Amon Amarth has had an impressive journey. In the early ’00s, they were but a footnote to the Swedish scene. But for my group of friends, few bands inspired the devotion we had to these Swedish Viking metallers. We would drive throughout the Midwest to see them playing to sparse crowds in tiny clubs. These days, Amon Amarth is one of the biggest bands in metal. They sells gigs out and have a huge production. And while they’re still on Metal Blade in the USA, they’re distributed by Columbia Records in Europe. I suspect they’re pushing the boundaries of what is possible for a death metal band.
But Amon Amarth also fills a difficult niche. With their debut having just reached 21—finally, “Victorious March” can drink in the States!—these Swedes have ten full-length albums under their belt. And the complaint goes that if you’ve heard one Amon Amarth record, you’ve heard all the Amon Amarth records. This isn’t a totally unfair charge. The band’s sound has been the same since 1998. Two guitarists chug or trem-pick harmonies over double-bass inflected riffs that pulse with Joakim Wallgren’s drums and Ted Lundström’s bass. Over top, Johan Hegg gives his best screams, cries and growls, littering songs with his rhythmic death metal genius and his lyrics about Vikings. New Amon Amarth albums bring a pile of new tracks and consistency is the key to their formula. These guys know what they’re good at and they do it very well.
For many listeners, a new Amon Amarth record has one purpose: deliver 45 minutes of invigorating Viking death metal that we can pump at the gym. In that sense, Berserker lives up to its billing. The album exceeds the basic 45 minute mark by nearly 15 minutes, in fact. And the songs are chock full of the things for which we love Amon Amarth. They knock out classic chugging verses (“Wings of Eagles,” “Valkyria”) that seem built for synchronized guitar swings. They lay down catchy trem-picked harmonies for choruses, with Mikkonen and Söderberg dropping the album’s most memorable moments (“Fafnir’s Gold,” “Mjölnir, Hammer of Thor”). And while you’d think that Johan would run out of material to write about, he makes an impressive show of working from the “Greenland Saga” (“Wings of Eagles”) and singing of glorious battle (“Shield Wall”).
While Berserker achieves its purpose of delivering gym-ready tunes to the beefcakes among us, it suffers from two problems that are, unfortunately, additive. First, Berserker is long and second, it’s very densely produced. Clocking in at nearly an hour, Berserker is the band’s longest record by an average of about 13 minutes. This length, combined with a dense production and Industry Standard Mastering Job™ that clocks in at DR6, creates an album that functions like a shield wall. While songs like “Fafnir’s Gold,” “Mjölnir, Hammer of Thor,” and the “Wings of Eagles” are classic Amon Amarth tunes that boil the blood, somewhere around “Ironside” and “The Berserker at Stamford Bridge,” the Berserker loses steam. Unfortunately, the Berserker‘s second wind contains two of the record’s best songs, which sit in slots 11 (“Wings of Eagles”) and 12 (“Into the Dark”). These two gems are likely to receive significantly less play because listeners peel off, overwhelmed by the wall of sound. In that sense, Berserker is less than the sum of its parts.
However, Berserker is hardly bad. When Amon Amarth is firing on all cylinders, they’re one of the very best bands in metal. Each song taken individually has things I enjoy about it. These riffs and warlike feel are sure to translate into excellent live tracks. But the fact that I, as a listener, can tell that this album will kill live is possibly the biggest indictment of the production and presentation. Clearly, “Shield Wall” will cause chant happy moshers to go nuts (“VIKINGS! RAISE THE SHIELD WALL! ON THE FRONT LINES! FIGHT TO DEATH!”), while “Raven’s Flight” while set the pit aflame. The only real missteps are “Ironside” (plz don’t sing Johan) and “The Berserker at Stamford Bridge,” which has the speed of “Fate of Norns” and none of the emotional weight.1
When it comes right down to it, I think there will be a lot of disappointment with Bersker and I’ve already heard it bubbling up. But while this is not the tour de force of 2013’s Deceiver of the Gods or 2007’s With Oden on Our Side, there’s plenty to like here. Most importantly, with familiarity both myself and Steel Druhm agreed that the album was better than we’d initially thought. When it comes right down to it, it’s pretty impressive that Amon Amarth is as brutally consistent as they have been all this time. While that might not be what everyone wants, I find Berserker a welcome addition to Amon Amarth‘s already lethal brood.
- Actually, in terms of length, I think that this album would have been much stronger if the band had dropped “Ironside,” “The Berserker at Stamford Bridge” and “When Once Again We Can Set Our Sails.” While two of the songs aren’t my favorites, what really happens is that they slow down and otherwise invigorating album. I must admit that the slow side of Amon Amarth was never my favorite part of their music, but when pushing 60 minutes, three down-speed tracks in a row just kills the moment. ↩