The Sword / Royal Thunder Opera House, Toronto ON, December 6

The Sword / Royal Thunder Opera House, Toronto ON, December 6
Photo: Matt Forsythe
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Early on in the Sword's Sunday night Opera House show, a mild kerfuffle occurred; a ne'er-do-well longhair dared to light up a joint during the band's first song, "Tres Brujas," and was almost immediately accosted by a bouncer. As the man was jockeyed through the crowd, smoke still trailing from his lips, I reflected on how businesslike the entire interaction was and how it seemed, weirdly enough, to reflect back on the band themselves.
 
The Sword are one of the greatest nerdish stoner metal bands of our time — their lyrics embrace the obligatory maidens, witches, warlocks and other denizens of medieval and magical lore with an utter lack of irony. Moreover, they are virtuosic players, with guitar lines and solos twining around each other in a way that's equally cheesy, heady and mystical as hell, culminating in earth-shakingly beautiful riffs. In recent years, following the departure of original drummer (and founding member) Trivett Wingo, the band have gradually moved in a more bluesy direction, sonically speaking — one, I suspect, that's more commercially successful and easier to market. It also makes for a live experience that falls a mite short of expectations.
 
Opening band Royal Thunder proved that they're part of the excellent continuum of heavy bands hailing from Savannah, GA with a bracing set of ethereal yet technical dark rock. Frontwoman Mlny Parsons was an especially magnetic presence, staring at the room through a sheaf of ink-black hair, her voice shot through with an elemental power.
 
Unfortunately, that band's hypnotic stage presence stood in sharp contrast to the Sword's singer/guitarist John D. Cronise, who spent most of his time with his head tilted toward his guitar neck and rarely looked at his adoring audience. Plus, his voice — serviceable, if unremarkable on the band's albums — was nearly buried in a live context. Ultimately, it's a small quibble; when you're that good at guitar, it probably doesn't matter if the vocals and presence are only so-so. This being said, a magnetic and gifted singer is probably the one element that could propel the Sword into the stratosphere.
 
The band's set was solid, if a little middle-of-the-road. Any fans expecting a set packed with insane older cuts like "How Heavy this Axe" and "Lament of the Aurochs" probably left disappointed, as the band focused heavily on tracks from their latest album High Country. Groovy, fun and utterly accessible, the songs blended together like an aural version of a tailgate party; even a just-ok Sword song is pretty good by modern rock standards.
 
That's not to say the set completely lacked choice cuts: the sawing opening riff from "Maiden, Mother and Crone" (from 2008's stellar Gods of the Earth) had a small cluster of dudes attempting a chaste, if joyous mosh pit.
 
The blistering final 30 minutes of the set, featuring High Country's "Empty Temples", and "Freya" (from the band's 2006 debut album) completely blew the roof off, and reminded us all that the Sword can still turn it up as loud as they choose. And based on the excited gabbing of the crowd as they filed out of the venue, we'll all still be raptly listening.