THE SWORD is known for doom, leaning much more toward seventies hard rock aesthetics than traditional heavy metal. The band hasn’t necessarily played it safe by remaining on such a clear trajectory four albums strong. The group has, though, forged a clear path to which its fanbase has been accustomed. With “High Country”, however, the Austin, Texas-based act sticks its neck out by scaling back the crunch. This time around it has chosen to fully embrace its penchant for seventies-styled music more than ever before. The band also further explores its psychedelic curiosity which has been an undercurrent reaching across the bulk of its back catalogue. “High Country” is at times challenging and intriguing, though for the most part it’s plodding and meandering. Each member is clearly a skilled musician. So, even at its worst, “High Country” isn’t a snooze-fest per se; it’s simply uninspiring.

“Buzzards” is a more bluesy and sleepy take on the group’s back catalogue, probably the most charging track here. However, instrumental opener “Unicorn Farm”” suggests the tone for all that follows with a feel-good, upbeat groove, augmented with a mind-numbing synth line. A couple tracks thereafter, the title track’s punchy riffs and rhythms offer enough catchiness that it’s worth revisiting prior to “Tears Like Diamonds”. This track enters your eardrums and refuses to leave your headspace due to the infectious chorus’s strength, which punches up the song’s ruminative nature, a quality that runs through the entirety of “High Country”. Up next, the subdued opening riff of “Mist & Shadow” is perfect for a session of solitude and introspection, sequenced ideally for the following instrumental track “Agartha”.

If THE SWORD decided to stop at this point, what would have been an EP’s worth of material would have been astounding, but as part of a 15-track full-length, it’s merely the good starting point of what amounts to a mediocre release. Most of what follows is comparatively forgettable.

John D. Cronise‘s vocals prove to be a major drawback for THE SWORD on “High Country”. His monotone and one-dimensional abilities provided a salient, punching accent that made sense in the context of the group’s past, heavier, charging doom material. Yet “High Country”‘s father reaching, expansive journey simply demands more. It demands a confident narrator to flesh out the sounds that attempted to reach the moon with a space rock adventure. The band fails on that end by relying on the expected histrionics of seventies music, most notably on “The Dreamthieves”. “Early Snow”, too, sounds like a pastiche of the throwaway riffs of latter-day OZZY-era SABBATH and old-school Southern rock. The latter half of “High Country” is essentially a half-baked attempt at stoner rock. Sure, THE SWORD can be commended for reestablishing its parameters, yet the group fails in terms of execution more often than it succeeds.