[29 March 2011]
When a band is the most prolific in the world to play a particular type of music, the temptation often exists to rest on one’s laurels, release sub-standard material, and generally show disregard for previous success in favor of basking in the sunshine of success. This usually leads to the swift downward spiral and implosion of that band. The only way to avoid that is to do what Swedish titans Amon Amarth have done: never release anything that is less than excellent, always try to be better than your previous material, and never stop to admire past successes. For the better part of two decades, Amon Amarth has been the biggest producer of self-styled “Viking metal” in the world, eclipsing many veteran bands playing a similar style and simultaneously outshining every newcomer that has entered their genre. Their latest opus, Surtur Rising, further cements Amon Amarth in their status as the greatest Viking metal group of all time.
As with all previous Amon Amarth albums, the overarching theme of Surtur Rising is drawn from the pages of ancient Norse mythology. The namesake of this album is Surtur, leader of the fire giants from the hellish land of Muspelheim. A fearsome character, Surtur’s might is reflected in the music and production of this album. With even better production values than 2008’s Twilight of the Thunder God, Surtur Rising truly evokes the feeling of marching into battle on an ancient field, with its ultra-crisp drum tones, smoothly punctuated bass lines, and well-placed backing symphonics. These elements give the whole album a very martial feeling, constantly driving forward, with only brief respites such as the instrumental closing to “A Beast Am I”. Coupled with the excellent rhythmic elements, guitarists Johan Söderberg and Olavi Mikkonen continue to impress with their soloing ability, adding tasteful and technical shred to fast songs such as “Destroyer of the Universe”, while contributing spirit and passion on slower songs like “The Last Stand of Frej”. Over the course of Amon Amarth’s last few albums, Söderberg and Mikkonen have shown that their talents are virtually limitless, Surtur Rising being no exception to that trend.
Paired with this exceptional music are the vocal talents of Johan Hegg, one of Sweden’s most distinctive voices and lyricists. Hegg’s deep-throated growls and roars couple together perfectly with the musical elements to bring the images of ancient battle to life, somehow creating the atmosphere of chaos, death, and victory through his vocal intonations alone. The ancient Viking stories of which Hegg sings are vivid and rich, almost beautiful in the detail he gives them. In Hegg’s lyrics, the power of the Norse gods and the scale of the world they ruled is truly conveyed, only serving to make the stories even more realistic. One only needs to read the lyrics to “War of the Gods” to comprehend just how profound and unique Hegg’s storytelling abilities are. Simply stated, he’s among metal’s elite in crafting lyrics based around pre-existing characters and themes, and any lyricist attempting to write in this fashion should study his lyrics first.
Surtur Rising is another momentous album for Amon Amarth, leaving no doubt that they are one of the best metal bands in the world. Critics who said the band couldn’t maintain their output after With Oden on Our Side and Twilight of the Thunder God will be silenced by this exquisite album. With every facet of Amon Amarth’s sound on display in perfect form, Surtur Rising is another testimony to the overabundance of talent in this band. Their sound is inimitable, their lyrics are astounding, and their place among metal’s leading bands is not to be denied.