Wolfmother, The Sword and Dungen: Irony Men
That first performance, which took place before a sparse crowd at Sydney’s Hopetoun Hotel on a Monday night in 2004, proved to be more significant than the band could have imagined. While Stockdale says that he had grown up surrounded by the sounds of classic rock radio—“I could play ‘Stairway to Heaven’ on guitar, but I don’t remember learning it”—Wolfmother’s earliest songs were, he recalls, “sort of indie-folkish” and sounded like Wilco, an alt-rock group with a large indie following.
However, one tune they played that night at the Hopetoun stuck out from the bunch. “We did ‘Woman,’ which was the only real ‘riffy’ song we had,” Stockdale recalls. “It got this incredible reaction, right up to the dudes who were just there to drink but then turned around from the bar and went ‘Yeeeaaahhh!’ So we knew that was the shit. That was what we should be doing.”
They were soon doing it on much larger stages, and in front of considerably more people. It was after only a handful of shows that the band signed to Modular, which issued the group’s self-produced EP. “And then we toured and played everywhere,” says Stockdale. Interscope got involved in 2005, and the band headed to L.A. to record their debut with Dave Sardy. More touring and playing followed and will continue for the foreseeable future.
“It would appear that things happened pretty quick, and I guess in a way they did,” says Stockdale. “But we had been together for years before all of this. So it was like a dream to be able to quit our jobs and play shows and make records. We felt like we’d escaped society.”
Which is fitting, as Wolfmother truly come across as a band out of time. While there is nothing particularly unique or, for the most part, interesting about acts that take inspiration from hard rock’s Seventies heyday, Wolfmother’s approach, a combination of calculation and instinct, is oddly compelling. It’s as if Stockdale and his bandmates are trying to conjure an aesthetic, an aura, that has been absent from rock music for quite some time. “There was something about rock and roll back then that was just more mysterious, more thoughtful,” he says. “Music today is too much about personal ambition and angst. It’s this phenomenon of self-absorption. I never felt like that was a good enough creative outlet. I want to do something more open-ended, something that lifts you off the ground.”
Whether or not that “something” has already been done before isn’t his concern. “That’s like saying one day people are going to stop coming to New York because they’re going to get sick of seeing the Empire State building. It’s like a classic, you know? Everyone’s gonna want to see it at some point; it doesn’t need to change. That’s the way I feel about music. If it’s good, that’s all that matters. It is what it is.”
Throw on a copy of Age of Winters (Kemado), the debut album from the Austin, Texas–based band the Sword, and the first sound you’ll hear is a single, solitary guitar chord. It’s no mere cluster of notes but rather a beefy, rumbling, nausea-inducing power chord bathed in warm distortion and emitting ominous overtones. The chord slides slowly up the guitar’s fretboard and is soon doubled on a second guitar, whose growl is darker and dirtier. The bass and drums rise to join the proceedings, and the song, “Celestial Crown,” settles into a lumbering groove so wide and slow it sounds as if it might crumble under its own weight. Thus, the message has been sent: If you’re going to christen your band with a name as brash and unequivocally metal-sounding as the Sword, you better make damn sure you’re heavy as hell.
And the Sword—singer and guitarist JD Cronise, guitarist Kyle Shutt, bassist Bryan Richie and drummer Trivett Wingo—are, indeed, heavy. The music on Age of Winters is fashioned from a seemingly bottomless well of snaky, detuned guitar riffs that tumble and bounce atop subterranean bass lines, pounding drums and crashing cymbals. It’s an amphetamine-spiked, considerably metallic
take on stoner rock that straddles the line between sonic ecstasy and obscene indulgence. Similarly, Cronise, who sings in a bong-weary monotone that sounds as if he is constantly being caught mid yawn, delivers lyrics that are thick with blood-and-thunder imagery: there are no love songs on Age of Winters, only tales of warriors (“Freya”), wild animals (“Winter’s Wolves”) and, naturally, swords (“Barael’s Blade”). The whole thing is so brazen, so over the top (see the eight-minute dirge, “Lament for the Aurochs,” about ancient cattle), and so overtly metal, it’s hard to believe that it wasn’t conceived as a deliberate put-on. But it wasn’t.
“I would never want people to think that what we do is ironic,” says Cronise. “I appreciate bands that are tongue-in-cheek or kitschy in their approach, and I do have a sense of humor. But that is not what we’re about, at all.”
The Sword’s primary songwriter and lyricist, Cronise was weaned on a healthy dose of Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, two bands that quite ably combined metalloid riffs with medieval musings in an exaggerated but hardly sardonic manner. At the same time, he indulged heavily in the fantastical writings of authors like J.R.R. Tolkien and Robert E. “Conan the Barbarian” Howard. It’s this love of a well-spun tale—he counts Frank Herbert’s Dune and H.P. Lovecraft’s The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath as personal favorites—rather than rote heavy metal cliché, that fuels his lyrics. Thus you get a line like “Forged by the crow-mage from shards of darkness/Honed by the half-breed to vorpal sharpness” (from “Barael’s Blade”), in which Cronise manages to reference not only that holy grail of metalhead geek games, Dungeons and Dragons, but also Lewis Carroll’s nonsense poem “Jabberwocky”— and do so in lines which, both in rhythm and tempo, mirror the guitars’ heavy and insistent lope. “I don’t just write some poetry and then try to put it to music,” he says. “The lyrics always come in the form of a riff, where the phrasing and timing of the words is as important as what’s being said.”
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