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The Sword

Age of Winters


Review: 3 stars (Out of 4)

The Sword -- subtle name for a metal band, huh? -- offers a pea soup-thick blend of Black Sabbath sludge and Southern rock ambience on "Age of Winters," its full-length debut.

Hailing from Austin, Texas, the quartet has clearly been inspired by the creeping death rifforamas of bands like the Melvins, and the dense, complex, progressive rock inclinations of Euro-metal outfits in the Iron Maiden vein.

Happily, all of these influences are melded into a sound that pays heed to metal's history while keeping an eye on its future. Though much of "Age of Winters" sticks to dirge-like tempos, and a "heavy-to-extremely heavy" sense of dynamics, there is much to recommend it to the discerning metal fan. Vocalist J.D. Cronise is a dead ringer for Ozzy Osbourne, circa Sabbath's "Master of Reality," and the guitars throughout the record owe an obvious debt to that band's Tony Iommi, but that's as it should be; Sabbath wrote the book on this stuff, and the Sword is merely attempting to add a new page to that book.

The band does exactly that with the hilarious and haunting "Winter's Wolves," an epic slab of crystalline metal skullduggery hinged on the unison riffing of Cronise and co-guitarist Kyle Shutt. "The Horned Goddess" -- I'm totally serious, the band really has a song called "The Horned Goddess" -- is probably the closest these guys are capable of getting to "pop"; it has what a sufficiently deranged listener might consider a "catchy chorus," and plods along at a slightly elevated tempo, comparatively speaking. There's also some tasty -- if turgid, in an idiomatically suitable fashion -- guitar soloing. "Iron Swan" morphs from its pseudo-classical introduction into straight-up, "Killers"-era Iron Maiden bludgeonry, meter-shifts and gallopping rhythms included.

The Sword, which headlines a modern metal-fest on March 9 in Mohawk Place, has an incredibly clear vision of what it should be doing. Though there are cliches galore, and a disturbing lack of irony throughout the band's debut, it's all combined in a refreshingly modern manner. The album's saving grace is the true believer's zeal with which these boys play a form of music so clearly dear to them. Metal may be inherently silly, and "Age of Winters" is rife with potential Spinal Tap moments, but the conviction and ever-present creative bent the quartet displays elevate the record toward the "metal classic" plateau.

-- Jeff Miers



Richard Julian

Slow New York


Review: 2 stars

On "Slow New York," songwriter Richard Julian waxes poetic in the confessional vein on a New York City populated by elegantly wasted femme fatales and the stupid men who waste their best years chasing them.

A pal of pop chanteuse Norah Jones, who produced half of "Slow New York's" tracks, Julian is an earnest singer and a virtuosic finger-picker, but his songs leave little in the way of lasting impressions. They are well-played, occasionally witty observations on a way of life familiar to many of us. But they add up to an incredibly boring, overly nice album that falls somewhere between the work of Marc Cohn ("Walking In Memphis") and Andrew Gold -- yes, that dude from the '70s who wrote "Thank You for Being a Friend."

Julian is clearly a solid musician, and he has surrounded himself with the cream of the current New York City studio musician crop here, including Jones, Jesse Harris and Kenny Wollesen.

Sadly, his polite folk-pop seems tailor-made for Pottery Barn commercials; even its brightest moments, (the slightly edgy title tune, the jazz-inflected "A Short Biography") come across as little more than innocuous bric-a-brac.

-- J.M.



Morton Feldman

String Quartet (1979) Performed by the Group for Contemporary Music


Review: 3 1/2 stars

The world premiere of Morton Feldman's 1979 String Quartet was in May 1980 in New York City. It lasted well over one and a half hours. A month later, the same group -- Benjamin Hudson's Columbia Quartet -- performed it at Feldman's June in Buffalo Festival at the University at Buffalo. When he talked about it later at a lecture at Cal Arts, writes Douglas Cohen in these disc notes, its composition, he said, was like "I'm watching some bugs on a slide and I'm just watching how I feel. . . . So the string quartet has a lot to do with that kind of watching and letting it go. And the reason the piece is so long is that I got into dangerous territory. I let things go. . ."

But not nearly as much as in his second String Quartet, which is as long as a hefty Wagnerian opera. Considering the nondramatic, slow quietude of Feldman's music -- a music formed of slow harmonic events and gestures and very long rests in between -- that amounts to a kind of attempted re-creation of one's audience as radical as Joyce's in "Finnegan's Wake." Or rather it would if such questions of listening had entered Feldman's head at all, which there is little evidence they did.

I don't think there's any question that Buffalo played a huge part in what amounted to the decidedly maximal minimalism of the late Feldman (he died in 1987 at 61) -- not just the security of his Varese Professorship at UB but the proximity to the Albright-Knox Art Gallery and, specifically, to the paintings of Clyfford Still. Feldman was, similarly, less dealing in matters of musical form than in matters of scale -- Webern meets Wagner, as it were.

That's where the world of recordings is crucial. Few, if any, live audiences find it easy to sit through the Second Feldman Quartet. Even this, a superb 78-minute performance of the first 1979 Quartet, postulates a live concert audience more theoretical than actual. On disc, though, away from the rituals of concertgoing, its beauty is total and its assimilability is enormously enhanced.

This recording by former UB Creative Associate Hudson's group first appeared in 1994 on the Koch label, but it's appearance now in budget-priced Naxos is a godsend to venturesome ears and spirits.

-- Jeff Simon



Rolando Villazon

Opera Recital, the Munchner Rundfunkorchester, Michel Plasson, conductor

[Virgin Classics]

Review: 3 stars

Not just because of his looks is Rolando Villazon the tenor of the hour. His tenor voice shines with strength and expressiveness. His take on "Il etait une fois a la cour d'Eisenach," from "The Tales of Hoffman," is witty and mischievous. The Italian Tenor's aria from "Der Rosenkavalier" shows off his lyrical, legato line; listening to those climbing, daring lines, you get a visceral thrill. Two lyric tenor favorites by Friedrich von Flotow, the popular "Ach so fromm," from "Martha," and "Jungfrau Maria" from "Alessandro Stradella," hark back to the golden age of 19th century tenors. How wonderful there are men like Villazon keeping alive the ancient, thrilling art of the tenor. Bocelli fans should take it up a notch and try this disc out.

-- Mary Kunz Goldman

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