Wrath Of The Norsemen

10 April 2012 | 7:00 am | Mark Hebblewhite

“In these myths the fire giant Surtr helps to bring about Ragnarok – the events that lead to the end of the world."

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“Surtr is a figure in Norse mythology,” explains Amon Amarth guitarist Johan Söderburg as he breaks down the raison d'etre behind the moniker for Amon Amarth's eighth studio album, Surtur Rising. “In these myths the fire giant Surtr helps to bring about Ragnarok – the events that lead to the end of the world. He also fights and kills the god Freyr in the final conflict. He's pretty badass.”

No unicorns here people, just giants and gods wielding big swords and even bigger battle-axes as they gleefully fight their way through chaos, destruction and rivers of flowing mead. Dude – metal!

Although Viking metal (a concept that doesn't really require any explanation) originated with the likes of Swedish black metal master Bathory and Johnny Hedlund's ravaging death metal hoard (also known as Unleashed), it's Amon Amarth who took the genre to the next level. Despite taking their name from Tolkien's Lord Of The Rings (Amon Amarth is the Elvish name for Mount Doom aka the big fuck off volcano Frodo is trying to reach in order to destroy the one ring) it's been strictly tales of pissed off Norsemen for the quartet ever since they recorded their Thor Arise demo way back in 1993. Hey, when you're on a good thing – stick to it.

“We don't see this as a gimmick or anything, Johan [Hegg] our vocalist writes about what interests him,” reveals Söderburg, who graciously answers the obligatory 'Viking' question the band has probably been asked, oh, 200 million times already, with relative good cheer. “The Viking period is a fascinating part of our country's history and there's so much to explore so we do it. It's that simple really – if we didn't enjoy it we'd stop writing about Vikings and go find something else.”

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While intrinsic to the band's identity, tales of big swords and bushy beards aren't the totality of Amon Amarth's appeal. This band churns out quality melodic death metal that somehow retains its brutality while also offering memorable hooks and choruses that are stuck in your head for months. And while early classics such as 1998 debut album Once Sent From The Golden Hall hold a special place in the hearts of long-time fans, it's the band's recent output, beginning with 2006's With Odin On Our Side that has really taken Amon Amarth to the next level. Not only did the album represent the band's first appearance in the Billboard charts, it also heralded a fertile creative period that continues to this day.

“That album definitely represents a shift for us because it was the first time we recorded an album at Fascination Street studios and even more importantly the first time we worked with Jens Bergen,” says Söderburg. “Before this we used to produce the albums ourselves – which was okay – but Jens definitely helped us make our records sound better.

“There are great songs on the older records, especially on Fate Of Norns which has songs like The Pursuit Of Vikings and An Ancient Sign Of Coming Storm – which are fan favourites. But working with Jens takes the pressure off and means that we can focus on making sure the albums sounded like we want them to.”

Indeed the group's latest effort Surtur Rising sounds enormous – a clarion call of scything Swedeath that will make you think that a Viking horde has just crashed through your living room. But there are noticeable differences from Amon Amarth's last album, Twilight Of The Thunder God. Whereas Twilight… featured a number of 'instant singles' including the catchy as hell title track, the massive stomp of Guardians Of Asgaard and the cello infused Live For The Kill, Surtur Rising doesn't boast an instant head turner. Gone are the flashier moments of Twilight…, replaced by a more cohesive, heads down death metal assault. Was this a conscious choice, perhaps a reaction against the decidedly 'commercial' flavour of Twilight Of The Thunder God?

“I don't completely agree with way of describing the album,” says Söderburg after a lengthy pause. “I see what you mean by saying that there are no obvious singles on this album, but I don't think that the direction of the songwriting is that different from Twilight.... Our music is death metal, but at the same time we all grew up on traditional heavy metal like Judas Priest and Iron Maiden and those influences are definitely on all our albums. We didn't sit down and write Surtur Rising by doing anything particularly different to what we've done before. I think the album is a natural progression from Twilight…. We're not a band that changes greatly between records and I think our fans like that about us. They know that when they buy an Amon Amarth record it's going to be solid heavy metal – and that's definitely what Surtur Rising is. I will say though that when we finished and were listening back to the songs, we were happy at how the album flowed together – so on that point I would agree with you.”

Amon Amarth are now frequent visitors to our shores, having played multiple times here over the last few years. One would think that for a bunch of Swedes, visiting Australia would be a complete cultural inversion, but Söderburg takes it all in his stride.

“People always think that we would find Australia a completely alien place because of how faraway it is from Sweden and how different the weather is,” he laughs. “But really, like America and Western Europe, Australia isn't particular exotic for us – although we love coming down there because you have great beer. It's when the band goes to places like India that we really open our eyes and feel that we're in a place nothing like where we come from. But at the same time Indian metalheads are just like metal people from anywhere else in the world – they like to hear good riffs and good songs. It doesn't matter that we come from a completely different culture and sing about things that have never affected their country. We've found that wherever we go, whether it be France, Australia or India, metal fans like to hear songs about Vikings. It's pretty universal really.”