June 4, 2020 The Sword – Conquest of Kingdoms (Box Set Review)
Austin-based Heavy Metal stalwarts The Sword are set to release Conquest of Kingdoms, a three-piece collection of rarities, on Friday, June 5th through Craft Recordings.
Formed in 2003, the original lineup featured Kyle Shutt and John D. Cronise on guitars (with the latter handling vocals), Bryan Richie on bass, and Trivett Wingo on drums. After releasing six acclaimed full-length albums, most recently 2018’s Used Future, the band entered a dark and unknown hiatus. Conquest of Kingdoms, coupled with Chronology 2006 – 2018, a separate greatest hits retrospective also set for release through Craft on the same day, have The Sword showing signs of life again. Mixed in the planned summer tour with Primus—one eventually postponed due to the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic—and that hiatus could very well be on the thaw.
Conquest of Kingdoms covers a number of B-sides, rarities, outtakes, and live tracks. Almost all of these selections re-appear on Chronology 2006 – 2018, which also includes a deep swath of well-known fan favorites. Conquest of Kingdoms opens with 12 fast tracks, split equally between three early concerts: an appearance at Emo’s in Austin, circa 2005; The Bowery Ballroom in New York City, in 2007; and Stubb’s BBQ, also in Auston, as captured in 2011. As expected, the work from 2005 shows a band still in its nascent stages; their releases to this point were all self-produced and sold at concerts.
The four opening tracks—”The Horned Goddess,” “Barael’s Blade,” “Lament for the Aurochs,” and “Iron Swan”—would be re-recorded for Age of Winters (2006, Kemado Records), their debut album. These raw versions illustrate a band that may have already settled on its sound overall, but with Cronise still on a bit of a life quest for his permanent voice, experimenting with delays, effects, and different vocal pitches. The recordings are crisp and capture the wanton guitar work of Cronise and Shutt, steadied by the rhythm section of Richie and Wingo.
Skipping ahead a bit to the four songs from the most recent of the concert material, and two changes appear: Cronise has now found his distinct vocal tone, and the drums have been subsumed by then-fresh addition Santiago “Jimmy” Vela III. It is a strong testament to the band’s body of work that “Freja,” perhaps their signature song, does not appear until the tenth slot. (Not to be ignored, a reworked version, “Freja ’08,” appears soon after.) Another interesting inclusion is a live version of “Sea of Spears”; the studio version of this track appears later on the collection, and originally saw light (along with a cover of “Immigrant Song”) on a split release with Swedish band Witchcraft.
Two of the prime gems mixed into this collection are previously unreleased covers: “Forever My Queen” pays homage to Doom Metal pioneers Pentagram, and “She” takes an interesting melodic spin on the Kiss classic. Cronise and Wingo met while living in Virginia, and upon hearing Cronise sing his ode to fellow Commonwealth residents Pentagram, the influence of legendary Bobby Liebling is suddenly obvious yet still subtle enough to float safely in “influence” status.
Then two later covers are also eye-opening; the band’s version of “Cold Sweat” by Thin Lizzy first appeared on a split single with Year Long Disaster (who, oddly enough, contributed a cover of “Maiden, Mother & Crone” by The Sword for their half of the release), and “Cheap Sunglasses” by ZZ Top. Without glancing for points that do not exist, each of these two tracks display the chord changes and tempo shifts The Sword would forge into their own unique sound.
This is all while two neighboring tracks offer an idea of how that sound has shifted over the course of the band’s career. “Hammer of Heaven” was offered as a non-album single in 2012 with all of the grating, brash attitude of earlier albums, whereas “Hexenringe” (German for “fairy ring”) is an outtake from the 2015 High Country sessions three years later and has the meandering Rock-n-Roll vibe that has driven the band’s more recent material. To hammer home this point, “Serpent Weather,” an outtake from Used Future that was ultimately included as a bonus single for some deluxe vinyl releases of that album, closes the proceedings.
Fans of any particular thread of the career of The Sword to date will find several things to explore and blast on Conquest of Kingdoms, and the mixture of new tracks, covers, and early live offerings leaves little to be desired. Too often box sets are full of rough demos or poorly recorded concerts, aimed almost exclusively at die-hard fans and completists, but Conquest of Kingdoms can be considered a proper introduction as much as an exhaustive retrospective, and existing fans will be pleased as well. Therefore, Cryptic Rock gives this unique collection of rate material 4.5 out of 5 stars.