Coming to grips with the Sword's unlikely genesis in the alternative music Mecca of Austin, TX, leads one to wonder whether heavy metal has finally become hip again. Depending on your generation, nothing will seem as simultaneously preposterous (Gen-X'ers who came of age during pop-metal's heyday and don't recognize it as an unrepresentative anomaly) or obvious (everyone else) when discussing a genre that's spent the bulk of its 35-year history on the absolute fringe of rock culture. If that isn't "alternative," well, what is? In any case, glorifying heavy metal's prototypical qualities is exactly what the Sword is all about, and their 2006 debut, Age of Winters, sees them joining California's High on Fire, Sweden's Witchcraft, and Australia's Wolfmother (to name but a few) at the forefront of what's gradually become known in the mid-'00s as the "heritage" or "retro-metal" movement. No, not stoner rock -- that's sooo ten years earlier! The only thing the Sword and their ilk have in common with most '90s stoner rockers is recognizing that all heavy metal empires are sprung from the Black Sabbath cornerstone, and the token signs can be readily heard in these songs' ominous doom chords (just listen to opener "Celestial Crown" and "Lament for the Aurochs"), pummeling, down-picked staccato riff-runs ("Barael's Blade," "Ebethron"), lyrics about fantasy and legend ("Freya," "The Horned Goddess," etc.), and, finally, those borderline-inadequate, zombie vocals first made acceptable by Ozzy himself. The Sword's singer, JD Cronise, is certainly guilty of the latter, but then that only helps to focus one's attention upon the album's main attraction: its megalithic guitar work. For the record, the Sword spins the evolutionary clock as far forward as '80s thrash, on occasion, resulting in colossal, galloping onslaughts such as "Winter's Wolves" (complete with howling wolves, naturally) and "Iron Swan" (prefaced by delicate melodies of a medieval feel). Yes, you'll probably have to be a certified, stainless steel metalhead to really appreciate the skyscraping riff constructions of "March of the Lor" (an instrumental in eight movements!), but the vast majority of what's on-hand proves remarkably well-balanced and almost suspiciously immediate to the ears. As such, Age of Winters provides neophyte (errr -- alternative?) listeners with as good an entryway as any into the "retro-metal" universe, while also managing to sound refreshing even to calloused heavy metal ears -- this is no small achievement.