It's a packed house at Emo's down in Austin, Texas. It's sweaty and smells like dudes and beer and weed. And in the periphery, between the Hessians in Pantera shirts and the bearded stoners, there are a few people who seem out of place. The skinny scenesters, the fashionable art-schoolers, even a few woefully uncomfortable girlfriends who've been dragged along, all there just to see what everyone's talking about. Scene snobs who normally wouldn't be caught dead at a metal show sip gin and tonics next to lifers with neck tattoos.

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The Sword take the stage to cheers and devil horns, unsheathing their trademark Iron Maiden–style guitar. They open with "Barael's Blade," a crowd-pleasing, neck-breaking headbanger that brings the room to a cauldron's boil. They sing about wizards and demons and vorpal blades. It's the right mix of dungeons and dragons, greasy Southern licks, bottom-heavy grooves, punishing bass and face-melting riffage. The music is melodic, heavy, doomy—music that makes you shit yourself. An honest-to-God metal show. The Sword rip through another earnest song about Viking sea battles.

During the encore, someone throws a bottle at the stage; it smashes behind the band. They stop playing mid-song, say a quick goodbye, and walk off. The Sword—Bryan Richie, J. D. Cronise, Trivett Wingo, and Kyle Shutt—aren't so metal that they're going to play through broken glass.

While the music press was gushing praise over every flash-in-the-pan Brooklyn trust-fund act and art-rock band from across the pond, metal seemed to come up out of nowhere. But to the tattooed and bearded, to the aging punks and maturing hardcore kids, metal isn't ironic. It isn't a joke and it never went away. Bands such as High on Fire, Mastodon, and Isis are pushing new boundaries of technical brutality, and have been doing so for years.

What seems to get all of the attention is ironic metal. Jack Black is making a Tenacious D movie. That whiny crooner from Pinback has a doom-rock side project called Goblin Cock. A band even went so far as to name themselves the Eagles of Death Metal. Acts like these take metal's theater—the posturing, the hair—and turn it into a nudge-wink inside joke. When you view it as caricature it becomes palatable, and you can enjoy the music for what it is: fun, energetic, guitar-driven rock. But the Sword aren't one of those bands, right?

The Sword formed in Austin in 2003, and have since earned their chops playing the Texas metal circuit. After a tour supporting Trail of Dead, the Sword turned down offers from flagship metal labels Relapse and Arclight, instead signing to Kemado Records, most notable as home to Nordic flute-core act Dungen and J Mascis's new stoner band, Witch. After a breakout performance at SXSW, the Sword have embarked on their first headlining tour, slaying longhairs and stoners like Freddy slays horny teens. In the process they have earned rave write-ups from Spin's Chuck Klosterman, the New York Times, even the pretentious and moneyed lad-mag Esquire.

The Sword aren't breaking any new ground, nor do they profess to. To be honest, it's impossible to even talk about the Sword without mentioning Black Sabbath. At their finest, the Sword channel Tony Iommi's guitar work at his uncompromising and unapologetic best: heavy meat hooks and thunderous, cloudy grooves. With so many of their contemporaries pushing further and further into experimental new shapes of technical dark rock, this band represents a return to the most primal and visceral aspects of metal. And all the while they remain refreshingly accessible.

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To the next generation of up-and-coming heshers, weaned on manufactured mall punk and abysmal nü-metal, the Sword are a desperately needed shot in the arm. Today's angsty high-schoolers don't need another kid in eye makeup moaning about being dumped. They need giant amplifiers, sludgy riffs, and songs about battle-axes.

This all distills down to the fact that the Sword are metal, but they are also savvy. They are students of metal history, to be sure, and aren't afraid to pay homage to the dark guitar gods. But they also are able to reach wider audiences by not casting themselves as a just another stoner band. The Sword embrace the irony and theater that makes metal awesome without becoming another cliché.

editor@thestranger.com

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