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Better than Metallica? The Sword didn't say it, but I will

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You can consider it retro-metal. You can deem it stoner rock. You can say that it's doom, or any of half a dozen other subgenres that metalheads fervidly debate.

Whatever you want to call it, there's no denying that the Austin, TX, quartet the Sword is one of the hardest-hitting but most melodic groups making heavy music today.

"I suppose it kind of helps when you're starting a band to have a definite direction and focus so you're just not flailing away," guitarist-vocalist J.D. Cronise says of metal's fondness for genre-typing. "If you have too many options, it's hard to choose one, so it kind of helps to be a little narrower when you begin, and then you can kind of expand from that.

"When we started, I think it definitely was much more about being heavy: I think I would have called it doom metal, even though doom is traditionally considered to be slow in tempo. But I think that's one of the shortcomings of the metal genre: It's always trying to define itself. To me, you listen to the music; if it moves you, it's good, and if it doesn't, you listen to something else. I listen to what I consider to be good music; I read what I consider to be good books. That doesn't necessarily preclude any genre."

Fair enough, and one of the strengths of the Sword is that, unlike some bands in the stoner-rock realm, you never get the sense that these Austinites are laughing at metal even as they turn their amps up to 11. "There may be a little irony in the Sword, but it's a kind of irony where it's not a joke," Cronise says. "I don't just go through Iron Maiden's lyric sheets and try to imitate that or whatever. We have our own voice, and it's not just a cartoon or a caricature of something that came before."

Cronise, guitarist Kyle Shutt, bassist Bryan Richie and drummer Trivett Wingo first came together in 2003. After turning heads at the South by Southwest Music Festival when it descended on their hometown in 2005, they released their debut album "Age of Winters" the following year and then dropped the follow-up "Gods of the Earth" last spring. Both discs won a spot on drummer Lars Ulrich's iPod, and Metallica recruited the Sword to open on its current tour, instantly elevating the Texans from small clubs to massive arenas.

"It's definitely been an adjustment," Cronise says. "Metallica performs in the round, which means that everyone who opens for them does, too. That's really a whole new dimension to live performance: All your band is all scattered over the entire stage, looking in different directions!"
The gig also has put plans for the band's next album on a temporary hold.

"We're not good road writers; we come up with some riffs, but we really have to get home to get into the practice space and hammer them out to make songs out of them. This Metallica tour is going to be going on for the next couple of months, and we may end up doing more dates with them after that, because they're going to be touring for like the next two years. The harsh reality is the economy is affecting musicians, too, and when we play headlining shows, our ticket sales are down just like everyone's. But Metallica is a sold-out show every night, and as long as they want to take us on tour, that's a steady gig--and a once-in-a-lifetime experience."

Besides, as potent as the band's albums are, like all great metal groups, it's all about live performance for the Sword.

"I wouldn't say that recording is a pleasant experience," Cronise confesses. "This may sound incredibly pretentious, and I apologize, but I don't think most artists really enjoy the creation process--or at least I don't. Before I did music, as a little kid, I would draw a lot; that was my main thing. I don't think I really enjoyed drawing the pictures--that was like work--but after they were done, I enjoyed looking at them.

"It's the same thing with music. As far as making the record, I just want to make it as good as I can, and that means it's a chore, or at least a challenge. After the record's done, I just want to go play the songs. We're more of a live band: It's more about playing the songs live, and recording them is just something we have to do. Not that we don't love listening to records--we do--but that will never beat cranking it up onstage."

FACTS
Metallica, Machine Head, the Sword
7 p.m. Monday and Tuesday [JAN. 26-27]
Allstate Arena, Rosemont
Tickets $59.50 to $79.50
(312) 559-1212; www.ticketmaster.com

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Thomas Conner

Thomas Conner covers pop music for the Chicago Sun-Times. Contact him via e-mail.

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