Warrior riffery

The Viking metal of Amon Amarth
By PHIL FREEMAN  |  February 27, 2007


VIDEO: Amon Amarth, "Pursuit of Vikings"

American metal has lost its heart. Turn on Headbangers Ball and half the videos are from floppy-haired post-hardcore bands screaming about girls who done them wrong. Then there are the death-metalers, faces hidden behind pinwheeling hair, urping about Satan and serial murder between attacks of whammy-bar masturbation. Perhaps worst of all, there’s Jack Black and Tenacious D lampooning the very heroic tradition they claim to love. Where are our epic poets? Who (okay, besides Manowar) is keeping the tradition of warrior metal alive?

They’re in Sweden, where metal is still about trying to one-up your stupid gorehound buddies with splatter stories. It’s about being larger than life, shirtless, and bearded and bellowing tales of glorious battle. In other words, it’s about being a Viking. And Amon Amarth may be the greatest metal band on the planet right now. They’re modern-day Vikings, here to pillage innocent ears and encourage men to grow chest-length beards and drink dark beer from a foot-long horn.

The band formed in 1990 and released a debut EP six years later. Since then, their blend of death and black metal, buzzsaw guitar riffs cycling over somewhat monotonous drumming, has evolved into something slower and heavier that’s perfect for fist pumping. The new three-DVD set Wrath of the Norsemen offers five full concert performances, all filmed in Europe, plus backstage footage. The longest concert, a 2005 performance in Cologne (on disc one), has a mid-set interlude during which dudes in real armor, with real swords, come on stage and fight while the band, one imagines, hang backstage drinking beer. (Beer is a big part of the Amon Amarth weltanschauung; on stage, frontman Johan Hegg drinks from a horn he keeps on his belt.) The rest of the set is drawn from various festivals in 2004 and 2005. It’s an astonishingly elaborate document, the kind of thing you want to spend a weekend wallowing in.

On With Oden on Our Side, the group’s sixth and latest CD on Metal Blade, guitars rev like an earth-moving machine in low gear as drummer Fredrik Andersson hammers forward, eschewing showy intricacy for a beat somewhere between Slayer skinsman Dave Lombardo’s Latin-inflected assault and the minimalist brutality of Marky Ramone, or AC/DC’s Phil Rudd. The lyrics reflect a new degree of introspection. “Cry of the Black Birds” and “Gods of War Arise” join the band’s bloodthirsty catalogue of battle hymns, but the first video is for “Runes to My Memory,” which finds Hegg pondering his impending death and requesting that his body be laid in an earthen mound, with runes to chronicle his heroism. “Under the Northern Star” is about longing for home after years at sea. Amon Amarth have a softer side, it seems.

Hegg even adapts his voice to fit the mood. A tall, glowering powerhouse on stage, he usually barks his lyrics as if he were trying to inspire rows of oarsmen to greater exertion. On early releases, he alternated between a low growl and a witchy screech; in recent years he’s stuck to the lower register. When I get him on the phone and ask why, he shrugs off the change. “I haven’t really changed my voice. I just developed it.”

The off-stage diffidence contrasts with the on-stage ferocity. Hegg can let his lyrics, and the band’s album covers and videos, speak for themselves. They tell you all need to know about Amon Amarth.

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