Amon Amarth has been one of the most consistently excellent melodic death metal bands to come through the pipes in the last two decades. Over the years, they’ve honed and refined their sound from the raw death metal ferocity of Once Sent from the Golden Hall into a cleaner, more accessible melodic death metal sound. Their graduation away from raw brutality happened largely in landmark leaps at a few points in their career. Because of this, I’ve taken the liberty of dividing Amon Amarth’s career into three distinct sonic stages in order to more closely examine the Amon Amarth of yesterday and today.
The Early Albums (1998 – 2004)
To be frank: a large part of my motivation for writing this Half-Life was in order to expose a metal audience to the brilliance of Amon Amarth’s first few albums. These albums feature a five-piece beast far different from the quintet that released their most famous albums like Twilight of the Thunder God. Early 2000’s Amon Amarth was a band that didn’t have to bother with a modifier like melodic in front of their brand of death metal; they simply played fast, aggressive death metal that happened to be melodic as well.
Amon Amarth’s first full length, Once Sent from the Golden Hall, reveals itself to the listener immediately. Unashamed lyrics about epic tales of Viking warriors and Norse mythology provide the thematic framework for frenzied drumming and relentlessly raw riffing, and provide color to the guttural roars of the talented frontman Johan Hegg. The album never relents, seamlessly trading tremolo riffs for its almost forty-five minute runtime. The ripping solos in songs like “Ride for Vengeance” and “The Dragon’s Flight Across the Waves” are as good as any they’ve ever done. Although most of the songs are fairly straightforward compositionally, there is still room for the requisite slow-paced epic that would become a staple of their albums. Although the words “slow-paced epic” can often translate to “boring and overindulgent”, Amon Amarth does well to showcase their versatility in composing an epic in the song “Amon Amarth”. Catchy riffs and surprisingly understandable, passionate vocals lead the song to a climactic final solo to close the penultimate song in the album. Taken as a whole, Once Sent from the Golden Hall is a masterful debut that established who Amon Amarth was, and what they could do.
It might sound lazy to say that The Avenger and The Crusher are carbon copies of Once Sent from the Golden Hall, but I challenge anyone to find significant differences between these first three albums. The same kind of raw production adds a sharp edge to the rather thin guitar tone while providing a distorted buzz to the beefy bass. Johan Hegg still sounds like a Viking got transported into a recording studio. Solos still ring out in the higher register towards the end of songs. But there’s nothing wrong with a lack of musical evolution if the formula in place is awesome. The high-water mark of said formula can be found in the gloriously aggressive riffing of “The Sound of Eight Hooves” or in the ritualistic, bass-dominated heft of “The Last with Pagan Blood”.
Finally, with the 2002 release of Versus the World, Amon Amarth began to show signs of change in their songwriting approach. Although the production is still largely the same as before, the songwriting has shifted to a more melodic and chorus-oriented approach .The classic opener (and live darling) “Death in Fire” is built on the strength of a simple and immensely catchy chorus that will have listeners shouting along by the second listen. Many of the songs in the album feature a similar change. In the previous albums, choruses were sparse and never the focal point of a song. Now, without losing any of the great riff-writing that propelled the first few albums, the songs are structured around well-written choruses. Another step forward on the album comes from Johan Hegg. In addition to sounding just a little bit more menacingly larger-than-life, Hegg often helps carry the melody with his barked vocals in the chorus (Death in fire! Versus the world! Bloodshed!). The added vocal responsibilities make Amon Amarth catchier and easier to shout along with, and help add an exclamation point to many of their choruses. Even the long, slow songs are better planned out on Versus the World. Whereas the long songs on previous albums were essentially just a bunch of slow riffs stitched together, “…And Soon the World Will Cease to Be” has a much more deliberate compositional arc, spanning from a dirge-like opening to a speedy tremolo riff-fest as the apocalypse draws nearer.
The Middle Melodeath (2006 – 2011)
It’s here, with the release of With Oden on Our Side that Amon Amarth underwent their period of greatest change. This is when Amon Amarth departed from the shores of death metal to loot and pillage the lands of melodeath. Compare anything from 2004 or earlier to With Oden on Our Side, and the difference will be immediately clear. The production has gone from a grimy-but-effective crunch to clean, articulate fidelity. The guitars no longer have the warm buzz of “good” bad production, and the bass has been relegated to a background instrument. The drums sound crisp, but at the expense of some of their encompassing violence. Perhaps the biggest change instrumentally, though, is in frontman Johan Hegg himself. This is the album where Hegg went from a very talented death metal vocalist to the literal embodiment of a Viking warrior in a berserker rage. Hegg is guttural without being phlegm-y and handles a variety of techniques and ranges with aplomb.
Compositionally, WOooS isn’t very much different from Versus the World except for being slightly slower and less aggressive. Still, the band is still perfectly capable of producing a barnburner like “Asator”. And despite the major change in sound, the lyrical themes have not changed one bit. Even an emotionally vulnerable song like “Runes to my Memory” (or “Fate of Norns”, from the previous album) manages to sound super badass because of Hegg’s superlative vocals.
Next in line is the varied Twilight of the Thunder God, which saw the band transition to yet cleaner production and slightly more varied songwriting. Everything the band does well, they continue to excel in. The opener and title track is one of the best songs Amon Amarth has ever released, managing to sit on a mirror’s edge of blind aggression and pop-like catchiness. The chorus-writing chops Amon Amarth have been honing since Versus the World have now crystallized into one of the catchiest choruses in extreme metal. Add in a speedy little solo towards the end, and the result is a jewel of the Amon Amarth discography.
The band also tried their hand at some different songwriting tricks in Twilight of the Thunder Gods. “Free Will Sacrifice” dabbles in some crushing breakdowns; “Where is Your God?” uses rhythmic, spitfire vocals; and “Tattered Banners and Bloody Flags” combines guitar and percussion to create a unique staccato, truncated riffing style. Although each of these ideas are risky to some extent, every one of them works well, especially “Tattered Banners and Bloody Flags”.
2011’s Surtur Rising saw the band take a small step back towards their earlier days of death metal, although they still remain firmly entrenched in melodeath. The uncompromisingly savage “Destroyer of the Universe” has quickly become a live favorite and is one of the heaviest songs Amon Amarth has released, period. The production on this album has gone back in time a bit to the satisfyingly heavy crunch The Crusher, although only slightly. Despite being salty veterans, Amon Amarth still have great riffs to share, like the fast, dynamic riff in “Slaves of Fear”. Surtur Rising also features Amon Amarth at their most progressive. Which is not very. But the end of “A Beast Am I” features undistorted, soft guitar lines never heard from Amon Amarth before, and the subsequent song “Doom Over Dead Man” provides orchestral elements that have never before been a part of their sound.
Current Day (2013 – 2016)
The next era of Amon Amarth’s sound begins with Deceiver of the Gods, which unfortunately proves itself to be a rather tepid effort among the band’s excellent catalogue. The songwriting which so often buoyed production that was liable to rob songs of their fury took a nosedive, and the production has neutered the guitar almost entirely. The guitars are fairly low in the mix as well and fail to have any sort of crunch to them, which is bad news for a band that’s always been closer to the death metal side of melodeath. Despite these flaws, there are still decent cuts on the album. “As Loke Falls”, “Father of the Wolf”, and “We Shall Destroy” manage to wring enough solid riffs and roars from Johan to be enjoyable, but tracks like the hopelessly weak and boring “Hel” portend of a bleak future.
Jomsviking arrived this year to a sea of anticipation, but struggles from many of the same fatal flaws that plagued Deceiver of the Gods. The guitars have been noticeably downtuned, which doesn’t translate well to the tremolo riffing style that they thrive on. This new version of Amon Amarth is still underpowered and overproduced, stripped of the ferocious power that propelled them most of their career. They’ve gotten slower without much groove to back it up, and have lost the magic pick that couldn’t write a bad riff from 1998 – 2011. But amid all these struggles, the band can still manage to put together some damn good melodeath tracks when they remember that they’re actually in an extreme metal band. “Raise Your Horns” and especially the excellent “Back on Northern Shores” reclaim some of the edge and swagger that brought them to success in the first place.
What remains the same, and has always been the same, is Johan Hegg. A less talented vocalist would relegate these past two albums to mediocrity, but Amon Amarth is lucky enough to have an real, actual Viking providing texture and atmosphere to the lyrics of death and destruction. As long as Hegg remains aboard the longship and twin guitarists Olavi Mikkonen and Johan Soderberg manage to rediscover lost The Crusher-era riffs every now and then, Amon Amarth will continue to be a worthy giant among the current melodic death metal scene for years to come.