Psychedelic heavy metal scifi, courtesy of The Sword

Austin, Texas metal band The Sword has forged their latest album, Warp Riders, around a scifi concept involving a time traveling cosmic wizard, a band of hyperspace pirates and two starship armadas above a tidally locked planet called Acheron.

On their first two albums (Age of Winters and Gods of the Earth), The Sword carved out a niche as a metal band with a retro vibe, with singer and lyricist J.D. Cronise getting a lot of mileage out of George R.R. Martin's Song of Fire and Ice series, Robert E. Howard's Conan stories and various fantasy archetypes and legends. Warp Riders has the band expanding their musical palette beyond the thrashy grind of Gods of the Earth, incorporating more of a classic rock sound with the assistance of producer Matt Bayles.

This is the first Sword album written around a core concept, a short story written by Cronise called "The Night the Sky Cried Tears of Fire," which remains unpublished. This isn't a rock opera, though, so the plot isn't spelled out chapter by chapter in the songs. Cronise describes the album as a soundtrack for the story. I liken the songs to audio concept art for an unmade sci-fi movie. The plot remains pretty fuzzy even after a close reading of the lyrics, but it paints vivid imagery and crafts a weird world for your mind to wander in as you listen.

This is what I've been able to decipher from the Michael Moorcock meets Heavy Metal Magazine psychedelic story: a man named Ereth lives on the planet Acheron, which is tidally locked so that one side is in perpetual night, the other burning beneath three suns. Ereth is exiled from his tribe, then stumbles across the Orb, which is apparently an artifact that awakens or summons the Chronomancer. The Chronomancer was a man who sought immortality through "arcane science" and travels through time.

Ereth's dangerous journey begins in the song "Arrows in the Dark." I love the crunchy groove as Cronise grimly bellows, "Be wary! And Keep watch tonight!"

The Sword has cited ZZ Top guitarist Billy Gibbons as an influence, and it finally becomes apparent in "Lawless Lands." The simple blues-rock formula gives way to an epic, yet melancholy climax featuring some of my favorite lyrics from the album.

Through twilit skies he rides,
Searching the darkened side of the world.
Into the night,
Never knowing he has been lead astray.

Through lawless lands he flies
Across the burning face of the world.
Under the suns
His life begins to slip away.

It's here that Ereth meets the Warp Riders, space pirates who "cross a universe in hyper-spatial flight," and "ride the warp of space into the womb of night." There's some Greek mythology mixed in, but how it relates to the rest of the story is still opaque to me. It's also nice to hear Cronise exploring different melodic possibilities with his voice – his range is similar to that of Ozzy circa 1971, and his understated, chanted vocals are usually a nice counterpoint to all the berserker guitar riffing, but taking a different approach is part of what sets Warp Riders apart from the prior albums.

The Warp Riders take Ereth to the dark side of the planet, Night City, "where the killers and the pirates hide." This song wouldn't feel out of place on a Kiss album (perhaps Destroyer), and has a ridiculously catchy chorus that's a bit surprising coming from The Sword. Frankly, I love it.

The album comes to its grandiose conclusion with "(The Night the Sky Cried) Tears of Fire." There's something about Cronise's voice that lends gravitas to lines like, "This is the hour of the Phoenix, when all must be reborn in flame," that might otherwise sound silly.

Finally, The Sword has produced a video (the first of a trilogy) for "Tres Brujas." It's actually my least favorite song on the album, but the video is excellent and shows that The Sword have grasped something far too many metal bands overlook: when you write songs about wizards and space pirates, you can't take yourself too seriously. Although, J.D., please regrow the beard and the hair. The Sonny Bono look is just not working.

The Sword is touring the U.S. through October before heading to Europe and then Australia.