Friday, 7 April 2017

Ashes to ashes, crust to CRUST (round 7): Swordwielder "S/t" demo tape, 2014

Before unleashing my usual wisdom, I need to get something off my chest. Swordwielder was an obvious choice for the "Ashes to ashes, crust to CRUST" series and I suppose the most faithful of my readers (meaning those who purchased the much-coveted Terminal Sound Nuisance membership card which came with a signed picture of yours truly in full Amebix cosplay for the - non-refundable - princely sum of £9,99) saw that one coming. Their music has left a lasting impression on many people - myself included - since they released this demo and not including them here would have been akin to high treason to the crust crown. Still though, Swordwielder. I cannot help thinking how ugly it must sound if you pronounce it with a strong American accent. I realize it is a silly thought, but I mean, /sɔrdwiːldər/ does sound like a bit of a mouthful and I have been trying to utter it like that this morning and ended up giggling like a schoolboy upon hearing a loud fart in biology class. If it can make you feel phonetically better, with our horrendous French accent, we pronounce it something like /swɔʁdwildœʁ/ so you still have it pretty good my North-American friends. 

But why "swordwielder" then? In a rather informative interview for Terrorizer (read it here though I do not get the interviewer's enthusiasm with Fenriz' validation of Swordwielder's music, and nor did the band, but that must be a metalhead thing), when asked about the choice of moniker, the band replied: "who doesn't wanna be a Swordwielder?". I personally do not mind the fantasy of wielding swords although I know perfectly well that I would injure myself badly if I ever tried for real. There is always that medieval reenactment thing (aka traditional European cosplay) but I am not sure I want to hang out with that Manowar-loving crowd. Anyway, that the name refers to the lexical field of ancient battles, pagan warriors and bloody heroic fantasy coheres with crust's visual mythology and its ontological use of allegories to look critically at modernity and it also allows to locate Swordwielder in the specific crust tradition of metal epics (a wide and fluctuant spectrum that goes from Amebix to Bolt Thrower). There is however another answer to the query "why Swordwielder?" that I find more nerdishly appealing. A friend of mine recently asked them that fateful question and "because Axegrinder" was the response. Of course, I like the postmodernist quality of such an exchange based on the shared knowledge of a common set of references that would be utterly unintelligible if taken out of the crust context (though it could be still be enjoyed if you're into Theatre of the Absurd). Besides, from such an answer, the name could then be read as being the logical continuation of "axegrinder" since once the weapon is sharpened, attack becomes possible. Would that make Swordwielder an offensive, more aggressive version of Axegrinder? It could just be paronomastic lucubrations on my part, but approaching SW as a modern reenactment of AG is not unsubstantial. Right?

I cannot remember exactly when or where I first heard of the band, but I suppose it was through Crust Demos in late 2012, a little while after the demo was first released. I do recall being a little suspicious upon noticing their name though and thought inwardly (or, more likely, I threateningly said it out loud): "If you so openly refer to the mighty Axegrinder, you better do it properly". By no means was it the first time that I had come across a band nodding textually toward the londoners (Grind the Enemy and Axebastard are the first ones springing to mind) but paying a tribute to the crust canon is tricky and if you do a half-arsed job of it, magnanimity is not an option. But the demo completely baffled me: it was brilliant. So good that its flaws made it even more lovable. And the best part was that SW came from out of nowhere. Well, not exactly, they are from Gothenburg, Sweden, but what I mean is that this was not a band relying on an "ex-members" list (something which they reasserted in their Terrorizer itw and that I am grateful for). This was just a young punk band with their first four-songs DIY demo and they completely nailed it. That's the spirit. This demo was actually first released in May, 2012, on a cheap-looking cdr - which confers SW 100 additional punk points - and then, in December, on tape thanks to Boneyard records (a label dedicated in heavy metal-punk with releases from Last Legion Alive, Hellisheaven or Mörkhimmel) and on digital files. My own copy is the tape reissue that was released in April, 2014, on Malaysian label Blood of War Records (picking this release date, I therefore tackled SW at the 7th position of this series although the recording is from 2012).

SW is a Swedish crust band that does not play Swedish crust (cracking subject for a dissertation, you've got four hours). I have already written about the development of crust in Sweden and how its old-school avatar (understand Amebix, Antisect and their natural Peaceville successors) never truly materialized over there. You can find exceptions in some Warcollapse records ("Crust as fuck existence"), the sadly short-lived Jesusexercise and, most of all possibly in mid-90's Counterblast. Although the Swedish punk scene has produced a large number of bands affiliated to crust (Skitsystem, Uncurbed or 3-Way Cum come to mind), these mainly built on the national hardcore and metal sounds rather than the UK ones (Doom being a deceptive exception to that statement since they were themselves very Swedish-influenced). But then, when you have Anti-Bofors, Bombanfall or Entombed as a legacy, I suppose it makes sense. SW's sound however does not fit in with the traditional Swedish crust sound and is decidedly rooted in the old-school stenchcore sound.

Let's start with the Axegrinder comparison which is fairly conspicuous. From the atmospheric use of the synth, the thick riffs, the delicate and eerie arpeggios to some obvious emphatic and repetitive drum beats, without mentioning the placement of the double-bass pedal, you can tell that they have been listening closely to "Rise of the serpent men". This said, SW do not aim at recreating Axegrinder's music like a band with a more referential intent would, rather, they pick generously from the Axegrinder bag of crust tricks those that are the most relevant to their own songs. Some ingredients are similar, but the recipe and the oven aren't. It is a different cake. On the whole, SW's songs are faster, more aggressive and not as atmospheric and thick as AG's and the textures are dissimilar and do not serve the same purpose. To a lesser extent, I suppose 86/87-era Deviated Instinct is not an irrelevant point of reference too, especially in the songs' structure and in the way the riffs work together and are arranged so as to create different vibes. In spite of these parallels, I definitely hear more of a 00's sound in SW. Their highly dynamic, epic, almost galloping changes of pace (one of the band's strongest points) remind me of Contagium's mid-tempo moments (they really excelled at these) while their slower apocalyptic parts are not dissimilar to After The Bombs', especially since both bands have two guitars whose orchestration conveys a delectable sense of both doom and heroics, and some of the catchy guitar leads typically bring Hellshock's to mind (SW wisely do not overuse them). All the instruments ride epically in the same direction: the metallic guitar riffs are monstrous, heavy and energetic, the bass is groovy and organic and the drummer definitely has Weetabix in the morning. Because of its rather rough production, the demo displays a genuine primitive, pagan metal feel, enhanced with some occasional and tasteful old-school doom- and heavy-metal elements, that goes perfectly with its almost trance-like rhythmic quality. It sounds both modern and atavistic, reflexive and yet spontaneous.

There is some proper inventiveness at work on the demo. The eerie bass line opening "Shadow," with the sound of rain in the background, is slightly disconcerting at first but works very well at creating a gloomy soundscape. And then you have got that long emotional spoken part at the beginning of "With my dying breath," with a mournful synth melody, the wind blowing and Misery-like guitar arpeggios, and the dramatic monologue keeps flowing from the mouth of an apocalypse preacher resigned to our impending doom, and it should sound cheesy and corny and lengthy but the prosody is so passionate and heartfelt that it incredibly works. Daring move indeed that proves that you can still come up with new ideas and use the crust template creatively. The vocals in SW play an important role in setting up that primitive epic vibe. They are not exaggeratedly gruff, goofy growls or pseudo black-metal piercing howls, on the contrary, they are raw, passionate and desperately angry shouts which confers that threatening punk intensity to the songs, very much like early UK crust actually or even 80's Swedish hardcore. As I mentioned, the production is raw and rather thin, but then it was done in a totally DIY fashion as the band recorded it with Garageband. I would argue that in this case, the rough sound and the relative blurriness of the textures contribute to the dirty primal vibe that permeates and identifies the work. SW re-recorded the four songs for the first album "Grim visions of battle" with a more polished, heavier production that certainly highlighted the subtleties of the songwriting but also changed the overall mood to something more monumental while the demo is all about filthy epics. I enjoy the Lp a lot but it is texturally and narratively a different animal.

The lyrics are appropriately pessimistic and apocalyptic and can make for a lovely afternoon of intertextual crustpunk bingo with lines such as "Recognize your own potential" or "Face, destroy your tormentor". And if you need more proofs that you need this demo, SW use a slimy hairy font for the band's name AND there is a drawing of a one-eyed skull in the booklet, which says it all really.           


  1. This sounds top-notch! I never heard of SW and I understand the Axegrinder-link, but still they sound quite different in a way. Thanks for sharing!
    (and right now I'm browsing the rest of you great blog! Really interesting stuff you're sharing and I like it that you take the time to really write about the music! Keep it up!)