“If you have heavy, fast music, you can’t sing about flowers and flutes, you know?”
Olavi Mikkonen, guitarist for Amon Amarth, is at a tour stop in Dallas and explaining to Guitar World exactly why it is his group of Swedish musical marauders have, for more than 20 years now, served as metal’s premiere Viking enthusiasts. In fact, across 10 full-length albums, including the new Jomsviking, the band has rarely—if ever—strayed from belting out epic tales of gods and men, all of it steeped in detailed Norse mythology. “It’s just cool stuff,” Mikkonen continues. “Like when you watch a movie like Gladiator or Braveheart. I mean, fucking brutal battlefields, people swinging swords, I don’t know…”
Mikkonen trails off, and co-guitarist Johan Söderberg finishes his thought. “It’s very hard to go wrong when you mix that with metal,” he explains.
Indeed, this type of warrior-folklore approach to lyrics would seem to be a perfect fit for heavy music, in particular music as grandiose and anthemic as Amon Amarth’s. Though the band began life as something of a more straightforward death metal act, with pummeling double-bass drumming, blurry, tremolo-picked riffs and bearded behemoth Johan Hegg’s deep, gurgled vocals, over time they’ve slowed the tempos, increased the melodic content and beefed up the bottom end, not mention added plenty of hooks, to boot. In the process they’ve forged a singular style in today’s heavy music world—a hybrid of extreme and classic metal that’s fist pumping, aggressive and catchy as all hell.
The new Jomsviking is perhaps the best and most refined example yet of their sound. From the twin-guitar harmony lines that run through the groove-heavy “Wanderer,” to the anthemic, almost sing-song-y “Raise Your Horns” (a Viking drinking song of sorts) to the power-metal–esque “A Dream That Cannot Be,” which finds Hegg duetting with legendary Warlock vocalist Doro Pesch, the effort is a brutally heavy and unusually engaging romp that is almost cinematic in scope. Which makes perfect sense, given that Jomsviking is also a concept album.
And while it would be easy (and not entirely off the mark) to think of Amon Amarth’s entire recorded output as conceptual, Jomsviking marks the first time the band has actually presented a story across a full effort. Which, according to the guitarists, also wound up influencing the music. “Since it’s a concept album we wanted to make it more atmospheric and more epic-sounding,” Söderberg says.
“So we talked about how to make the melodies stand out more,” Mikkonen explains. “We probably did less of the fast alternate picking, and we put even greater emphasis on things like twin harmonies. Like on the chorus of ‘At Dawn’s First Light,’ where you have the twin thing going on in the background, but also in the front you have this lead part that’s the same melody as the vocal. We were trying to really focus in on those types of things.”
“At Dawn’s First Light” also serves as a good example of Amon Amarth’s increased embrace of traditional metal elements. It’s a characteristic of the band that began to rear its head in earnest around the time of their fourth full length, 2002’s Versus the World, and that has become only more pronounced in subsequent years. The tune is propelled forward on a positively Maiden-esque gallop (with the round, bluesy tone on the harmony solo recalling the work of that band’s Dave Murray and Adrian Smith), while the verse guitar riff conjures Black Sabbath’s “Children of the Grave”—a song that, it should be noted, Amon Amarth have also covered in the past. At the same time, the pounding drums and harsh, growled vocals keep the music firmly rooted in modern melodic death metal.
For Amon Amarth, this sort of hybrid style was just a natural progression. “Both Johan and I grew up listening to classic metal, and maybe it makes sense that we’re going back toward those roots,” Mikkonen states. “For me, I grew with traditional heavy metal like Maiden and Priest. Then I discovered heavier and faster music like Slayer, and from there I went to death metal. Now I’m going back to more heavy metal again. But it definitely hasn’t been intentional. I don’t say, ‘Okay, now I’m going to make an Iron Maiden or Judas Priest riff.’ It’s more like, you just write the riffs you like.”
That embrace of a more classic metal sound can be heard in Mikkonen and Söderberg’s lead playing, as well. Whereas many death-metal–style guitarists tend to place a premium on speed and scales, the two Amon Amarth men often choose to slow things down, employing their leads as a means to bolster or build upon vocal melodies or other hooks, and then adding a bit of flash or harmony playing when appropriate. “Both myself and Olavi, we’re not really shredders,” Söderberg says. “We think the solo should just add a little melody to the song. It shouldn’t just be for shredding scales up and down the fretboard.”
Adds Mikkonen, “For me it was never about the lead players anyway. I’ve always been into songwriters. Like, I think Jeff Hanneman is probably the most amazing songwriter ever. That’s where I get my passion for playing guitar.”
Of course, as much as Amon Amarth is about guitars, the band is equally known for Hegg’s vocals and epic lyrics. On Jomsviking, the singer was responsible for coming up with the concept and storyline. “We had been talking about what to do for our next album, and I had been writing a script for a story,” Hegg explains. “So I said, ‘Listen, I’m working on this thing and this is where I’m going with it. We could base the whole record on this and make it into a concept album and do something a little different than we normally do. And everyone thought it could be a fun thing to try. It sounded like a good challenge.”
As for the actual plot?
“It’s a fairly simple story, really,” Hegg continues. “It’s about a young man who’s in love with a girl that’s being married off, so he tries to kidnap her so they can run away together. But in doing so they get caught, and he winds up killing another man. He becomes an outlaw, an outcast, and has to run for his life. And on his journey he comes across a legendary group of Viking mercenaries called the jomsvikings. He joins up with them, and through becoming a jomsviking he gets the chance to come back to his native land in the hopes of winning back his true love.” Hegg laughs. “Unfortunately, it doesn’t really end well for our little hero there. So it’s not a particularly happy story!”
For Hegg, the appeal of these types of stories dates back to his childhood. “I think it started when I was a kid,” he says. “I liked the historical aspects of the Viking stuff. So I started reading up on legends and sagas and all these things. And you know, there’s so much that’s not really known about Vikings. They’re always portrayed as being kind of barbarians, but when you look at their culture it’s extremely rich in art and all this other stuff as well. Vikings were exceptionally skilled warriors, but they were also craftsmen and sailors and traders. And they were adventurous types, sailing across oceans in no more than open dinghies, basically. Which is just insane! Who would do that today? But they did it. Vikings were exceptional people in exceptionally harsh times. That mentality and personality really appeals to me. And lyrically I think there’s a lot of good stuff in there.”
It should be noted, however, that while every Amon Amarth album, beginning with their 1998 full-length debut, Once Sent from the Golden Hall, has been centered around Viking themes, this has not been the band’s focus since day one. Amon Amarth has its roots in another Swedish group, Scum, which featured Mikkonen on guitar; that band, which formed in the late Eighties, is today often classified as having played grindcore, though, according to Mikkonen, “I don’t know if it was that.” He laughs. “I guess we tried to play grindcore. But we were just, you know, fucking kids writing about the normal nonsense—gore, death, probably Satan. There was no bigger plan than to drink some beers and have fun in the rehearsal room.”
Scum disbanded in the early Nineties, and in 1992 Mikkonen, Hegg and current bassist Ted Lundström reformed with other musicians as Amon Amarth. They took their new moniker from the name of a volcano, Mount Doom, in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings saga (in Tolkien’s invented language of Sindarin, “Amon Amarth” translates to “mountain of fate,” another name for the volcano). In those very early days, the band was heavily influenced by death metal—Mikkonen points to Chuck Schuldiner’s trailblazing band Death as a huge inspiration—and their subject matter followed accordingly.
“It was just generic crap, really,” Hegg says with a laugh. “The stuff you write when you’re a kid and you think you’re doing something cool, but you look back on it and realize it was lame. I think I had one song about the environment, and something else was kind of political—how we’re destroying the world and all that shit. Which is something I do feel strongly about. But I guess it came to the point where we figured out, ‘This is not what we want to do.’ And I wasn’t really good at writing those lyrics anyway. I’m much more of a storyteller.”
Continues Mikkonen, “Johan, after a while he didn’t really feel comfortable with it. He wanted to write about stuff he truly believed in and that he was interested in. And he was really into the Viking stuff already, and had been since he was a kid, so he started writing lyrics about that. And Ted and I thought it was really cool because it was different. So from then on it was, ‘This is what we’re doing.’ ”
It’s what Amon Amarth have been doing ever since. So much so, in fact, that the band is commonly classified as “Viking Metal,” a genre tag that Hegg has in past interviews seemed less than thrilled about being saddled with. But, he says, that’s not exactly the case.
“That’s a complete misconception, really,” he says. “It’s not that I’m not happy about [being called Viking Metal], it’s just that I think it’s weird! Because I always found it strange that with us they’re basing it on the lyrics and not the music. If you’re going to label music based on the words alone, then it’s like, ‘Okay, Black Sabbath is Viking Metal. Led Zeppelin is Viking Metal. Iron Maiden is Viking Metal.’ Because all these diverse bands have written stuff about Vikings. But they sound nothing alike.”
Mikkonen, for his part, is more accepting of the designation. “Look,” he says, “our songs are about Vikings. Our T-shirts have Vikings. Our album covers show Vikings. The whole band is about Vikings! And we play metal. So to me, Viking Metal makes total sense.”
These days, the Viking theme is something the band continues to push to even greater heights. As their popularity has grown—Jomsviking debuted in the Top 20 on the Billboard album charts, a rarity for such an extreme band—Amon Amarth have been playing to bigger crowds and on bigger stages, and have adapted accordingly. Along with plenty of pyro, their set has, at various times, featured massive smoke-breathing dragon heads and a longboat that extends out from the center of the stage.
For their current Jomsviking tour, Hegg says, “We have the biggest production we’ve ever had in America. It’s a huge fucking Viking helmet and the drums are on top of it. Then we have some Vikings onstage. It’s just more theatrical all around.”
And Hegg even joins in on the theatrics, whether swinging a massive hammer that resembles Thor’s Mjölnir at the beginning of the song ‘Twilight of the Thunder God,’ or taking hearty swigs from a “drinking horn” fastened to his belt. (He also sells these horns, along with helmets, mail shirts, hand-forged utensils, beard rings, Beserker’s axes and other Viking essentials, through the online store he’s a partner in, Grimfrost). As for what’s in his drinking horn? “Usually it’s Guinness,” Hegg reveals. “That or any sort of stout is good beer for me to drink onstage—anything that doesn’t have a lot of carbonation.” He laughs. “Otherwise I’d be burping into the microphone all night!”
Regarding their over-the-top stage show, Mikkonen says, “It’s cooler to have a performance that’s not just us standing there playing our instruments.” It’s another piece of inspiration he takes from the classic bands. “When I was a kid and I saw Kiss or Iron Maiden, it was not only about the songs, it was about the whole live experience,” he continues. “When Eddie came onstage? When Gene Simmons spit fire? That was fucking amazing! And that’s the way we think. Because sometimes bands today are too serious. It’s about having fun!”
The idea of fun is at the heart of what Amon Amarth does. While the band’s image, sound and subject matter can lead to them coming off as overly serious, they stress that there’s always some humor to be found within all the tales of pillaging and plundering. Take the video for “At Dawn’s First Light,” a high-concept, big-budget clip depicting a fierce Viking battle, with plenty of blood, guts and beheadings. Smack in the middle of all the carnage stand the band members, performing the song as if nothing is going on around them. Eventually they themselves get brutalized, with arrows shot into their torsos and axes lodged in their guitars. And yet, they play on.
“We just wanted the band to have more of an acting part in the video,” explains Söderberg. “Because in the past we usually just play in the background.”
“But we didn’t really act!” Mikkonen chimes in, laughing. “We’re just standing there…trying to do everything we can to finish the song.”
“The video, it’s supposed to be joking a little bit about who we are and how we portray ourselves,” Hegg explains, acknowledging the fact that Amon Amarth are big, bearded men singing songs about other big, bearded men, all the while playing bludgeoning heavy metal. “But really, we’re just normal guys, you know?”