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Short Takes on Recent Releases

Classic D&D metal, Ass Pony's new band, and some swell John Fahey covers.



THE SWORD | Age of Winters (Kemado)

These metal dweebs from Austin, Texas, make a racket that's wholly familiar--Age of Winters is lavishly furnished with meaty drop-D chords and hammered-on high notes, and it's a virtual retirement home for grandiose doubled-up guitar flourishes. But unlike the arena-size cock-rock buffoonery of the Darkness or the out-and-out all-things-Ozzy mimicry of Early Man, the Sword's retrograde metal worships pagan style, at a whole row of different altars: plodding Sabbath riffs, blazing early-Metallica jud-jud, even Too Fast for Love-era Motley Crue swagger (sadly, minus the cowbell).

Metal fans who insist on innovation will undoubtedly scoff--first at the music, then at the lyrics, which are so mind-numbingly faithful to the Dungeons & Dragons sorcery-metal template you can practically hear the rattling of ten-sided dice. The first lines on the album are "Forged by the crow-mage from shards of darkness / Honed by the half-breed to vorpal sharpness" (from a song called "Barael's Blade"), and the other tunes are stuffed with wolves, scepters, prophets, priestesses, singing scimitars, horned goddesses, and even an "ancient wyrm" for good measure. By the end of the closer, "Ebethron" ("Let the seers come forth / At morning's light we ride north"), you can imagine Robert Plant saying, "Come on, guys. Really?" If you feel something pulling on your leg, it's probably not the wyrm.

But this isn't to suggest that Age of Winters isn't also overwhelmingly, unironically satisfying. A template is a template because it works, after all, and the Sword are paint-by-numbers artists of the highest order. "Barael's Blade" is a punishing exercise in guitar gymnastics, a quick kick in the teeth after the album's dirgelike instrumental opener, "Celestial Crown," puts you half to sleep. The eight-minute epic "Lament for the Aurochs" doesn't seem to have a hell of a lot to do with the extinction of the wild European ox, but it intermittently approaches the demented grandeur of "Fairies Wear Boots." And "Ebethron," with its roiling, hyperexcessive drum solo, is like a belch from the bowels of Sauron or Demogorgon or . . . whoever was supposed to be the most evil. This record is to metal what whomping somebody with a tree branch is to hand-to-hand combat--not even remotely original, but brutally effective all the same. --Brian McManus

WUSSY | Funeral Dress (Shake It Records)

Chuck Cleaver's outlook has always been a touch grim. Back in '94 he even wrote a song for the Ass Ponys called "Grim" (after titling an album the same way), just as they were making their ill-fated move into the majors alongside fellow Cincinnatians the Afghan Whigs. But the younger Cleaver tempered the suicidally bitter lyrics to that tune with goofball lines like "I'd write her name out on the road / But I can't piss 'Denise,'" and later on that same record spent a whole song poking fun at his grandmother's kitschy collectibles ("Earth to grandma / What the hell is that?"). In his new band, Wussy, he's downgraded his sensibility a notch to "bleak." His despondency is still far from humorless, but that just makes it sadder when he lays out the painfully trivial reasons for a lover to stay in "Don't Leave Just Now." ("The garbage trucks are on parade," he sings in his Richard Manuel croak. "Accuweather calls for rain.") Yearning has rarely sounded so hopeless.

Cleaver's main collaborator in Wussy, Lisa Walker, favors mordant bitterness over bleakness, and by comparison she's a ray of sunshine--the autumnal sort, though, a reminder that winter soon will deny you even that fading warmth. The heroine of the title track saves up for a new dress to be buried in, and Walker half taunts her on the chorus in a deadpan near drawl: "You're alive / Each and every day you're alive." Death constantly nibbles at the edge of Wussy's rootsy indie pop, often as something to look forward to, an antidote to heartbreak or tedium. But the people in these songs will take their deus from whatever machina pukes him out: in "Motorcycle," Walker's small-town dreamer reckons that either the Rapture or a highway-bound bike could offer "a free ride out of this place."

Though Cleaver and Walker fantasize in raw harmony about finding easy answers ("I wish my mind had a drain / So I could shunt my fears away"), in real life they settle for exorcising their darkness with a band. Bassist and utility man Mark Messerly strums and wheezes on a collection of folksy instruments--accordion, mandolin, harmonica--that seems less like the accoutrements of a musical tradition than the long-forgotten contents of some cluttered rural attic. And drummer Dawn Burman, who learned to play for Wussy, has a dogged and rudimentary style that's perfect for the downcast music. Cleaver and Walker's guitars jangle so forthrightly that a friskier drum part might add undue uplift to a breakup song like "Airborne," especially when Cleaver's wordless falsetto whooping in the coda nearly hints at escape. But Burman lands flatly on her snare with Moe Tucker's mix of determination and fatalism, as if grimly asserting that even mechanical persistence is better than refusing to go on at all--and that even at its most hopeless, yearning is still healthier than self-pity or mopery. --Keith Harris

VARIOUS ARTISTS | I Am the Resurrection: A Tribute to John Fahey (Vanguard)

Covering a musician as revered as John Fahey takes courage. Though the legendary guitarist was too idiosyncratic to be boxed into a single style--what he liked to call "American primitive" included elements of bluegrass, folk, Native American music, and traditional Indian forms--he had an unmistakable touch, and that means his devotees will be sure to notice when would-be tributaries get it wrong. But this collection of Fahey covers by the likes of Devendra Banhart, Sufjan Stevens, and the Fruit Bats seems intended less to enshrine Fahey than to provide a stepping-stone for listeners who weren't yet born when he made the albums that established his reputation--it's being released alongside a reissue of the 1968 masterpiece The Yellow Princess, and includes versions of two tracks from that disc.

Almost all the arrangements on I Am the Resurrection nudge the Fahey originals in the direction of rock or pop. M. Ward turns in a hammy version of "Bean Vine Blues #2" with a country-rock rhythm section and distorted electric guitar, and Calexico adorn the grim, jaunty "Dance of Death" with upright bass, marimba, and sparse, dramatic drumming. Only Peter Case plays solo acoustic guitar, as Fahey usually did during the first part of his career. Fingerstyle guitarists Jack Rose and Glenn Jones, both friends of Fahey's, are beautifully faithful to his style but deliver tricked-out renditions of his songs--Rose's band Pelt adds banjo and arco double bass to "Sunflower River Blues," and Jones's band Cul de Sac, the one act here to have recorded with Fahey, adds electric bass, percussion, and scouring blasts of electronics to "The Portland Cement Factory at Monolith, California."

Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Ranaldo, in a typical display of contrarianism, "covers" one of Fahey's collages of found sounds and guitar. "The Singing Bridge of Memphis, Tennessee (Brooklyn Bridge Version: The Coelacanth)" nestles keening electric guitar and strummed acoustic amid a sprawling web of field recordings that weaves Brooklyn traffic noise into the chirping and chucking of birds at a sanctuary in Oyster Bay--its strange and delicate haze of sound, heavily treated with delay effects, expands on and underlines the spaciousness in much of Fahey's own work. Howe Gelb also does his bit to demonstrate the possibilities Fahey's music contains, translating "My Grandfather's Clock" into a sprightly, simple solo piano piece that sometimes sounds like someone upending a crate of diamonds over the keys.

I find the absence of female contributors hard to countenance, though--there are 13 acts on the disc, and the only woman named in the credits is Rosie Thomas, who sings backup with Sufjan Stevens. Fahey's technique has inspired a number of women--Gillian Welch leaps to mind, as does LA folk songwriter Alicia Bay Laurel, who learned open-tuned guitar directly from Fahey in her teens. But this oversight, as disappointing as it is, can't sink I Am the Resurrection--it provides a rich and imaginative variety of interpretations, not carbon-copy covers by artists too afraid to tinker with their hero's masterpieces. --Mia Lily Clarke

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