In an age of pigeonholing and prefab identities, the Swords have embarked on a project defined more by process than presence. Each of the six members is a headstrong, hardcore music geek armed with a massive record collection and heavy, sexy chops. They're the hometown antiheroes of rock stardom, which ultimately makes them a publicist's worst nightmare. The band operates as a true collaboration, writing all their songs together, each owning veto power that can kill a song before it ever sees the stage. It makes for dirty business when trying to compare the Swords to any other band.
Just as you can't pin down Godspeed or Mogwai, two bands they're most often compared to, you can't put a label on the Swords' sound. They're concerned more with their musical aesthetic than their commercial packaging. Put them in a box and they'll use their blades to bust out.
The Swords have built their sound from the ground up. It's a music with an architecture, resounding both plangent and whimsical, resembling something like an auditory version of a Frank Gehry building. The band feeds itself on self-criticism and exploration, and each of its members is passionately devoted to a common goal--or, as they call it, The Project.
Though the Swords have been at it for a long time, it wasn't until about three years ago that they moved from an abstract identity to their present concrete face. For years, they were a loose-knit bunch of players who came and went, but, as they began to seriously brandish their daggers, the band solidified with six permanent, fully equal members. After a show at the Knitting Factory in NYC, they were approached by Greg Glover, one of Brooklyn-based Arenarock's co-founders. Until then, the Swords had had pretty bad luck with labels, as no one seemed to know what to do with their sound.
For a couple of years they had pressed on as do-it-yourselfers, with Evan Railton (the Swords' head of electronics) footing most of the bill. They toured a lot, kept sight of the goal, but grew tired of sleeping on dog-hairy and cat-pissy floors. They talked further with Arenarock, were impressed by how sweet and genuine the label was, signed on, and were happy to finally have a home.
The instrumentation on Entertainment Is Over If You Want It, the debut album with their new label, is vast, blending electronics with both electric and acoustic instruments. Nowhere on the album do the Swords feel the need to champion any single sound in particular, which makes them all the more elusive. "If it's good, it's in. If it isn't, it's out," says Corey Ficken, the band's vocalist and bass player.
The record itself is a breathy wall of noise built with well-placed bricks. Each song has a structure that supports a specific theme and pathos, and each has its own narrative structure. Liza Reitz is the band's violiness, whose phrasing adds a Dvorák-like weight to the psychedel-licks of Jeff Gardner's and Ryan Stowe's guitars. Corey's bass playing is a melancholic tugboat, serving as the bridge between the band's deep melodic waters and the rhythmic foundation laid by drummer Joey Ficken, Corey's brother. Railton peppers it all with electricity. The members' approaches vary, some coming from more formal music backgrounds and others having earned their chops in punk bands. The overall sound makes for a music impregnated by an era of post-rock ambiguity, where the players grant themselves the freedom to be inventive.
"We all grew up with a pretty authentic rock background and are respectful of the past," says Corey. "But as players of music now, we realize that rock, as it was, is over." Hence the album title.
It's a gutsy identity for a band to be relentlessly anti-nostalgic in an industry landscape where even indies are mining the past in search of the next pop hit. But the Swords' goal isn't merely to quit the day job. They want to create something new, play something beyond what they've already heard. The Swords have had time to think, time to figure out what they want to do and how they want to be perceived. There is no flash, no anthem rock, just solid, erudite music. Their passive-aggressive, collagelike style might be difficult to approach at first, but, like a new pair of shoes, once you break them in, you like them. Love them.
The Sword Project comes home from a North American tour to celebrate the release of Entertainment Is Over If You Want It Friday, Aug. 8, at Berbati's Pan, 231 SW Ankeny St., 248-4579. 9 pm. $8. 21+.