(This is DGR’s review of Amon Amarth‘s 11th album, which was released by Metal Blade Records on May 3rd.)
Amon Amarth are fun when Amon Amarth get “weird” around the fringes of their music.
Well, let’s walk that back a bit, since there’s a lot of power in those quotation marks around weird. It’s not weird in the usual sense, as Amon Amarth remain fairly conventional, and hew pretty closely to all of the traits that make them recognizable, on their latest album Berserker. They are one of the trope vanguards of the term ‘shuffle band’, in that their music has found such a consistent bar of quality that you don’t really need to do full-album runs any more. You can throw their whole discography onto a playlist, shuffle it up, and still have a good time.
That happens to a lot of bands when they strike upon a sound that they then make their own, and Amon Amarth did that sooo long ago — about the time of Fate Of Norns and With Oden On Our Side — and since then their discography has felt like iterations upon that particular formula. Huge and epic for Twilight Of The Thundergod, surprisingly death metal for Surtur Rising, weirdly experimental on the fringes of their sound on Deceiver Of The Gods, and a big old block of a lot of the ‘same’ on the concept album – about Vikings – that was Berserker’s immediate predecessor, Jomsviking.
Weird is meant in a reactionary sense. Amon Amarth are fun when it seems like they’re making an effort to change things up a bit — and reacting to their previous album instead of just devolving further into Viking caricature. In that way, Berserker is a bit like Deceiver Of The Gods. There’s still a ton of rumbling mid-tempo march and plenty of opportunity to windmill headbang, and the band manage to mine more material from the vein of Norse mythology, but what is unexpected is once again the material around the fringes of their sound, including a surprising amount of focus on lead guitar melody, and the more spastic pacing that Berzerker takes on from song to song.
We actually didn’t review Jomsviking at this here site. We checked in with it from time to time but it was one of those albums where we found ourselves without much more to say. Being a concept album, it was an interesting take, but it stayed within the well-worn Viking subject matter, and it didn’t break free from the mold of being just a pretty solid Amon Amarth album. Still enjoyable, but it was very much just adding to a ‘good’ song collection that was already nearing the hundred-song mark.
What makes Berserker worthy is that it shares a similar sort of scrappy spirit as Deceiver Of The Gods had. There’s still plenty of ‘playing it safe’ amongst the near-hour’s worth of music spread out across the twelve tracks here, but there’s also a fair share of stuff on the fringes of the group’s thundering march to keep one curious as to how they might try to differentiate this ‘song about Thor’ from the previous ‘song about Thor’ or the ‘song about Thor’ prior to that. ‘Interesting’ and ‘curious’ do not always equal ‘good’, of course, but we’ll take a million almost “Battery”-esque acoustic intros a la the opening segment of “Fafner’s Gold” if it means that the pillaging guitar-warriors of Amon Amarth get to stretch their wings a little.
What revealed itself as the most unexpected feature across a couple of run-throughs with Berserker was the lead guitar melody focus that many of the songs have — made really clear in Berserker’s closing third, surprisingly enough, with “When Once Again We Can Set Our Sails” becoming a pretty clear vanguard for some serious lead guitar glory.
Amon Amarth have long made their stock-in-trade a rumbling rhythm section, often at a martial marching tempo — and there’s plenty of that here, especially in the early-album anthem “Shield Wall” — and most of their lead guitar has been rapidly picked in order to make everything feel more ‘epic’. But what the band use throughout Berserker is some serious guitar lead work, at times In Flames-esque with the dual-guitar harmonies layered over the top of the group’s next bit of galloping rhythm, which serves as your cue to windmill headbang along with the band.
“Raven’s Flight” continues the group’s excellent batting average of crafting song names with birds in them, and having those turn out to be pretty solid. The first listen will definitely prove why “Raven’s Flight” wound up being the one with the music video. “Valkyria” — which comes just prior to “Raven’s Flight” — could actually have fit perfectly into the group’s With Oden On Our Side and Twilight Of The Thundergod era, with an excellent guitar melody that has vocalist Johan Hegg growling right alongside it; the pairing of the two songs with their numerous guitar harmonies makes for an excellent ten or so minutes. Closing out “Valkyria” with some light piano makes things interesting as well, in the sort of album where even the slightest break from the near HOUR of pillaging is to be embraced.
What songs wind up being people’s favorites will be interesting to discover, in part due to the scattered nature of how the songs flow, and also due to the fact that many of them feel like Amon Amarth pulling from different influences across their discography and then layering some extra-glorious/ocasionally cheese-filled guitar work on top of it. You get a sense early on that quite a few of the songs on Berserker would transfer almost seamlessly into a live setting. Trying to pick out which ones, over time, will prove to be the daunting exercise.
The previously mentioned “Shield Wall” may be one of the most Amon Amarth songs to date, and could easily be (is incredibly likely to wind up) slotted into the live set for a long time. The bouncing rhythm of it and the martial ‘shout along with me!’ nature of the chorus is almost purpose-built for crowd interaction. The slow crawl of a song like “The Berseker Of Stamford Bridge” could find its way in as well, as it places Amon Amarth back into full storytelling mode, as if the band wished to resurrect the tale of Jomsviking for one more go-around. “Wings Of Eagles” could also be a serious shot in the arm live, as it’s certainly a late-album highlight and actually has something of a traditional melo-death riff within it for its main segments, a late party-headbang in a back half where the band start experimenting with just how to differentiate their more mid-tempo stomping works.
By the time any band have reached the double digits in their discography, reviewing them becomes an interesting exercise. The conservative play for a lot of bands, in order to maintain a career as far-reaching as one that requires a reviewer to reference ‘the group’s eleventh album’ over and over again, is to find something that works, and then never, ever stray from it. Amon Amarth have — much like their “Shield Wall” — held fast to the rumbling rhythms and windmill headbanging that they have built their career upon, to the Viking battles and mythology-gimmick played up to Hollywood levels of caricature, so that no matter what size stage the band are on, their music is always going to seem larger than life.
Once you reach the status of ‘eleventh album’, you’re either going to surprise people or you’re going to do what works for you. For the most part, Berserker stays firmly in that second setting. It adds another dozen songs to Amon Amarth‘s reputation as the best shuffle band in the world. Their willingness to play around the fringes of what they’re doing can make listening sessions compelling, but the sense of familarity cannot quite be escaped. They have an incredibly solid foundation, and listening to them semi-refocusing on guitar work this time around certainly turned this head the first few times through Berserker. But the backbone of much of the music is Amon Amarth doing what they do best, the rumbling chug and thundering battle segment.
It’s a more interesting trip than the group’s previous release, and still as enjoyable as everything else the band have done, but that also reflects very much of what Berserker is, an expertly-hewn, trim and polished version of everything else the band have done.
One of those bands whose live show wowed me much more than their albums. They deliver a helluva killer show.