The world has witnessed humanity’s greatest civilizations rise to heavenly heights only to topple with the weight of titans. New, sometimes even more significant, societies emerged from the rubble. They too fell. Across history, this oscillation of societal ascension and subsequent self-destruction has been the focal point of countless tales. Rising, a band from Copenhagen celebrating their tenth year of active duty, adopt this theme with their fourth album Sword and Scythe. The five-piece is classified as “epic metal,” which in my worldview often represents bombastic and overwrought self-indulgence. Prepared for the worst, I donned my skepticism helmet and forged ahead. Turns out, Rising defied my expectations.
Sword and Scythe is a concept album. Post-apocalyptic fantasies like this one are often linearly designed, concluding with narrative resolution. Rising chose to implement a more open-ended arc with Sword and Scythe, instead. The story begins with our current society collapsing under the weight of its own overzealous reliance on the planet’s resources, vying for world supremacy without conscience. From there, new societies developed, hopefully retaining a remembrance of their predecessors’ errors and the wisdom to avoid them. Each song feels like a different character through which you can experience the world. Sword and Scythe ensures each play-through offers a unique tone and progression by utilizing this unorthodox mechanic and provides no resolution except what the audience imagines afterward. Thanks to the exploratory nature of the compositions, listeners will reap increscent returns from Sword and Scythe the more time they invest in it.
Sonically, Rising shares more in common with classic rock from the 60s and 70s and modern prog-rock than any particular metal act. My first impression after the initial listen was that this sounded like mid-to-late-era Beatles mixed with The Byrds, maybe with a bit of Coheed and Cambria for good measure, but it was not “epic.” After two or three more listens, it became clear that this is epic but without the fanfare of your typical “epic metal” group. Sword and Scythe is an epic record because Rising deftly weaves a carefully curated selection of elements into a successful soundtrack for the precarious rebirth of humanity. To create such a soundtrack is a tall order, and from an aural standpoint, Rising satisfies.
Rising composed and performed Sword and Scythe adeptly, always with consideration for its theoretical concept. Guitarists Jacob Krogholt and Anders Bo Rasmussen do a bang-up job timing riffs (“Empirical” and “Kill Automation”), introducing twisted melodies and occasional dissonance (“Sea of Irrelevance” and “Camp Century”), and blending magnificent leads (“Ancestral Earth”) to create a cohesive whole. Frontman Morten Grønnegaard delivers a powerhouse performance across Sword and Scythe, with a gritty and satisfying bari-tenor capable of evoking hope and dashing it to the ground in the same verse (“Aeterna”). Bjarke Lassen and Martin Niemann take charge of the bass and the percussion, respectively, to great effect. They each utilize a minimalist approach to their roles, allowing room for everything else to breathe and flourish on every track. Rising brings this excellent musicianship to greater heights with fantastic editing. For example, “Kill Automation” notches in at a scant two minutes and 35 seconds despite ample room to develop the song. But the band cuts it short. It feels, therefore, purposeful and impactful; a feeling that’s omnipresent across Sword and Scythe’s proper tracks. I suspect the band must have considered the physical law of conservation of mass in the cutting room, taking care never to bloat tracks with more material than the original ideas possessed.
As satisfying as Sword and Scythe is to listen to overall, there are a couple of sour spots. Firstly, the lyrics are inconsistent. Lines for a couple of tracks like “Kill Automation” or “Ancestral Sun” are poignant, for example, whereas phrasing within many songs (like “Renewal Ritual” or “White Heat”) is ungainly. I think Rising intended to make the lyrics abstract and in doing so nullified their impact. Secondly, “Civil Dawn” is an insufferable cut in an otherwise enjoyable record. It is a childish flute-driven disruption that derails the disk, polluting an otherwise compelling atmosphere with an insipid melody. For all of Sword and Scythe’s compositional achievements, the inclusion of “Civil Dawn” is a significant oversight.
Sword and Scythe is a goliath album slain by David-sized shortcomings. The lyrics are often vague or awkward, which is a minor issue in most cases. Unfortunately, that issue is paired with forty seconds of throwaway fluting, making the experience less immersive than it could be—than it should be. Concept albums like this one need to dazzle me into another reality to be special. Nevertheless, the musicianship on display is unimpeachable, and the arrangements punch far above their weight class. Despite its flaws, Sword and Scythe will satisfy those clamoring for an inventive portrayal of a tale as old as time. As for me, I will wait patiently for Rising to sweep me off my feet with their next opus.