Thursday, 12 May 2016

Amon Amarth's 'Jomsviking' - Album Review

Sweden's Amon Amarth are bit like the AC/DC or Status Quo of melodic death metal. Since forming in 1992, the band have released ten albums of high quality melodic death metal anthems that follow an established pattern and theme. This is not a criticism of the band, far from it, as the band have become one of the biggest and most-loved exponents of the genre. It is true though that there has been little deviation in sound or style throughout their career however. Their heavy, Norse-themed anthems are all, on the whole, quite similar. Energy has always been on Amon Amarth's side, and they have managed to keep their sound sounding pretty much fresh throughout. Jomsviking is the band's tenth album, and the first since 2013's Deceiver of the Gods. That was a very well received album, and even cracked into the US Top 20, no mean feat for an album that could be classed as 'extreme metal' by some. Melody has always been a big part of the band's sound however, with the dual lead guitars of Olavi Mikkonen and Johan Söderberg creating plenty of memorable riffs and lead lines, despite frontman Johan Hegg's powerful, demonic growls. Jomsviking builds on the success of Deceiver of the Gods, and could possibly be the band's most melodic and anthemic release yet. It also a concept album, the first in the band's career, which gives the album a very unifying sound and feel. This is one thing that sets Jomsviking apart from much of the band's back catalogue, but another is the striking album art. The usual golden fire, mythological creatures, and Viking lore are conspicuous by their absence; replaced instead by a lone Norseman, standing axe in hand above his defeated foe, against a backdrop of stormy waters and distant Longships. This striking artwork, dominated by the colour blue, really stands out when held next to the other band's in the band's discography and it looks amazing. The music contained within is just as good too. Produced once again by Andy Sneap, this album sounds massive and is extremely well produced. The guitars really stand out, but Hegg's vocals dominate as he barks out those memorable choruses. Jomsviking is the first album since the band's 1998 debut album Once Sent from the Golden Hall not to feature drummer Fredrik Andersson who left the band last year. While no permanent replacement has yet been recruited, a long-time friend of the band Tobias Gustafsson (Vomitory; God Among Insects; Cut Up) played the drums on Jomsviking, and does a sterling job throughout. While this album does not deviate too far from the band's established, winning formula, the concept does give Jomsviking a unique identity, and is sure to be another big success for the band.

Opening number First Kill gets the album off to a very familiar start, with some tight guitar harmonies, before Ted Lundstrom's bass guitar takes over to drive the verses. The song's first verse are something a bit different for the band, with a more downbeat tone lead by the melodic bass riff. Hegg almost speaks the vocals in his deep, gruff voice; but the song really gets going with some tremolo guitar picking and furious drums. The chorus is a real anthem, with some rousing vocal lines that are sure to fill venues for years to come. For a band that uses harsh vocals exclusively, they really do have some powerful, melodic choruses, and this is one of the best. Wanderer follows, and it more of a mid-paced rocker, with a stabbing riff and some methodical, precise drumming. This is another memorable song however, with some really catchy guitar work throughout, but Hegg's vocals dominate with some serious growl. While Amon Amarth are more known for their faster songs, they also excel at these more mid-paced affairs. There is a real power in their slower riffing, and these songs give Hegg real room to breathe. There is an excellent guitar solo in this song too, which is packed full of melody. On a Sea of Blood opens with one of the album's best riffs, and also proceeds to become one of the album's best songs. The speed is back here, with a heavy, Iron Maiden-esque guitar melody to drive the song as Gustafsson shows off his fast footwork. While he will not be the band's drummer full time, he has done them a great favour here with his excellent and varied performance. The song's chorus is a real winner, with more lush guitar harmonies and some really powerful vocals. One Against All opens with a droning riff, and the song continues on in that vibe throughout. The band's two guitarists employ lots of fast picking techniques throughout, which gives the song that droning feel. The notes do not change that often either, which gives the song a unique, and strangely doomy feel. It works well however, and makes the song appear faster than it is. In Raise Your Horns, the band have creates a new live anthem that will no doubt become a staple of their live shows for years to come. The verses have a great chugging quality to them, before the fist-pumping chorus becomes the highlight of the song. This is a definite drinking song, and I foresee many pints being held aloft to this song as that chorus is shouted loud at the top of collective voices. The band have often written catchy pieces like this, and this is another to add to the collection. After a slow start, The Way of Vikings explodes into a real slab of epic metal with plenty of classic NWOBHM swagger. The guitar work throughout the song is excellent, with lots of catchy riffs that create a majestic backdrop of Hegg's snarling, but grand, vocal delivery. The guitar solo is impressive too, starting of slow before becoming a real speed-fest that demonstrates the skills of the band's guitarists.

At Dawn's First Light really pushes the band's obvious Iron Maiden influence into the fore. A lead that could have featured in Hallowed be thy Name is the focus of the song's intro, before the song takes off a break-neck speed, with more excellent drumming from Gustafsson. His drumming really brings the album to life, and is certainly more varied and interesting than Andersson's simpler style. This is another song that is vying to be classed as the album's 'best' moment, and the guitar solo really makes a serious claim on that front. The Iron Maiden-esque lead dominates the chorus which serves as a perfect backdrop of Hegg's inhuman vocals. One Thousand Burning Arrows is another of the band's more mid-paced numbers, and is led by a technical and memorable guitar melody that just lodges in the brain and refuses to budge. A variation of this melody plays throughout the song, with a perfect backing of doomy, ringing rhythm guitar chords and marching drums. The chorus is a little faster, with more tremolo picking, but maintains that mid-paced feel with slow chord changes. Vengeance is my Name is a more standard fare for the band, with a muscular riff driving everything at a fast pace with Hegg's barking vocals whipping up a storm. There are some gang vocal techniques used throughout to powerful effect too, which gives the impression of a horde of Norsemen getting ready for war! The song's chorus is another really catchy one, with cutting guitar leads and extremely memorable vocal lines. A Dream That Cannot Be stands out due to the fact Doro Pesch (Warlock) lends her vocal skills to the song. I believe this is the first time the band have ever used proper clean vocals before (although I might be wrong - I do not own all Amon Amarth albums), and it works surprisingly well. Pesch holds her own against Hegg's growls, and her gritty cleans add another dimension to the band's music. She does not have a 'pretty' voice, which certainty helps, and she is used to singing over heavy music. The duet is strong, and climaxes in a powerful, soaring chorus where both singers shine. The album's final song, the seven minute plus Back on Northern Shores, is easily the most epic moment on the album. The song's mid-paced riffing only enhances this feeling, and Hegg unleashes some of his deepest growls on the album during the verses. Despite the slower pace, a fairly jaunty guitar melody keeps things melodic, before the song's anthemic, slow chorus really lets rip and ensures the album ends on a high note. Overall, Jomsviking is a new high point for Amon Amarth. While they have not introduced many big changes to their well-established sound, they have managed to make a fresh-sounding piece of work that contains many memorable songs. I would not be surprised if this was viewed as a classic of the genre in the future.

The album was released on 25th March 2016 via Metal Blade Records. Below is the band's promotional video for At Dawn's First Light.

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