swords - band photo

A truly spectacular band has to be better than the sum of its parts. That’s a tall order for Swords, the Portland band with six members who all bring a considerable amount of talent and songwriting prowess to the equation. And while they’ve flirted with transcendence on a debut album and an EP, both recorded under the name Swords Project, Metropolis is the sort of majestic achievement you’d hope for from a promising band that’s just found the focus button.

Recorded in Swords’ rustic warehouse space in downtown Portland, Metropolis is 10 taut songs bristling with nervous energy, postmodern smarts and a tantalizing mix of political statements, personal reflections and intriguing musical allusions. Lead singer and bassist Corey Ficken is a thinking man’s frontman, the kind of guy who can expound on the sad beauty of a vintage Fleetwood Mac song, revel in the simplicity of Peter Buck’s guitar lines and dissect the retro post-punk posing of so many of his musical peers.

He’s supported by a cast of multi-talented characters who comprise the most versatile ensemble in the rock scene today. Drummer and programmer Evan Railton doubles (or is it triples?) as Swords’ producer, and maintains an electronic side project, Ovian; violinist and keyboardist Liza Rietz is an up-and-coming women’s fashion designer whose clothes are available in high-end boutiques; guitarist Jeff Gardner is an in-demand Director of Photography who augments his time playing in Swords with stints working in Hollywood on movies and TV shows, including animation for the Cartoon Network’s successful Adult Swim series; guitarist Ryan Stowe is part-owner of a popular bar in Portland; and drummer Joey Ficken, Corey’s kid brother, designed the packaging for Metropolis and is a drumming prodigy who started playing in bands before he’d even entered his teens.

They truly come together for the first time on Metropolis, an album blueprinted after more than two exhaustive years on the road, starting with a stint as handpicked openers for Steven Malkmus’s first solo tour. A debut EP and a full-length follow-up showcased a band that used the rock framework as a jumping-off point to record shape-shifting 10-minute epics. For Metropolis, the six members chose to hone their songwriting skills, playing punchier, more structured songs that emphasize Ficken’s mercurial vocals and the band’s considerable instrumental rapport.

The album opener, “The Product of Harm,” pairs Reitz’s swooping violin figures with propulsive guitar interplay, while Ficken sings of media manipulation and the record industry’s push toward appealing to the lowest common denominator. “There was so much life in underground culture in the late 80’s,” notes frontman Ficken. “It’s been a huge point of frustration for all of us in the past few years, watching how low the bar is at this point.”

To that end, Swords salutes credible heroes like Husker Du and Elvis Costello on subsequent tracks. “Land Speed Record” borrows the Huskers’ famed album title to make a powerful anti-war statement set to a dramatic rhythmic push that’s seasoned with searing squalls and tense minimalist moments that’d make Bob Mould proud. Meanwhile, “Radio Radio” laments the dumbing-down of commercial radio with a fresh twist: Ficken sings pleadingly, using medical metaphors and abstract language to express his disappointment , while the band whips up an enticing collage of electronics and strings that’s part lament, part frenetic wail.

This represents only part of Swords’ wide-ranging scope, however. On the unforgettable, even sinister “Family Photographs,” Railton conjures a synthesized backdrop to lyrics adapted from a Ficken short story about the disintegration of a family home “in the loneliest part of the city, in the house at the end of a cul-de-sac…” It’s a serious, heartbreaking song, but Ficken describes it with the sort of deadpan sense of humor that applies to Swords’ overall aesthetic. “It starts off in an Eno-meets-Phil Collins sort of way,” he says wryly. “I’m really gunning for that song to make it onto the new Miami Vice movie soundtrack.”

Further proof of Swords’ lighthearted counterbalance to its often intense-sounding material comes in another of Metropolis’ glaring highlights, the jaunty bit of meta-music titled “Savage Republic.” Originally intended as a musical and lyrical indictment of all the Gang of Four/Wire-inspired new rock bands, Ficken was forced to rewrite the satirical words when his five bandmates vetoed them. Now, the jagged melody is reminiscent of the music Swords is skewering, but Ficken’s snarls his way through it, equating his spurning by his bandmates to getting rejected by a lover.

The song also neatly sums up how a group with six musicians can survive and thrive through relentless touring and hectic recording schedules. “We get along better than any three or four piece band we’ve ever seen, “ he says. “I don’t know if it’s because we dilute each other, but the process is even beyond democratic, to the point where we’ll reject something if one person vetoes something. We don’t want to have one person sitting around going, ‘I wanted it this way.’”

Metropolis, then, is the sound of six people all wanting something together, then going out and getting it. It’s an album for music fans by music fans, and it’s one that even a casual listener will find himself identifying with at every turn.

reviews for this artist

"The bottle-rocket guitars and military drum work are the obvous starting points but it’s the glitchy electronics and moaning strings that make the mood, lending a soft shoulder to the occasional Sonic Youth-style meltdown"
-- Details

"'Metropolis’? Try ‘Megalopolis’. Or why don’t you call it ‘The Entire Fucking Galaxy on One CD’? Swords put the ‘awe’ into orchestra. Somehow catchier, weirder, more vast and more grounded than the best of Broken Social Scene’"
-- Westword

"On ‘Metropolis’ Swords bring in even more guitar, vocals and backbeat. The tinkering electronics, gorgeous textures and emotive string arrangements are still there—they just follow the leader (vocalist Corey Ficken) and stand on a solid framework this time"
-- Willamette Week