The members of Swords (née the Swords Project) made a sensible decision when they hacked off their surname. The Portland, Oregon sextet’s debut full-length, Entertainment Is Over If You Want It, was a wide-eyed collection of post-rock tone poems, swelling with ideas, sounds and textures. Entertainment Is Over was boldly experimental but barely contained, more a “project” than a clear statement. On their second LP, Metropolis, Swords have been sharpened — the new material is more concise and sticks to a single aesthetic. It’s also indistinct and hopelessly muddled.
Moody opener “The Product of Harm” sets the scene, with a chiming, Byrds-like guitar figure complemented by melting keyboard tones, and a repetitive two-note bass line intertwining with Corey Ficken’s plaintive vocal melody. Later, strings and layered vocals counterpoint Ficken’s take on the “sticks and stones” trope: “Substitute words with revolvers, baby/ This scene’s got a western theme.” The background becomes dense and soupy, and after five minutes, the song dissolves into an overwhelming swirl of sound.
Much of Metropolis is dominated by that same gee-whiz hugeness. And while the consistent production aesthetic keeps the album coherent, it also prevents the songs from feeling well-defined. “Land Speed Record” and “Metropolis” groan and sag under the weight of an excessive dollop of reverb, which forces all the instruments to bleed into each other, coagulating into a murky sonic blob. It’s no surprise that the two standouts, “Radio Radio” and the hypnotic “Family Photographs,” are the least cluttered songs on the album.
Swords’s dizzying backgrounds aren’t a problem, per se. After all, plenty of great bands – My Bloody Valentine, Smashing Pumpkins – shroud their music in sheets of sound. The difference is that these bands start with a foundation of great songwriting, whereas Swords songs sound like undeveloped sketches. It would take a lot to flatten the bouncy inertia of “The Savage Republic,” but Swords manage the task with a humdrum melody and by substituting an annoying, endlessly repeated koan (“What happened in the beginning/ To cause the beginning of the end?”) for a hook. The band does its best Death Cab for Cutie impression on “The Mark,” and Ficken is a credible stand-in for Ben Gibbard. But again, his vocal line is an indeterminate anti-melody that “climaxes” in a monotonous mantra before abruptly stopping.
All six members of Swords are quality musicians, and the calculated density of the sound they generate is awesome to behold. The songs on Metropolis would probably sound great live, where a listener could ignore their formlessness and bask in the bombast. Unfortunately, the album fails to leave an impression, regardless of how many times you listen to it. Metropolis isn’t so much forgettable as it is unmemorable, a hazy dream of a record that floats by and collapses into its own sonic ether.
“The Mark” mp3