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The Sword is well-honed for the road

Austin metal band that has toured with Metallica and opened for Ozzy readies for the release of the nuanced 'Warp Riders'

Joe Gross
jgross@statesman.com
The Sword (from left, Bryan Richie, Kyle Shutt, Trivett Wingo and J.D. Cronise) learned how to make use of the whole stage while touring with Metallica. 'For being in the position they are in, (Metallica) are a very hospitable band,' Shutt says.

In some ways, the Sword are very much an Austin act. All four members of the seven-year-old heavy metal band live here, enjoy the town's causal rock lifestyle and consider themselves better-than-average connoisseurs of Mexican food.

In some ways, they are very much not an Austin band. They don't play here often — at this point, the quartet tours so much that the band agrees an Austin date is virtually just another gig. They're on their third album in five years for a respected indie label: 'Warp Riders' is due Tuesday from New York-based Kemado Records.

And they've toured with Metallica, opening for the metal lifers on their 2008 European Vacation and the 2009 World Magnetic Tour.

That last one really does jump out at you, huh?

But sitting in a Mexican restaurant in North Austin, they certainly don't look like how you think guys who opened for Metallica would look. The only evidence that they might be operating at a slightly higher level than any other band that plays Red River Street clubs is that their publicist made a reservation at this place, which seems somewhat hilarious considering the folding chairs we're sitting on.

They look like any other Austin band of guys in their 30s. Guitarist Kyle Shutt, bassist Bryan Richie and drummer Trivett Wingo are soon joined by a somewhat grumpy-looking J.D. Cronise, who looks like he just woke up and keeps his sunglasses on the entire time.

THE SWORD AS BEATLES

Small digression: Personality-wise, the Sword breaks down weirdly well into the Beatles archetype.

Guitarist and vocalist Cronise is very much the Lennon. He writes the balance of the material, nearly all of it. He can come off as surly and distant, but actually has a wicked sense of humor. Also, they have similar noses.

Bryan Richie is something of a McCartney — the Austin-native bassist is good-natured and accessible and seems to slip into the role of band spokesman by default. However, there is no evidence that people hate him with the white-hot rage they reserve for the real Paul McCartney, nor does he write Sword music. But he definitely seems like the band member you'd want talking to the cops.

Like George Harrison, guitarist Kyle Shutt is younger than the rest of the band by several years. One day, one imagines quite the solo album coming from that guy. Not sure about the Indian thing, though.

Trivett Wingo, like Ringo Starr, has one of the best names in rock music. He's also perhaps the most openly funny Sword. Sean William Scott will play him in the movie of the Sword's career. (Note: Movie not currently in production.)

OPENING FOR THE MASTERS OF METAL

So, yeah, Metallica ...

'We played a lot of Frisbee,' Richie says, as opening for a stadium act is pretty much the ultimate in hurry up and wait. There's a reason bands stay up as late as humanly possible so they wake up at sound check — things get boring when you're hanging around waiting to play your 30 minutes a night in front of people who are there to see someone else.

'For being in the position they are in, (Metallica) are a very hospitable band,' Shutt says. 'The stage we played on was utterly ridiculous (in a good way). Lots of running around.'

'You do have to learn new skills,' Richie says. 'It's a 30-minute set, two songs from each album, and it's a bit of an endurance test, as it's a huge stage and you want to cover it. And you have to learn to play off the reflections from the other side of the arena. It felt like one of those tests of being in a rock band.'

Then there was Wingo, who, sitting down, often couldn't see the other band members. 'I would just kind of check out, and we just as well could have been in our practice space,' Wingo says.

But they weren't. They were opening for Metallica.

They reportedly treated them a bit better than did Ozzy Osbourne, for whom they opened at a show for contest winners in London at the Roundhouse.

'It's a place that is mentioned a lot in (the legendary Led Zeppelin bio) "Hammer of the Gods," so we were looking forward to it,' Shutt says. 'But we did not meet Ozzy.'

'You really should get to meet Ozzy if you open for him,' Wingo adds.

'Opening for him is apparently not good enough,' Cronise says. It is agreed perhaps they should have purchased Ozzy's new book.

Were the Metallica and Ozzy audiences at least a little polite to the guys?

'Yeah. People are pretty much the same at a heavy metal show anywhere,' Wingo says. 'They're all drunk, rowdy and excited. Heavy metal shows are the same everywhere in the world. The level of drunkenness is just different.'

'Except Scotland,' Cronise says. 'There, they sing along with the guitar riffs.'

SWORD VS. AUSTIN

The talk turns back to Austin.

'For as many bands as there are here, there's not a lot of crew who are able to travel,' Wingo says. 'In Nashville, you need crew dudes, they come out of the woodwork. Here, it's "Oh, man, I dunno. I gotta ask my wife." '

'There are so many places to get shows,' Richie says.

'I love hearing bands say, "We played five times this month," ' Shutt adds. 'No, play once a month and make it an event.'

'I think Austin is like maybe not as competitive as it should be,' Wingo says. 'People here don't have this take-no-prisoners mentality I feel that we've always had. We had to really, like, fight to get anywhere, and people in this town just kind of want to see what happens. It's awesome that things are as laid-back as they are, but maybe they are too laid-back.'

The Sword was unsheathed (sorry) in 2003, put together by Richmond, Va., natives Cronise and Wingo, who had both done time in that city's vibrant, undersung '90s punk and metal scene. Now, it's a little different.

'We went back there (on tour) and got a cold reception,' Cronise said. 'No offense to people who live there now, but there was a reason we left.' (Note: Austin's Red River scene has a whole lot of Richmond expatriates floating around, and virtually all of them say the same thing. Peace to the Richmond Chamber of Commerce.)

They teamed up with Shutt, and Richie joined in 2004. Cronise wrote all the songs, most of them focusing on fantasy or science-fiction themes, pretty classic heavy metal subject matter.

'It was a solo project, basically,' Cronise says a few days later.

(Indeed, when I asked the band when they wrote 'Warp Riders,' Wingo says, 'You mean when did J.D. start writing "Warp Riders"?')

'Most of the time, in the beginning, all of (the material) was pre-written and pre-arranged,' Cronise says. 'Now Kyle will sometimes bring in parts and we put them together. But I still see the creative period as one of solitude and the performance period as something else. When everyone is together I'm thinking about playing, not writing.'

Their debut album, 'Age of Winters,' appeared in 2006, the follow-up 'Gods of Earth' in 2008.

The new record is a loosely rendered sci-fi concept album with accordingly excellent cover art — half old-school Atari cartridge, half deep-space space opera.

This time around, instead of self-producing, Cronise and the band brought in well-regarded underground metal producer Matt Bayles and recorded at Wire Studios. 'It was very different,' Richie says, 'Before, it would be a few takes and that was that. With Matt, it was "Nail eleven perfect takes." '

'It definitely made it a lot less stressful not having to worry about producing,' Cronise says. 'The songs are still somewhat fresh to me because I haven't listened to them five million times.'

If anything, 'Warp Riders' dials down the aggression for a more nuanced hard rock vibe.

'Being on tour with metal bands like Lamb of God and Machine Head, I kind of wanted to set our sound apart from that a little bit more,' Cronise says. 'That's just not the vibe we're going for, the giant mosh pit thing. We'd rather people watch us and get into the music rather than get all crazy. I mean, I love Lamb of God, but watching that every night gets kind of tiring and I think playing that would get kind of tiring as well.'

Say this for the Sword: They do look like they're having a ball. Third album in an era when careers are barely over before they've started? Opening slot for the biggest metal band of them all? What's not to love about being these four guys?

'It's like, "When do I get to smile?" ' Cronise says. 'I can't have a mean face on all the time.'

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J.D. Cronise's reading list

'Warp Riders' has a strong science-fiction element, just as the Sword's earlier records had fantasy themes with references to Conan the Barbarian stories and other works. Here are a few of primary songwriter J.D. Cronise's favorite sci-fi and fantasy tales.

'Dune,' by Frank Herbert. The epic saga of the rise and fall of a galactic empire stretches over a million words and has proven one of the most important sci-fi series of all time. 'It's just brilliant from start to finish,' Cronise says. 'It's totally original and yet presents its philosophy in a way that's almost religious in approach. ... That was a very influential book on me.'

'The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath,' by H.P. Lovecraft. Like the title spells out, a quest rooted in a dream leads a man to a mythical city. 'That's amazing; probably my favorite story of his. He's known for horror, but it's more fantasy or sci-fi.'

'Beyond the Black River,' by Robert E. Howard. A Conan story referenced in the Sword song 'The Black River.' 'It takes place in the barbaric fantasy world, but it's also inspired by the American frontier with this western frontier thing.'

'A Princess of Mars,' by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Packed with high adventure, it is the ultimate in what became known as planetary romance. 'They're pure entertainment. I do like that the protagonist, John Carter, is from Virginia and has my initials. (Note: Unlike Carter, Cronise did not serve in the Civil War.)

'A Game of Thrones,' by George R.R. Martin. A sprawling epic fantasy series, perhaps the most influential published in the 1990s that didn't involve someone named Harry Potter. An upcoming series from HBO. Inspired the Sword song 'To Take the Black.' 'A brutal soap opera for nerds. Rereading that now. From what I've seen, the TV show looks awesome.'

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The Sword's new record, 'Warp Riders,' is out Tuesday, and the band plays a free in-store Monday at Waterloo Records. 8 p.m., 600 N. Lamar Blvd. The band also is scheduled to play at 5 p.m. Oct. 8 during the Austin City Limits Music Festival at Zilker Park.

jgross@statesman.com; 912-5926