2016, Metal Blade
Amon Amarth are a shining example of what a band can achieve through hard work and determination. Their sound, style and image have not changed much in 20+ years, but relentless touring and a string of consistently strong albums have led to this bunch of Swedish Vikings becoming one of the biggest metal bands in the world. Suffering a recent setback with the departure of long-term drummer Fredrik Andersson, Amon Amarth have followed the AC/DC template for replacing an important band member: quickly find a replacement (session drummer Tobias Gustafsson, of Vomitory) and record a quintessential album.
Jomsviking, the band’s 10th full-length release, is a concept album featuring an original story about love, loss and revenge, based on the legendary Jomsviking warriors, a secretive group of mercenaries who were sort of like a Viking equivalent of Samurai. Don’t worry if the words “concept album” send alarm bells ringing in your mind; this is by no means a major departure from the band’s usual sound! It is arguably the case though that Amon Amarth have shifted slightly over the years from a pure Swedish death metal sound to one that has a bit more in common with NWOBHM and other more overtly melodic metal styles (whilst still retaining Johan Hegg’s trademark harsh Viking roar); this was particularly the case on their previous album, Deceiver of the Gods, and Jomsviking follows suit with several gentler passages used to convey different parts of the story. Nevertheless, there is plenty here to satisfy old school fans and new converts alike.
The opening three tracks are amongst the strongest the band have ever recorded. Lead single “First Kill” erupts into life with rapid-fire drums and guitar harmonies, leaving the listener in no doubt which band they’re listening to; we’re in familiar, comfortable territory here. “Wanderer” maintains your attention with a bouncy, palm-muted riff (somewhat reminiscent of “Gods of War Arise” from fan-favourite album With Oden on Our Side) and contains one of Amon Amarth’s best guitar solos. A melancholic spoken-word passage segues into third track “On a Sea of Blood”, where axemen Olavi Mikkonen and Johan Soderberg are again on top form with thrashy riffs and Maiden-esque harmonies aplenty. There’s also a deliciously heavy bridge where Johan Hegg sings of a dragon attacking our hero’s ship: “the dragon sweeps down with a roar, sky and ocean shake” (NB: this story is not inspired by true events…). This all drags the listener into the album’s concept with ease, the story fitting the music comfortably.
Other highlights throughout the album include “Raise Your Horns”, “One Thousand Burning Arrows” and “A Dream That Cannot Be”. “Raise Your Horns” is what every Viking album needs: a drinking song! Heavy and catchy, with a guitar melody you’ll be humming/chanting for ages, this will surely find a place in Amon Amarth’s live set. “One Thousand Burning Arrows” is a melancholic and captivating song about a Viking king’s funeral; it’s probably the closest the band ever get to a ballad! And “A Dream That Cannot Be” features a rare collaboration with another artist, in the shape of German metal siren Doro Pesch. Her impassioned vocals contrast with Johan Hegg’s nicely, with the effect being a death metal approximation of The Phantom of the Opera, without being at all cheesy.
It is however very difficult to make a truly great concept album; how do you ensure every chapter of the story is equally engaging? In Amon Amarth’s case, this is magnified by the fact that they have a distinctive, easily identifiable sound. As with several of their other albums, they have struggled to create enough ideas to make their sound captivating enough across all the album’s tracks. Songs like “One Against All”, “At Dawn’s First Light” and “Vengeance Is My Name” contain good riffs and are generally catchy, but they contain several musical ideas found elsewhere on Jomsviking and Amon Amarth’s back catalogue, making them sound somewhat formulaic. Still, there are worse formulas for rock/metal bands to stick to…
In general, Jomsviking is more or less business-as-usual for Amon Amarth and is unlikely to disappoint old or new fans. Yes it’s somewhat inconsistent, but they’ve done a good job of telling a decent story on an album that is not out of place, in terms of style or substance, with the rest of the band’s catalogue. Not many bands make it to ten albums, and there’s enough evidence here to indicate that Amon Amarth still have plenty of fuel in the tank (or mead in the drinking horn; pick your own Viking metaphor…)