Every culture has its own set of cryptic texts.
They're the forbidden tomes of wisdom which governing powers will deny knowledge of and ban. They're usually thought-provoking. They're typically dangerous. They're often revolutionary. It might seem impossible to keep anything private in the modern age of Facebook and Twitter where everyone's dirty laundry is up for a comment. Nevertheless, the most impactful art remains the most mysterious.
Apocryphon, which literally translates to "secret writing", is the perfect moniker for The Sword's fourth full-length album and first for Razor & Tie. Wrapping poetic and poignant imagery in a haze of crushing riffs and ethereal melodies, the Austin, TX quartet delivers haunting, hypnotic, and heavy rock. The group—John D. Cronise [Vocals, Guitar], Kyle Shutt [Guitar], Bryan Richie [Bass], and Santiago “Jimmy” Vela III [Drums]—is about to let the world in on a little secret…
Coming off 2010's acclaimed concept album Warp Riders, The Sword approached their latest offering from a new perspective. Instead of recording in Austin, they holed up in Baltimore with producer J. Robbins [Clutch, Jawbox] for five weeks to craft Apocryphon in the summer of 2012.
"It felt like a fresh start," affirms Shutt. "We always made our records in Austin. This is the first time we left the city to live somewhere and make music. It was good to shake things up. Jimmy had just joined the band. We had new management, and we had just signed to Razor & Tie. There was a strange energy in Baltimore, and it fit with our attitude."
Cronise elaborates, "The music is also lyrically different. There's not as much storytelling as on previous albums. There are songs about real life subjects. Warp Riders was a big undertaking. I wrote a sci-fi story, and we made a record about it. This was more stream-of-consciousness. In a way, I realized music as a vehicle for expressing my own views and thoughts. I shied away from that before in favor of entertaining people with colorful narratives. This is where I'm at."
Cronise actually turned to various texts while penning lyrics this time around. With an eerie synth, captivating refrain, and pummeling guitars, the title track references his deep and calculated research.
"The word Apocryphon came up while I was researching Gnosticism, early Christianity, theosophy, and other esoteric subjects," he goes on. "They're books that were either banned or removed from the biblical canon. The early church fathers felt that these teachings were either too advanced or dangerous for the masses to be exposed to because they encouraged thought that was antithetical to the church’s system of control, so they were considered heretical and dubbed apocrypha. You've got to look beyond what you're told to the totality of knowledge available to approach any sort of true understanding."
At the same time, he'd also immersed himself in a healthy dose of science fiction such as Phillip K. Dick's VALIS and the work of Michael Moorcock. One song "Dying Earth" nods directly to Jack Vance's science fiction series of the same name with an apocalyptic buildup and distorted crash. Meanwhile, the first single "Veil of Isis" careens from a propulsive beat and kinetic riff into an impressive groove. It illuminates another side of Apocryphon.
"That's one of the more metaphysical tracks on the record," continues Cronise. "Some of it is about Isis and the concept of the mother deity. It gets into Egyptian cosmology and talks about cycles of nature, which is a theme that recurs in various places throughout the album."
"It's the next logical step for The Sword," adds Shutt. "It's got a big-ass riff and chorus. There's a solid and memorable groove."
Sonically, Robbins encouraged The Sword to tap into something raw. As a result, the album echoes with insurmountable intensity. "We loved what he did with Clutch, and they highly recommended him," recalls Shutt. "He really helped us capture the dirty, grittiness in the songs. It was there, but he knew what we wanted, what we were going for, and how to communicate it."
That vision even comes across in the ornate cover art by famed artist and writer J.H. Williams III. Cronise sought out the Eisner and Harvey-award winning artist behind Promethia, Batwoman, and Detective Comics for artwork, and Williams excitedly obliged.
"I really wanted him for the cover," smiles Cronise. "I've been a fan for a long time, and what he came up with is mind-blowing. It's more intricate and involved than our previous album artwork. There's so much to it. It gives the people who buy the CD, LP, or cassette—yes, I said cassette—a beautiful artifact to look at."
The Sword consistently give their audience a fully realized experience, though. They began turning heads with Age of Winters in 2006 and its 2008 follow-up God of the Earth. Metallica hand-picked them for a worldwide tour, and they've shared the stage with everyone from Motorhead to Ozzy Osbourne. Their music has been prominently utilized in films such as Jennifer's Body and Jonas Åkerlund’s Horsemen as well as the best-selling video game Guitar Hero: Metallica. Meanwhile, in 2010, Warp Riders reached #42 on the Billboard Top 200. They've also received widespread critical acclaim from the likes of Rolling Stone, Outburn, The Washington Post, and more. 2012 saw them ink their deal with Razor & Tie, and a whole new chapter has begun.
Ultimately, The Sword will continue to reveal what other artists won't. "To some degree, it's always been about escapism," concludes Cronise. "Music is supposed to transport people somewhere away from their daily lives. For Apocryphon, the idea was to do that in a more introspective and philosophical manner. I'd like it if listeners think a little bit more about life, their existence, and their place in the universe while taking this trip."
That's one secret truly worth sharing.