Braving a harsh wind skimming off the San Francisco bay, a motley crew of hard rock fans were waiting in line outside of Slim’s, a red-brick box of a building in the city’s desolate SOMA district. Young and old alike were shifting their weight from foot to foot, staving off chilly breezes with deeply bowed heads, gritted teeth, and pocketed hands. Or so it seemed. Some were probably preparing themselves, stiffening their spines and clenching their muscles in anticipation of a merciless bludgeoning of down-tuned riffage by Austin-based stoner quartet The Sword. Being able to withstand the waves of crashing power chords, thunderous drums, and talon-sharp solos would require a hefty amount of shock absorption. It’s been rumored that small children have literally been blown away by the roar coming out of their speakers. Sound ridiculous? For a band so steeped in mythology and medieval lore such fantastical tales should be run of the mill by now.
30 minutes past the scheduled start time, the screen in front of the stage projecting psychedelic images of flowers blowing in a mild spring breeze finally lifted and the opening band, Children, led the charge. Looking around at the half-capacity crowd, no one seemed to pay much attention to the fact that the show had started. Despite the pulsating kick drum and the guttural screams from lead singer Jonny Rad Children still suffered from the lethargy bestowed depressingly upon the first band of the night. Most of the people on the floor were reacting to their songs about as passionately as if they had they been at laying at home watching a VH1 Classics special about Meatloaf at 3 AM on a Sunday night.
During Children’s fourth song (apologies for not being able to reference the name; not many were provided with an introduction) a small mosh pit was struggling to take shape. This proved to be a bit more difficult to do than if one were at an Arch Enemy or Fear Factory show due to Children’s penchant for off-kilter rhythm curveballs and occasionally long-winded jam sessions. The highlight of the set was their closing song. The growing crowd seemed a bit more excited towards the end not because it was anything particularly stunning, but rather because it served as a reminder that the main event was edging closer.
Slough Feg, who have called San Francisco home since the early 90s, opened with the catchy tune “Tiger Tiger.” They succeeded in getting a few smoke-filled heads nodding along to the soaring chorus and a couple die-hard fans in the front were chanting along with the band.
While their folk-inspired Metal harmonies cut to the chase a bit quicker than Children’s the onstage theatrics of lead singer Michael Scalzi quickly put their set on a fast track to Spinal Tap comparison. Take for instance a prolonged solo battle between Scalzi and lead guitarist Don Tringali in honor of Eddie Vedder’s birthday (random!). The grimaces of excruciating awesomeness on Scalzi and Tringali’s faces as their fingers danced from fret to fret were reminiscent of the ones twisted out by David St. Hubbins and Nigel Tufnel during their finest face-melters. That, as well as the gratuitous instrumental numbers, can be chalked up as a homage to the decadence of 80s Metal.
Initially well-received things began getting a bit tiresome as the set wore on. Once Scalzi started talking about outer space creatures and parading around with a neon orange baseball hat on did it feel as though a model of Stonehedge might be lowered from the rafters. It was cheesy, tongue-in-cheek fun that was not appreciated very much. The crowd was craving to be buried in grim mysticism, not lifted up by sing-along sci-fi anthems.
Although unsubstantiated at the time of writing it’s believed that The Sword hand-picked Slough Feg to be their direct support. With the variance between their two styles this was not the best match for segueing one sound directly into the other. And what is the sound of The Sword, you ask? “…a bunch of bison being pushed over a cliff” as it says on their MySpace page. To be honest that’s fairly accurate.
Around 11 PM, the four members of The Sword take the stage through a veil of thick fog. Given the meaty heft of their albums one would imagine nine foot tall Vikings with guitars the size of garbage can lids to lumber onstage in loincloths and capes made of wooly mammoth hair. Instead of these larger than life expectations the band looked more like extras from Dazed and Confused. Just four scrawny dudes in faded t-shirts.
Would they be able to deliver the tempest of noise this crowd yearned for? The first note of their opening song “Fire Lances of the Ancient Hyperzephyrians” rattled enough ribs and disrupted enough bowels to put that question to rest. For the next 90 minutes they held everyone in Slim’s under siege with a captivating set list that flowed very well between old cuts from Age of Winters and new favorites off of the recently released Gods of the Earth. The atmosphere of their set compared to the two preceding them was a drastic and welcome plunge into the darkness of fantasy. The kid gloves came off when The Sword came on.
Acoustically, things could’ve run smoother. While the guitars, drums, and bass were well balanced the vocals were noticeably lacking in power throughout. To be fair, Slim’s isn’t exactly Madison Square Garden so their ability to handle such an auditory barrage was surely maxed out even at the softest moments. Lead singer J.D. Cronise would occasionally be so engrossed in his devastating guitar duties that he’d drop a word or two at the mic which was a little distracting, but the overall performance of the band was sharp. Their rendition of “Iron Swan” was a definite highlight and the closer, “The Black River,” began as a thick, swampy journey that slowly transformed into an enjoyable chunk of rolling chaos.
Gods of the Earth seemed to be a fitting title to The Sword’s new release that night. Every note they struck turned to gold and the crowd ate up what they served like nectar and ambrosia. High On Fire needn’t worry about being dethroned from their top position as best currently active stoner rock band anytime soon, but The Sword is definitely knocking on the gates of Valhalla…loudly.