Regardless of what metal purists might think of the relative success of throwback doom rockers The Sword, it’s an indisputable fact that they know how to craft a mammoth riff and deceptively catchy hook. While they may have been seen previously as somewhat of a one-note joke in their decidedly earnest approach to fantastical hard rock and metal, the joke has since proven to be on the band’s doubters as the group continues to put out quality albums that find their influence in not only the genre’s earliest practitioners, but also the realm of fantasy and, increasingly, prog.

On their latest, High Country, heavy classic rock riffage, fantasy-steeped lyrics (long an often cringe-worthy staple of the genre) and prog-esque flourishes abound. And while the incorporation of synths and other hallmarks of the much-maligned prog may well earn them further scorn and derision from metal purists, each helps to add a heretofore-unexplored level of depth and clear compositional forethought to the group that shows off a more refined focus. Rather than simply jamming away in a haze, High Country finds the band honing their songwriting to the point that the album sounds more like a collection of potential singles and clearly structured songs than mere genre exercises.

“Tears Like Diamonds” is a blistering blast of hard rock riffing that features one of the group’s catchiest choruses yet. And, at under four minutes, it’s clearly a shot at broader exposure. In fact, only on “Mist & Shadow” do they break the five-minute mark. Everything else on High Country clocks in well under the four-minute mark, allowing them to deliver concisely effective blasts of Sabbath/Deep Purple-indebted rock. Where before they tended to rely on overly-long instrumental passages and strangled guitar solos, here they keep things short and to the point, rarely allowing the solos to stretch beyond the length of a verse or chorus before returning to the more structured passages.

Proving themselves intrepid sonic expeditionaries in a genre not often tolerant of deviation from the standard rock instrumentation, “Early Snow” somewhat inexplicably features soul horns that seem to come out of nowhere in the song’s closing moments. It’s an odd moment that should not work nearly as well as it does. So, too, the In Search Of…-style synth instrumental “Agartha” that relies on the barest of lyrical motifs to create a sense of tension so effective it could easily sit alongside nearly anything on the recent rash of horror soundtrack reissues.

No longer content to simply explore metal in its earliest forms, “Seriously Mysterious” finds the group getting downright funky with a groove that, while still rooted in a traditional four-on-the-floor, adds a level of syncopation that makes it impossible to resist moving along in time. Coupled with the strangely dissonant harmonies and minimal use of guitar, it’s one of High Country’s most compelling moments, showing the group capable of far more than mere imitation.

As if to reaffirm their capability of the occasional homage, “The Dreamthieves” is pure Sabbath riffage. It, along with the uber-metal instrumental “Suffer No Fools,” proves the group still more than able to rock out hard and heavy when the moment calls for it. Tempering these more derivative moments with more boundary-pushing elements helps to make High Country their most satisfying listen yet, showcasing a band at the height of its songwriting and rocking out abilities. Regardless of whether or not you’re able to take them seriously from a subject matter standpoint, it’ll be damn near impossible not to at least nod along.

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