For those about to Ragnarok, Amon Amarth salutes you.
Over the last two decades, Viking lore and metal music have gone together like mead and a drinking horn. From the days of seminal Swedes Bathory to the adventurous Norwegian black metal of Enslaved, Nordic themes have played a significant role in extreme metal, and still continue to today, and whether a band's approach is reverent (Faroese band Tyr) or cartoonish (Finland's Turisas), that melding of mythology and heavy music is always appealing to listeners. One can see it at shows: some audience members take that Nordic heritage seriously, adopting it as a lifestyle, dressing in traditional garb, while others merely slap warpaint on their faces because they just dig the pure escapism of it all. In addition, when a Viking metal band is able to strongly project that Viking image along with providing some bracing, galloping metal music, well, that's even better.
Of all Viking metal bands, Amon Amarth is easily the most convincing. Musically innovative? Far from it, as their sound is a rather straightforward mélange of old school Swedish death metal and the melodic sensibility of classic 80's metal. Eloquent? Hell no, as their blunt approach to Norse mythology has all the subtlety of a Manowar song. However, they take that musical simplicity and lyrical terseness and sell the helvete out of it, and that alone is the main reason why the Swedish five-piece is consistently one of the most adored live bands in the genre, their North American fanbase growing by leaps and bounds over the last four years.
Despite those strengths onstage, on record Amon Amarth has displayed a tendency to be rather inconsistent from time to time, 2004's mildly enjoyable The Fate of Norns a good example. However, with 2006's strong With Oden on Our Side, it felt like the band had turned the corner, finally delivering the complete package of memorable riffs, robust production, and the kind of strong songwriting people knew they were capable of all along. And with the release of their seventh album Twilight of the Thunder God, it's now safe to say that Amon Amarth is at the top of its game.
As always, the new album's approach is deceptively straightforward, as in that simplicity lies an accessibility that Viking peers like Ensiferum and Equilibrium can't quite equal. It's catchy, it's credible, and more than ever before, it sounds huge, as producer Jens Bogren puts much more emphasis on the bottom end than he did on the comparatively crisp-sounding With Oden on Our Side. Still sharply mixed enough to have those insidious guitar melodies and harmonies prominent, the rhythm guitar riffs sound positively monolithic on the title track, perfect accompaniment for the distinct growl of vocalist Johan Hegg, who roars the tale of Ragnarok, capped off by the contagious chorus of, "Thor! Oden's Son / Protector of Mankind / Ride to meet your fate / Your destiny awaits."
The entire album cruises along confidently, with nary a minute wasted. "Free Will Sacrifice" carries on at a strong mid-tempo pace, but underneath the chugging rhythms are gorgeous, mournful melodies that keep the song grounded. Bogren's beefed-up sound bolsters both "Guardians of Asgaard" and "Where is Your God?", the former shifting from pummelling double-kick beats to more primal tom fills, the latter the band's most blistering exercise in straight-up, brutal death metal to date. "The Hero" is arguably the catchiest song on the record, its arpeggiated intro and melodic central riff straight out of the Arch Enemy school. Amon Amarth has always excelled at battle-themed epics, and this album is no exception, as the stately, wonderfully titled "Tattered Banners and Bloody Flags", has us envisioning legions marching off into battle, while the breakneck pace of "Live For the Kill" is highlighted by a stirring, tremolo-picked melody in the chorus, brilliantly segueing into a terrific guest appearance by Finnish string quartet Apocalyptica, who contribute a simple, elegiac reprise of the same melody before the song kicks into full gear yet again.
On Twilight of the Thunder God Amon Amarth is fully aware of its strengths and resolutely adheres to them, never over-reaching. In addition to Apocalyptica's cameo, Children of Bodom guitarist Roope Latvala contributes a flashy, shredding solo on the title track, while Entombed frontman L.G. Petrov duets with Hegg on "Guardians of Asgaard", but none of the guest musicians overshadow Amon Amarth's music in any way, merely complementing it. On this album, the band sounds like masters of their craft, and in so doing, have given us one of the most rousing metal albums of the year.