LITTLE over one year ago, I published my first article with The Courier, an album review of The Sword’s High Country. It was rather short, and not particularly effective (symbolic of certain aspects of the author, as my partner would no doubt attest) at delivering its core message; namely, that you should listen to The Sword.
High Country was particularly interesting as it represented an evolution for the band, whose previous albums had failed to deviate from the doom-metal genre within which they reign supreme. The album, as I wrote at the time, proved that the band were capable of more “delicate, intricate” music than they had previously offered.
Clearly keen to take this self-development a step further, The Sword headed back into the studio to produce an acoustic reimagining of High Country. The band promised stripped back instrumentation, and a sound reminiscent of the country vibes of their home state, Texas. Low Country is the result, and, well… it’s lazy.
That’s not to say that the album is bad. It most decidedly isn’t. Those unfamiliar with The Sword will likely find the album satisfying enough; the tracks have a unified sense of atmosphere, backed up by subtle and thoughtful instrumentation, and there are several songs – notably ‘Empty Temples’ and ‘The Dreamthieves’ – that would be excellent additions to anyone’s chill-out playlist.
The issue with Low Country is that I know its predecessor too well. High Country has featured regularly in my daily routine, as the perfect go-to album for background music and low-volume house party tunes (when your friends are too drunk to care that you’ve added stuff to the playlist). As such, it becomes difficult not to draw comparisons between the two albums.
The tracklist runs in a similar order, but for the removal of five tracks from the original album – some twenty minutes of music, gone. The absentees are mostly instrumentals anyway, so their removal is not of particular concern, although ‘Tears like Diamonds’ is an unusual absence given it was the only track on High Country that really needed a softer tone.
The album opens with a short instrumental piece, ‘Unicorn Farm’, which can only be described as a complete mess. Unlike the original, which had a crisp and energising beat, this version is over-saturated with poorly synched instruments, a rhythmic disaster that is painful to listen to.
Thankfully, this gives way to the aforementioned ‘Empty Temples’, one of the highlights of the album. The stripped back instrumentation allows the backing vocals more prominence, softening the track into a melodic atmosphere and allowing one to appreciate the catchy lead riff that often feels lost between the chords in the original.
This, however, is where Low Country begins to show its flaws. The title track from the original is next, and seems endemic of the problems the album begins to encounter. A good cover must be unique of the track that inspires it – think Bob Dylan/Hendrix’s ‘All Along the Watchtower’, or Led Zeppelin/Tool’s ‘No Quarter’ – and, on this count, The Sword dramatically fail. ‘High Country’, despite some decent instrumentation, follows the tempo of the original too closely, making a mess of the various sounds crammed into the composition, and the vocals are far too prominent.
The prominence of the vocals is perhaps Low Country‘s biggest failing. It became clear in ‘High Country’ that the vocals were directly ripped from the original album, and, as a result, they feel inappropriate for the musical style, particularly as John Cronise, the band’s lead singer, isn’t extraordinarily talented beyond the expected. ‘Mist and Shadow’, the next track, is the perfect example of this; beautiful and affecting instrumentation, ruined by overstated vocals.
To test my theory, I lined up the verse and chorus of ‘Ghost Eye’, playing each album simultaneously. As I had expected, the vocals synched up note-perfectly, and it was difficult to distinguish one track from the other.
The rest of the tracks follow a similar vein, and represent a plethora of missed opportunities for the band. ‘Seriously Mysterious’ needs a greater variety of tone. ‘Early Snow’ underuses an amazing riff. ‘Bees of Spring’ might as well be the same track. And so on.
The annoying thing is that each song is perfectly enjoyable, and I have listened through this album many times since its release. I can’t say that I don’t like Low Country, or that I wouldn’t recommend it. In fact, I do recommend the album, because I believe it’s as good as anything coming out of the US these days. That said, as a die-hard fan of The Sword, I felt a little short changed with this offering.
You can’t produce a cover album for your own album without significant scrutiny from your fans, who will doubtless draw comparison between the two. You need to innovate. That means recomposing your tracks to match the style you have adopted, offering some sort of notable differentiation from the original tracks, and re-recording appropriate vocals. Low Country may be a good album in its own right, but I can’t help but to file this one under “lazy side-project”.