It's okay to classify frontman John "J.D." Cronise's 10-year-old retro-rock outfit the Sword as stoner metal, if you'd like. Or even doom, if you're especially taken with the singer's sometimes-apocalyptic lyrical fantasias.
But while Cronise doesn't mind, he doesn't see much sense in all the hair-splitting about genre specifics, either.
"Whatever people want to call us is fine," Cronise says, on break from touring to support the band's fourth record, Apocryphon, released in October. "Personally, I don't really understand the term ‘stoner rock' and how it's come be used these days. It made a little more sense 10 years ago when there were more bands that actually made marijuana the focus of their lyrics. I'm sure more weed has been smoked listening to Van Halen over the years than has been [smoked] listening to the Sword, but nobody calls Van Halen stoner rock.
"The same thing with doom. Unless all your songs are about doom and apocalypse, it seems kind of limiting to a call a band like us doom. We certainly have some lyrics that deal with doomy kinds of subjects, but that's by no means the focal point of our music."
Founded in 2003 in Austin, Texas, by Cronise, guitarist Kyle Shutt, and drummer Trivett Wingo, the Sword released its first demo, Age of Winters, by the end of that year. (The band now consists of Cronise, Shutt, bassist Bryan Richie, and drummer Santiago "Jimmy" Vela III.) That demo served as the basis of the band's 2006 Kemado Records debut of the same name.
And with each of its releases since, the band has made significant evolutions in the most accessible reaches of its sound, without altering its timbre. From the doomier inclinations of Age, to 2008's Gods of the Earth, a veritable homage to speed metal circa 1983, to 2010 and Warp Riders, a sci-fi concept album with classic-rock overtones, the Sword's pendulum has swung wide, while still preserving its essential Sword-ness. Cronise says the band is keenly aware of maintaining that delicate balance—staying relevant, not growing mossy or stale, but not losing their hard-won identity as a first-rate original metal outfit, either.
"A lot of people have some success, then try to replicate it, try to make every record sound like the last one," he says. "Then, on the other hand, there's the band that says, okay, we want to be a completely different kind of band now. For us, it's a natural kind of evolution. We're always going to play hard rock of some kind. But as far as the format, that changes from record to record."
One constant over the course of the four albums has been Cronise's wildly imaginative lyrics, crafted in the classic-fantastic heavy-metal tradition, owing a debt to the likes of Norse mythology, Robert E. Howard novels, and any number of other sci-fi, horror, and fantasy writers and sources.
"It's the Ronnie James Dio tradition," Cronise says with a laugh. "I think he invented that back in the Rainbow days. I definitely come from that school, liking to tell stories, writing lyrics that are more metaphorical than literal, for sure."
But Cronise says too many listeners have missed the boat this time around, that his lyrical approach on Apocryphon is pared down, jettisoning over-the-top tales of wizardry and warfare in favor of simpler themes.
"On this album, a lot of the reviews I read, even the very positive ones, the critic kind of missed the point," he says. "They would be describing the lyrics in the same way as previous albums, and I kind of had to scratch my head, and wonder, did this person actually listen?
"Because to me these lyrics are very different than the previous three albums. There's not as much storytelling. They're more direct. There's still a lot of metaphors and imagery. But most of the songs have a concrete theme and subject rather than being just fantastic tales."
As for that—well, you may just have to take Cronise's word for it. Because while a careful perusal does reveal that the tunes on Apocryphon don't take things quite as far into the heart of Freak City as previous Sword epics like "Fire Lances of the Ancient Hyperzephyrians" (Gods) or "(The Night the Sky Cried) Tears of Fire" (Warp Riders), there's still plenty of mysticism and macabre, a sheen of mythic allegory on Apocryphon tracks like "The Veil of Isis" and "Eyes of the Stormwitch."
And Cronise admits, when pressed, that his songs will probably never be wholly purged of those hyperbolic and phantasmagoric elements that have long characterized the genre the Sword has taken as its own.
"Heavy metal, to me, is the equivalent of comic books or science-fiction novels or movies or whatever," he says. "It's the fantastic side of rock music. And to me, writing lyrics in that style is kind of natural. Heavy metal with very literal lyrics—that doesn't work for me. That's a punk-rock thing, or a folk-rock thing. It's something that belongs in another genre. That's my interpretation."