Released in 2010, The Sword’s Warp Riders was an expertly executed slice of conceptual science-fiction, measured production and immeasurably satisfying metal. Their next album would have a lot to live up to.
For Apocryphon, The Sword elected to strip away the narrative and conceptual elements that strengthened its predecessor. Frontman J.D. Cronise stated the band would forgo complex sci-fi storytelling in favour of topics more metaphorically reflective of their own experiences. Thankfully Apocryphon doesn’t suffer from this lack of narrative nuance.
Despite the album’s lack of concrete narrative it does feature some lyrical overlaps. Opening track ‘Veil of Isis’ links lyrically with ‘Seven Sisters’, and second track ‘Cloak of Feathers’ links with ‘Eyes of the Storm Witch’, portraying the decadent figure gracing the album’s artwork, designed by comic book artist J. H. Williams III.
‘Cloak of Feathers’ is an album highlight and features an example of delicious pop vocal delay unusually placed on a metal album. J.D Cronise has become one of the finest vocalists of the genre and throughout Apocryphon his vocals nestle somewhere between the ghostly and the galactic, making for a very dramatic experience and elevating the tracks to a suitably anthemic standard.
‘Arcane Montane’ opens with a satisfying groove but ultimately feels lazy until it’s redeemed by a section featuring tolling bells and rolling snares.
Matt Bayles — who has worked with Mastodon and ISIS — brought a technically astute ear to Warp Riders, which resulted in an exceptional sound. But Apocryphon sees The Sword work with J. Robbins, who brought a more raw, live sound to the record. The result of this is a snare which too often sounds dull and underwhelming. ‘Arcane Montane’ and several other tracks feature sections where the snare is isolated, and without the backing of guitar and bass its sound is much more tolerable.
A relaxed bass riff reminiscent of Sleep’s Dragonaut opens ‘The Hidden Masters’ before the track collapses into a doom metal lurch. Though it feels more of a cosy meandre than a menacing stagger, the track eventually develops into one of the best choruses of the album and Cronise’s vocals excel once more.
Another example of Cronise’s ghostly vocals are found on ‘Dying Earth’, a track with a massive, though uncomplicated riff. This is followed by a short introduction feeding the listener into the explosive chorus of ‘Execrator’, which features superb drums but a muddy snare sound.
Another highlight of the album is ‘Seven Sisters’. Despite an unsteady start with an off-putting vocal melody, the track eventually finds its rhythm with several superb sections and a master class in lyrical alliteration and song structure.
The hugely anthemic ‘Hawks and Serpents’ comes dangerously close to cliché, but showcases enough unhinged guitar to keep it grounded. Expect this track to feature heavily in The Sword’s resulting album tour.
The curiously busy drum introduction to ‘Eyes of the Storm Witch’ eases the listener into what eventually explodes into the thickest, tastiest guitar on the album. The Sword have always known exactly when to alter a chugging rhythm for maximum effect and this track showcases that well. This is another track which will undoubtedly be a live highlight.
Synthesised arpeggios are atypical in metal, and at first the stepped tones of title track ‘Apocryphon’ seem jarring. But these concerns are shattered when the digital dance is met by a wall of fierce guitar and ferocious thrash. The synth remains, swelling and evolving throughout, thickening the texture behind the superb rhythm section. The gargantuan chorus ensures the album ends strongly, with the title track perhaps the best of the record.
Apocryphon’s tracks are tantalising, each perfectly positioned ending has the listener willing the riff to start again so the song can continue. The album is more accessible than its predecessor. This limits its aggression, but its more anthemic nature makes up for this in spades. Though its production is disappointing, Apocryphon has enough barbed hooks to keep listeners singing its choruses and riffs for a long, long time.