They weren’t the first Scandinavian band to write about Viking history, Norse mythology, and the glorious thrill of battle, but Stockholm, Sweden quintet Amon Amarth have done more with Viking themes and imagery than nearly all their peers. Over the last quarter-century, they’ve risen to Odin-esque levels of achievement that the founders of the movement couldn’t have imagined: Top 20 Billboard debuts, world tours, and even a mobile video game.
By purist standards, Amon Amarth don’t play true Viking metal, a term coined after first-wave black metal pioneer Bathory stopped praising Satan, embraced their pagan roots, and released albums about plundering and pillaging (like 1990’s Hammerheart and 1991’s Twilight of the Gods). The new Bathory juxtaposed sword-clashing aggression with acoustic atmospheres that became trademarks of the Viking metal genre. In the mid-to-late ‘90s, others, including Unleashed, Enslaved, Ensiferum, and Eluveitie joined the brigade, injecting elements of black metal, strains of Nordic folk and lyrics about gaining wisdom and power from the gods, sailing angry oceans, navigating dangerous forests, fighting to the death, and living forever beyond the gates of Valhalla.
By contrast, Amon Amarth started as an unpolished band comparable to Swedish melo-death metal outfits like At the Gates and Dark Tranquility. However, from the start, vocalist Johan Hegg was fascinated by his Viking ancestry. He knew the folklore of the Poetic Edda and the Prose Edda and he researched the Vikings expeditions to the coastline of North America 500 years before Columbus, and the ninth century explorations which enabled the warriors to control large parts of modern Ukraine and Russia.
Expansion and reconstruction were as vital for the longevity of Amon Amarth as they were for their ancestors. The band’s roots date back to the late ‘80s when guitarist Olavi Mikkonen and drummer Niko Kaukinen played in the Stockholm-style grindcore band Scum. After releasing a single demo, the two musicians joined forces with Hegg and others to create a group that was less interested in following old formulas and more intent on forging new paths, both musically and thematically. And Hegg, whose main vocal influences were Edge of Sanity’s Dan Swanö, Entombed’s LG Petrov and Deicide’s Glen Benton, guided Amon Amarth with forceful growls and vivid Viking imagery.
“The very first song we wrote was ‘Thor Arise,’ which is about Vikings praising Thor and calling to him in battle,” Hegg says, as Amon Amarth prepares to tour to support their 11th full-length album, Berserker. “I’ve always thought of my lyrics as little parts of a movie. They tell stories. Sometimes they’re based on history, sometimes they come from mythology and sometimes I use them to tell personal stories about myself masked in Viking themes.”
Back in 1996, Hegg enjoyed weaving Norse themes throughout the band’s first EP Sorrow Throughout the Nine Worlds and continued to wander the Viking path on the band’s debut full-length 1998’s Once Sent From the Golden Hall. However, he and his bandmates had no idea that 21 years later they would still be calling to Odin, Thor, and Loki, and their stage show would abound with Viking imagery, including, at some performances, a giant sailing ship.
“Back then we weren’t sure we were going to go full Viking continuously through the whole career,” Hegg says. “We never even brought it up. And then it just made sense to keep doing it because there was so much stuff you could do with the topic.”
Describing the chronological journey that shaped Amon Amarth over the decades, Hegg guides us album to album, illustrating the band’s musical and lyrical evolution. He depicts some of the challenges the Norsemen have navigated on their course from being a ragged, melodic death metal band to a group that draws from traditional metal, thrash, death, and whatever else best complements their tales of struggle, triumph, and brutality.
Once Sent From the Golden Hall
Equally inspired by Iron Maiden and Entombed, the first full-length Amon Amarth album, released in 1998, is more urgent and unpolished than many of its later releases. Hegg’s voice is raw and unrefined. He hasn’t quite found his signature roar, and the songs are strong, but somewhat schizophrenic, vacillating between galloping rhythms seasoned with euphoric guitar harmonies, and more expansive numbers that combine chugging doom with tremolo-picked black metal—sometimes in the same song.
While slightly unfocused, Once Sent From the Golden Hall is the promising, insistent sound of a band determined to break new ground (albeit not quite seasoned enough to do so without wearing its influences on its bloodied armor). “We definitely felt rushed doing that album,” Hegg says. “We did our first EP with Peter Tägtgren [Hypocrisy, Pain] at Abyss Studios [in Gothenburg]. Then, we decided to record at Sunlight Studios in Stockholm just to save some money. But for some reason, the [engineers at the studio] saw it as a demo or something, so they didn’t pay attention to what they were doing and everything sounded like shit. We realized we needed to redo it so we called Peter and asked if he could squeeze us into his schedule and rerecord the album, and fortunately he did. We had been working on the songs for a long while, so that was not the issue, it was just redoing the record and getting the whole thing done in time that was a challenge.”
Pleased with the thematic content of their debut full-length, Amon Amarth decided to stay the Viking course with their second album, 1999’s The Avenger: a more consistent, epic-sounding offering that demonstrated the band’s musical growth, partially due to the two new members. Between the time Amon Amarth finished touring for Golden Hall and began recording The Avenger, drummer Martin Lopez, who had replaced Niko Kaukinen in 1996, quit to join Opeth. After a lengthy search, Amon Amarth recruited Fredrik Andersson from Guidance of Sin. Around the same time, guitarist Anders Hansson left and was replaced by Johan Söderberg.
“It was a tricky situation to be in because it took a while, and we couldn’t rehearse that much,” Hegg recalls. “Once we had the new lineup, we started rehearsing live, but it was hard to get the songs together because we all had to feel comfortable working together. So, of course, there was a learning curve, which is why there are only eight songs on the album.”
Despite the stressful writing environment, The Avenger (which was again recorded with Tagtgren) sounds more urgent, cohesive, and confident than Golden Hall. The songs are tight, triumphant, and majestic; Hegg sounds as fierce as Viking hero Ragnar Lodbrok, bolstered (and occasionally overshadowed by) the abundance of memorable guitar passages. Thematically, Hegg structured The Avenger after one of his favorite Bathory albums, Hammerheart. “The Avenger was mostly based on Viking history, but I wrote my own stories with the lyrics, sort of like what Bathory did,” he says. “I listened to the music the guys came up with and I thought, ‘If this was the soundtrack to a movie, what would the movie be about?’ It wasn’t a concept album, because each song was different, but the stories were there.”
Even before Amon Amarth started working on the follow-up to The Avenger, they were determined to compose their heaviest and most pulverizing record to date. “We all agreed to write an album where we crush everything,” Hegg says. “That’s why we called it The Crusher.” To achieve their goal, Amon Amarth crafted a batch of harsh, direct songs loaded with thrash and double-bass drumming, tremolo picking, chunky, abrasive riffs and melodic mid-sections that enhanced the drama without detracting from the brutality. The band had less than a month to record the album and, to their benefit, they never had time to second-guess themselves. The only weak spot is the thin production. Amon Amarth again recorded at The Abyss, but Tagtgren was working on another project so they hooked up with his assistant Lars Szöke, a former drummer from Hypocrisy.
“It was a weird recording experience, which was unfortunate,” Hegg says of the 2001 album. “We were used to working with Peter and that wasn’t possible. There are songs that are super brutal, but I think some of that gets lost in the production.” Much of The Crusher features isolated tales of “Gods and hammers.” However, a trio of related songs at the end of the record, “Annihilation of Hammerfest,” “Fall Through Ginnungagap,” and “Releasing Surtur’s Fire” lay the groundwork for Hegg’s more narrative, concept-oriented songwriting about gods and monsters.
Versus the World
Having toured for five solid years without achieving headliner status, Amon Amarth were frustrated by their lack of mainstream success come the early Aughts. So, the members decided to funnel their contempt into a final album, which was originally titled The End. It wasn’t exactly a concept record, but 2002’s Versus the World addressed the mythology of Ragnarok, the war between the Gods that would trigger the apocalypse. To achieve a different sound, Amon Amarth worked with producer Berno Paulsson at a studio in Malmo, Sweden. Determined to go out with a resounding roar, Amon Amarth spent their time writing a cinematic audio adventure that unraveled like an epic poem. Improving on their past work, the jagged arrangements were more cohesive, and the bombastic midsections and abrupt rhythm and tempo shifts surfaced more naturally, marking a turning point for the band instead of a grand finale. “There’s a lot of mythological Viking stuff in there that describes the end of the world. But it was more like a new beginning,” Hegg says. “The album came out good and had great songs on it that gave us more confidence. And the reaction from people when they heard it was overwhelming so we decided to keep going.”
Fate of Norns
In an effort to forge new steel while the fire was still blazing, Amon Amarth returned to Berno Studios on the heels of Versus to craft another LP, 2004’s Fate of Norns. They hoped Paulsson would again spark the band’s creativity by sprinkling them with the magic ashes of slain Viking heroes. There are moments of brilliance on Fate of Norns, including the sweeping title track and the galloping “Valkyries Ride,” however, for the first time, Amon Amarth entered the studio with incomplete songs and had to create on the spot over a period of five weeks. “Because we were rushed I think we put together the album a little too fast,” Hegg says. “But we managed to pull it off.”
Keeping in line with Amon Amarth’s Viking tradition, the songs on Fate of Norns are largely inspired by ancient Nordic history. The introspective title track, by contrast, stands as one of the most personal songs ever penned by Hegg, lamenting a crumbling relationship: “Allfather, what fate has been given me? / Why must I suffer? / Why must I feel this pain? / Allfather, life has lost its meaning to me / I think I’m going insane.”
“I was breaking up with my girlfriend at the time, and it was emotional,” Hegg explains. “I wrote the title track about [the death of a Viking’s young son], not specifically about the breakup and what was going on, but that’s what it felt like. The whole song came to me when my girlfriend and I were driving home from the city. We were very quiet the whole ride. I had the verse riff for ‘Fate of Norns’ in my head and the lyrics just started coming to me. When we got back, I sat down and wrote the lyrics. It was very personal stuff.”
With Oden on Our Side
Some major changes took place between the release of Fate of Norns and the beginning of the writing process for With Oden on Our Side, which hit shelves in 2006. Most significantly, the band members agreed they would henceforth prioritize Amon Amarth above all else. Additionally, they vowed to hone their material in the future before they started recording it. Lastly, stemming from the success of the Fate of Norns, the members decided their future material should bear less in common with their death metal roots (aside from Hegg’s vocals) and derive more inspiration from genre pioneers, including Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, and Motorhead.
Regarding the recording process, Hegg says, “We decided we all had to be in the studio the whole time so there were more people that help guide the songs. And the guys that were not recording at a given time were cooking for everyone or doing something else that made them part of a team. We were doing everything together and that brought us closer together as a band.” When all the songs were written, Amon Amarth and producer Jens Bogren entered Fascination Street Studios in Örebro, Sweden and systematically fine-tuned the material to trim the fat and unearth the bounty.
“He brought a lot of new ideas to us about how to arrange the songs so they would be more to the point and not excessively long,” Hegg says. “He got the parts to all work together in a way that we had never really done before.” Lyrically Hegg sang about Gods and battle, sure, but he also expanded his horizons by exploring more Viking history. “In ‘Valhall Awaits Me’ I mentioned how the Vikings sailed east on the rivers from Russia. And in ‘Prediction of Warfare’ I mention how The Vikings traveled to the British Isles.”
Twilight of the Thunder God
Taking more of a hands-on approach on With Oden on Our Side triggered a new work ethic for Amon Amarth going into their seventh full-length album. On 2008’s Twilight of the Thunder God, the band focus as strongly as ever on melody, matching contagious riffs and incisive hooks with vocals that adhere closely to the rhythmic cadences of the songs. Even when Fredrik Andersson burst into a double-drum gallop, as on the title track, the accompanying music belied the intensity of the beats. In addition, the generally mid-tempo pace of songs like the anthemic “Guardians of Asgaard” gave guitarists Olavi Mikkonen and Johan Söderberg more space to explore various riff structures and (gasp) sonic atmospheres. “We really tried to get the best out of every song idea that we had,” Hegg says. “And then, we had a lot of input coming from Jens about the arrangements. Since we had already worked with him, everything clicked faster and was really fun.”
The music on Twilight of the Thunder God sometimes borders on euphoric, thanks in part to the spirited guest performances (Entombed’s LG Petrov on “Guardians of Asgaard,” Children of Bodom’s Roope Latvala on the title track, Apocalyptica on “Live For the Kill”). Even so, Hegg keeps the lyrics harsh and violent, regardless of whether he’s dealing with Viking history or existential trauma. “When you look at bands that write about Vikings, it’s always about how brave and successful and awesome they are,” Hegg says. “We do that, too, but Vikings lived in harsh environments and had difficult lives. The last song, ‘Embrace of the Endless Ocean’ is about a man who’d been enslaved for years and finally, he’s released and he’s going home to the people he loves. He was really excited to get back, but on his way, his ship capsizes and everyone dies. I wanted to point out that just surviving in those days was treacherous.”
Having already recorded two albums with Jens Bogren, Amon Amarth felt comfortable working with him again—maybe a little too comfortable. Surtur Rising isn’t musically inferior in any way, it’s just a bit formulaic—kind of a Twilight of the Thunder God II without the special guests. However, unlike its predecessor, the 2011 full-length is more rooted in Norse lore than history. “When it comes to writing lyrics, I don’t try to force my creativity,” Hegg explains. “I just write about whatever’s on my mind and this time I had some pretty cool ideas for mythological songs.”
The pummeling music and fantasy-filled lyrics fit like a bare fist in a studded leather glove. “War of the Gods” is a ripping battle anthem about the mythical fights between the Aesir Gods and the Vanir Gods that should appeal equally to fans of early Manowar and Painkiller-era Priest. “The Last Stand of Frej” and “Töck’s Taunt – Loke’s Treachery Part II” are also escapist in that power metal way. And there’s no denying the crafty counter-melodies of “Slaves of Fear” or the fleet guitar manipulations of “For Victory or Death.”
“Being that this was the follow-up to a very successful album, there was pressure to rise to a certain place,” Hegg says. “I still think it’s a great album and we still play a number of the songs live. “But doing the record with Jens felt like so much of a routine. The edge wasn’t really there for us or Jens. We agreed after the release that this would be the last album we recorded together.”
Deceiver of the Gods
Less melodic death, more ‘80s thrash and trad metal, Deceiver of the Gods is like a Viking-themed reimagining of Megadeth’s Countdown to Extinction. The 2013 album was produced by Andy Sneap, who had helmed efforts for Judas Priest, Megadeth, Testament, among others, and played in the NWOBHM band Sabbat. Thrilled to be working with someone they revered almost as much as Thor, Amon Amarth rose to the challenge, writing a full-bore, no-frills thrashy metal album that showcased the band’s estimable playing skills and Hegg’s complementary growls (which were as close as a vocalist could get to actual singing without expelling a tune). “We learned a lot from Andy,” Hegg says. “He had a lot of interesting takes on our sound and how to work with the arrangements to make the songs stronger. And he worked really hard with me on vocal phrasing so the words worked well with the songs.”
Perhaps in an effort to complement the organic thrust of the music, Hegg wrote the first four tracks about the impish, sometimes vulnerable Viking god Loki and also referenced the character in the track “Hel.” “I think Loki is the most human of the gods,” says Hegg. “He does a lot of good stuff and he does a lot of bad stuff, but he also is very helpful even though the stuff he helps out with was probably stuff he caused in the first place. But the fact that he has all these good and bad qualities makes him one of my favorite characters in all mythology.”
While Deceiver of the Gods has some of Amon Amarth’s most mainstream musical passages and lyrically cohesive threads, it’s still ultimately about savage Vikings. The band emphasizes it with hammer-crushed-skulls and death-kissed cries that introduces the plundering “Blood Eagle,” which features minor-key licks reminiscent of Slayer and graphic lyrics like “My sharp knife starts to carve around / Penetrate your naked skin / Rip flesh and dig within.”