After four albums that increasingly showed the band departing from its headbanging heavy metal roots, the Sword frontman J.D. Cronise knew it was time to make a clean break when making the band’s fifth album, High Country. With a new focus on songs as opposed to riffs, getting rid of the down-tuned guitars and incorporating heavy use of synthesizers, the Sword in 2015 is certainly a different band that than the one that released their full-on-devil-horns debut Age of Winters in 2006. High Country, out tomorrow on Razor & Tie, has already earned a four-star rating from AllMusic editor James Christopher Monger, who praises the band’s streamlined, reinvigorated approach. But even so, Cronise knows some of the old fans will probably exit at the station.
Cronise took us behind the curtain to talk about why it was time to move away from the old sound, why he is finally getting to sing in a comfortable vocal range, and which bands he admires that deviated far afield from their original style.
SntMag: With the shift on High Country, it’s pretty clear that you don’t feel the need to retread old ground at this point.
J.D. Cronise: Yeah, totally. With any kind of stylistic change, you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. There’s going to be your old fans who are going to hate anything that sounds different, but at the same time, if we were to have consciously tried to write an album that was going to please our old fans, then that really wouldn’t have been very genuine for us as musicians. You have to pick your poison on that one, and for us, just writing an album that we think people are going to want to hear, that wasn’t an option for us. We had to do what we needed to do, and some of the old fans aren’t going to be on board, but hopefully some people that haven’t given us a chance before will listen to us with new ears, perhaps.
SntMag: Are you more scared or excited to see how people react to the new material?
Cronise: For me, it can’t have happened any other way. If we had played it safe and delivered the album that was expected of us, that definitely would not have been nerve-wracking, necessarily, but it is in its own way, you wonder if people are going to think it’s boring, so that’s the risk you run with not trying something different. I’m not really nervous about what will happen, change is something I’m pretty comfortable with and I think is pretty essential to life in general. It’s just an inevitable part of evolving as a band.
SntMag: “Suffer No Fools” on the new album still has some of that old heaviness in there, so it’s not like you’re completely rejecting your past.
Cronise: No, not at all, we’re still playing our guitars, doing that kind of riffing. But most of our songs, we’re trying to make the arrangements more about the songs themselves and less about the instrumental parts of the song, it’s more about a song that is a coherent piece that says something, that isn’t just a collection or riffs or some vocals thrown in between some riffs. The arrangements are a little tighter, most of the songs aren’t super long, but there is definitely still a lot of playing on the record.
SntMag: Were the other guys in the band on board immediately when you came in with these new, different-sounding songs?
Cronise: Yeah, that’s pretty much how it’s gone so far. There were a couple of ideas for things that they’d been working on separately from me, because I don’t live in Austin any longer, so the other three guys would get together and jam when I’m not in town, and they’d been working on some stuff, and some of those things didn’t get developed or make it to the album, I’m more the idea guy, ultimately I’m the songwriter, I write the lyrics and stuff. They had a couple of things that were cool, but that I didn’t feel I could sing over or enhance in any way. So they had some more metal-sounding stuff that maybe even they were unsure about, “Do you like this, is this good, should we do anything with this?” Even the stuff I was working on, we kept all the stuff that was sounding good together and ditched all the other stuff.