Last year, I hung a perfect ten rating upon THE SWORD's dazzling and frankly ballsy "High Country" album. I stand by it a year later as THE SWORD takes the unplugged route with a mostly acoustic companion piece, "Low Country". To set the record straight about "Low Country", the ten songs revamped in stripped format were recorded prior to the release of "High Country", as opposed to any reactionary success the latter received. While nowhere near the triumph of the original source material, "Low Country" offers insight into the band's creative process, showing what can be had through alternate takes.
Being a band from Texas, a lot of "Low Country" will ring of, well, country, but thankfully not today's mainstream country. We're talking pure country. Country you'd find in some protected quarter of Galveston, or Western music (a different breed, to be sure) in Colorado Springs. Conny Ochs and Matt Boroff are two underground artists who have found audiences amongst the metal sect; their earthy, folk-grounded work belonging more in cowboy revival films than on headbangers' playlists. Kudos for said open-mindedness. On the higher profile front, Zakk Wylde has further proven with "Book of Shadows II" that metalheads will readily gobble up acoustic material, even material grounded in blues and country. Accordingly, THE SWORD, a band that on "High Country" alarmed as much as enticed listeners with its pure rock extractions, takes a chance that Wylde, Ochs and Boroff are not flukes, and that metalheads will follow the band as it plays to its own whims here.
"High Country", the title track, was so smartly written it stands to be reinvented as a twangy blues and country ditty in this presentation, and THE SWORD delivers it convincingly. "Mist & Shadow" is one of the best of these redone numbers. It's the sculpting of the guitars, from singular to collective, that gives it a new outlook; one bearing a slight gnash and offering John Cronise room to peek in and out vocally. The song reaches toward an apex where all guitars sing higher than he does. To opposite effect, Cronise and his backing-vocal posse gleam over the sparse echo chamber threatening to swallow up the plunking guitar melodies of "The Dreamthieves". In time, all synchronize and invite the listener toward its slowly rising hearth.
"Seriously Mysterious" shimmies along a sooty melody with the implied inspiration of a weekend spent watching the Western Channel, and the pokey vibe carries into the rearrangement of "Early Snow". While breaking theme by including electric bass, and later, synthesizers (they also figure on "The Dreamthieves" and "Ghost Eye") and a brass section, the song incorporates the flavor of THE BLACK KEYS, thus reaffirming THE SWORD's present nudge toward straight rock.
Both renditions of "Buzzards", this one being as far from acoustic as Eddie Van Halen's "Eruption", may have come before the death of Prince, but the "Low Country" version rings louder of tribute. The throwback drum machine and dirty electric guitar rakes ringing of early '80s Minneapolis. It's awkward, no doubt about it, but you don't evolve as artists without taking a few chances, even just for fun. What if Prince had never recorded the guitar-heavy "Bambi" in 1979?
How this risky noodling sits with THE SWORD's longtime fans will be a point of contention going into the band's next full-length. Some of "Low Country" is superb, some of it curious expansions often with sweet payoffs, like the mandolin-aided strut of "The Bees of Spring". A lot of unnecessary pressure has been placed upon "Low Country" by the music press, naturally holding it accountable to one of THE SWORD's most acclaimed yet scrutinized albums. "Low Country" is irreverent, and, at times, weird, but not even the band itself had to consider this anything more than loving the hell out of the music it has created at this point in its career.