were good, their albums were good, and they kicked ass live. I saw them twice. The first time was in 2008, opening for Metallica (with Machine Head in between). They were only onstage for 25 minutes, and they didn’t quite know how to make an arena stage their own, but they did the best they could. Their big, stomping riffs were a great way to start off the night.
I saw them again two years later, at an outdoor show at South by Southwest in 2010. That time, they were on before Motörhead (the documentary Lemmy had just been released, and I was in town to interview the man himself onstage before a live audience). Again, it was a short set, but they’d gotten even better, putting the songs across with force and precision and a newfound embrace of groove. Their next album, 2010’s Warp Riders, signaled a slight change of direction, moving them a step or two closer to ZZ Top or latter-day Thin Lizzy (they’ve covered the former’s “Cheap Sunglasses” live, and the latter’s “Cold Sweat” on record) musically, but it was still too heavy for radio. And lyrically, it was a sci-fi concept album, which is as metal-dork as you can get.
The Sword — whose latest album, Used Future, was released last month — were never hipsters, in whatever sense you choose to deploy that term. Just like Mastodon, they were a metal band that gradually transformed into a heavy, psychedelic, occasionally arty hard rock band. And Gods Of The Earth is a solid metal record that was always much better than anything by Wolfmother, Saviours, Witch, or Early Man. (Seriously, Early Man were the worst.) Ten years later, this one stands up.