Staring back into the temporal rift that was a brilliant benchmark Space-Rock LP.
Words by Jake Sanders (@themetalscholar):
More than ten years ago, there existed a group of Austin-based myths known simply as THE SWORD, a group that as one reviewer once phrased it, ‘played circles around virtually all of their competition’. After two phenomenal, groundbreaking releases that forever changed the world of retro-sounding heavy metal, the Texan boys jumped back into Wire Recording in Austin, Texas to create their third step on a staircase to Valhalla, a magnificent concept album, titled simply: Warp Riders (2010).
This sci-fi album took a powerful leap forward in many areas; world-building, accessibility, and even production. It was THE SWORD showing off how much they could accomplish while stepping into territories previously untouched. Featuring Matt Bayles on synth and organ, this album touched on all the right points of an ambitious space rock album without compromising the spirit of who THE SWORD was to the world.
Part One: The Archer and the Orb
"Upon the forsaken world of Acheron,
the Archer is exiled from his tribe.
In his solitary wanderings, he makes a
singular discovery within an ancient ruin..."
The Archer, a character known as Ereth, ascends from the ruins of his tidally-locked planet, Acheron, with an artifact of mysterious origin. An orb, glowing and alive with the voices of the divine, guides him away from the ruins and the people who exiled him, sending him on a journey to the far side of his planet, where mystical herbs, three witches, and danger would surely await him.
On his quest, he is brought to the edge of the darkened side of Acheron, led on by the orb and its beckoning power of seduction. There, he discovers a tribe living in the dark — a violent group wary of outsiders that seeks to slay Ereth, who has wandered into their sacred ruins and has tampered with an ancient altar. While it's not entirely evident what the purpose of this altar is, one can surmise that the plot brewing belongs to the being who is bound to the orb itself.
The Chronomancer, a being of immeasurable power and ageless wisdom transmits his spirit into the orb itself. Whether his face is known to the archer or not, is another story, but it's implied that there is a deception afoot that seeks to use Ereth as a pawn in order to free the Chronomancer, as well as his partner in celestial domination, a being known only as Astraea. For his knowledge of time travel and defying the natural order, he was sealed away in the depths of the planet. Knowing he was on borrowed time, the Chronomancer created for himself an artificial immortality — an orb, to seal his soul away and guarantee a chance at freedom later. Until his day of awakening, he would be sealed in stasis within his chamber, waiting patiently for favorable circumstances and the hands of fate to align and free him from his bondage.
Across the scorching wasteland, resources dwindling, and without shelter, Ereth treks back and forth, searching for days on end for the source of the signal of his newfound relic. The archer contemplates his living hell. He thinks on the people who severed their links with him. He dwells on those he loved and lost, and considers his solitude for all his folly. If he can just find the source of the power that beckons beneath the ancient sands, he can return in pride — he can forget his past and create a new future for himself. The obsession drives him across the night side divide and back, scouring for miles for the slightest glimpse of his target. From within, he understands that he has been taken for a fool, used in some grander scheme that he can neither comprehend nor sympathize with. His body withering, a dying heap of flesh in the desert of Acheron, the archer gazes to the sky one last time, expecting to be taken by death itself. Instead, a shining angel descends, and whether the angel is Astraea herself, come to save both the orb, and its warden — or THE SWORD having warped into the planet's atmosphere, only to discover a single life form on the brink of death, the archer's life is saved as a mystery left up to the listeners to interpret.
Part Two: The Android and The Sword
"Amid the lifeless crags of distant Leeth,
Astrea slumbers through lost aeons, while
great forces converge upon Acheron. Her
awakening fast approaches..."
We're introduced to the Warp Riders here, a crew of space pirates who have come into possession of an android navigator, and a ship capable of bending time and space to allow for the fastest travel known. While I have been unable to deduce what Ereth's role is in this ship, it's clear from previous group promotional materials that Ereth acquaints himself with the pirates of THE SWORD, and attempts to compel them to help in his mission to restore balance to the planet.
The crew takes refuge in a city on the night side, an eternally dark dystopian outpost that houses the scum and villainy of Acheron in a black market of people and parts, all going to the highest bidders. Though it remains partially unclear due to lack of detail, what I can dissect is that somehow the crew is captured, and their android is sold at auction. What happens next is a mystery to all but the band, but somehow the crew escape with the android, and ascend to their ship.
The Chronomancer, sensing the moment has come, either accesses the android and the ship capable of creating temporal rifts, or filters through the orb at the right moment, leading him through an ancient point in time when the tidal lock was first set into place. Whether through planetary alignment, or solar anomaly, the Chronomancer restores himself to his previous power, freeing Astraea in the process, who screams across the galaxy from her resting point on Leeth. As the orb grows dim, the time wizard regains his full potential, and wages war on the planet and people who enslaved him.
In the stunning climax, the crew of THE SWORD having fully grasped the gravity of the power they've tampered with, jump into the upper atmosphere, only to discover two armadas waiting to destroy them for their self-made armageddon. At the eleventh hour of the fierce battle, THE SWORD is saved from certain destruction as a rain of fire comes to pelt the planet to death in a shower of destruction. Whether this is brought on by Ereth by freeing the Chronomancer, or a hail of comets foretold in an ancient prophecy brought by Astraea herself is another mystery of this album, and a great one, at that. In the end, the Captain of the vessel has his vengeance against the pirates that waged war against them, and sails through the carcasses of their ships into the void, met by the sounds of the album coming full circle in a triumphant ending.
Warp Riders as a concept album has an influence and importance that can't be understated. Written like a space opera across time, or a paperback novella by the likes of Heinlein, the album is paced impeccably to give listeners the feeling of being embraced by this dramatic epoch that forces them to sympathize with Ereth's hopelessness, and want the pirates of THE SWORD to come out the victors on the other side. It's a story I wish could've been transposed into a graphic novel or animated short film. It's a charming tale of retribution that has a happy ending featured in the Japanese-only edition of the album entitled Daughter of Dawn, which wraps up the story of Acheron being born again with life, and tempting the creatures of the dark into the light.
Musically, it's still THE SWORD's most daring leap to date. Featuring slow licks that could've been pulled straight from the glory days of ZZ TOP, and a series of electronic segments that I'd like to believe were the precursor and progenitor of what would eventually become Bryan Richie's Galactic Protector project, this album has all of the signs of a band that has done a victory lap and is now looking to reinvent the wheel. It's space rock for people wanting both the atmosphere and the lore, and a set of riffs and solos that just can't be topped. It's a production value the band had yet to discover, with a clarity that borders on absolute crystal. It's the final ride of Trivett Wingo in arguably some of the finest drum fills to ever hit the scene, and it's all done in 48 a minutes, a time that flies as fast as the imaginary vessel does when the music is this damn fun.
It wasn't a medieval, retro-sounding doom metal LP that came to cleave off heads, but with a group as impactful and ever-evolving as THE SWORD, they could afford to step away from the Gods of the Earth (2008), and step towards the Gods of the universe.
After all — you don't age when you live out of time. Happy tenth birthday, Warp Riders.
The boys from Austin have a special collection of merch to commemorate the occasion, including a fresh repress of the album itself, on ‘stardust’ colored wax. Get yours HERE.