Swedish giants Amon Amarth need absolutely no introduction to fans of extreme metal.
As for the rest of you, all you need to know is that they've been around for almost 20 years and have released eight studio albums filled to the brim with music that strikes an incredible balance between melody and brutality, made further superior by the gloriously epic lyrics delivered by frontman Johan Hegg in a manner so crushing that it threatens to bring the planet tumbling down in a heap.
With the release of their latest album, Surtur Rising, last March, a world tour was obviously imminent. But these guys decided to put together something that other bands rarely do: a set list that comprises of the whole new album in its entirety and then another set of older classics, basically an "evening with Amon Amarth" show.
And to make it extra-special, they said they'd do it only in North America. They toured across North America last April for the first leg of this trek, including a memorable performance at the House Of Blues in Hollywood, which I was fortunate enough to witness.
Triggered by the success of that run, a second leg of dates was announced, which has taken them to markets they did not hit first time around. As the band landed at the House Of Blues in Anaheim's Downtown Disney of all places, I got a chance to sit down with guitarist Olavi Mikkonen and talk to him about this tour, the new album, cover songs, the Amon Amarth beer, and other things.
Read the conversation below, and check out the band's official website!
This tour is coming to an end. There are just three more shows after tonight. How has it been treating you?
It's been very good. We're doing basically the same setup as what we did back in April. So it's easy going, and all good!
You must have been used to playing all the songs and I'm sure there was no need to even rehearse.
Not for the first set at least. And for the second set we put in some older songs, stuff like that, so it was kind of easy, too. We had the whole summer off for the first time in 10 years, so we were very well-rested before the tour, and that's why it's been going so good.
I saw the schedule for this tour, and you have been playing night after night with hardly any off days. That must be good and bad, good in the sense you get really used to playing the songs and bad because you don't get a break.
Well, I think we had enough breaks, but it gets boring if you have too many breaks. It's better to keep it rolling. It's better for everybody that way. The sooner you get it done, the sooner you get home (laughs).
This 'evening with' format is being done only for North America. What is the reason behind that? It's a pleasant surprise because we never get any exclusives and it's always Europe that gets the special stuff.
Basically in the end, the idea came up when we couldn't really find any decent support bands and we felt like, let's try something different and something new, and we were like, why not do the new album? The new album is the opening band and then the classic songs is the headliner (laughs). First of all, it kind of took us a few weeks before we really liked the idea. It was only after the April tour, which was probably our best US tour ever.
When you were writing Surtur Rising, you obviously wouldn't have thought that you'd be playing the whole thing. So, how did you react when the idea first came up?
Yeah, of course, first I was kind of scared, but after we rehearsed it, and after the first show in Chicago in April, it was like, yeah this is kind of easy. And now, I think the first set is easier than the second one. It's of course a lot of riffs that you have to remember but since the new album is so fresh and we worked with it for the last one and a half years, in the end it was easy.
For the special edition of the album, you did three cover songs. You did an Accept song ["Balls To The Wall"] and a Kiss song ["War Machine"], and you also did a System of A Down cover ["Aerials"]. Your version of it a very interesting interpretation. Who came up with those ideas?
Basically, we just kind of picked songs that would be fun to play. The Accept song is a classic heavy metal anthem and probably one of the best heavy metal songs, and we are all huge Accept fans. Accept were very big in the '80s in Sweden compared to the US.
For us, they are very close to our hearts, so that was kind of an easy pick. And then Kiss is probably one of my favorite bands and that's what I grew up on when I was a kid. We thought of doing may be "God Of Thunder" first, but too many bands have already done it, so we thought "War Machine" would be a cool song. And then System Of A Down, we just thought it would be a fun idea. Some people say that we always sound the same, we always do the same thing, so we thought we should throw in a surprise that nobody would expect (laughs).
The thing about special editions these days is, it's not even a surprise because bands are pretty much required to do it to be able to sell albums. What do you say about that? It's almost as if the special edition is the regular edition, and the regular edition is the bad one.
Yeah, you are totally right! But that's the way it is today. I'm not the record label. I'm just in the band. But I understand that record labels need to do whatever they can to sell albums, and that's the way to sell albums, to not only put in more musical stuff but also other stuff. Like we did the Surtur action figure, and of course that's not for everybody but there's always going to be some people who like that kind of stuff, and I think that's the way to have the fans buy the album instead of downloading for free.
In your opinion, how did you feel about the musical direction on this album? I feel that it's interesting in the sense that there is a lot of melody, probably more than before, which is a good thing.
Yeah the funny thing is that when we started writing the album, we kind of wanted to make a more brutal album, more of a step backwards. But it ended up to be another step toward more melodic (laughs). But, you know, we don't really sit down and talk that the next album is going to be like this or that. We just write what comes up, and I think the melodic part was what we grew up with when we were kids, like Maiden, Accept, Priest and we kind of wanted to include that into our music. So I guess that's the way it came about.
After this tour, what plans do you guys have? As you were saying, you had the whole summer off, so you must be gearing up for a lot of touring in the near future.
Yes, definitely. We're going to have one month off after this tour, and then we're going to do two months in Europe. Then we're going to have a month off, and then we're going to continue touring, touring and then we'll be busy next summer. Then we'll see what's going to happen. But from now on we have touring scheduled for one year.
You must be knowing about the Amon Amarth beer that just got introduced. It's pretty exciting and it fits very well with the band's image. I'm glad that they chose beer as the product to put the Amon Amarth name on. How do you feel about that?
Yeah, I think it's a very nice beer and if you like Porter, you will definitely like it. It's a very strong one and it kind of has a honey touch to it. So yeah, it's an amazing beer and I hope that it will be easier to get because it seems like a small brewery and it's quite difficult to actually find it. But the ones who find it, they are probably going to be very happy.
I think you should sell it at the shows. It would be the perfect piece of merchandise.
Yeah, and I think it would be quite illegal too, I don't know. But we have the buses packed with them so that's where you can find them (laughs).
Coming back to Surtur Rising, you're obviously playing the whole thing but what's your favorite live song from it, if you had to pick one?
I like "Destroyer Of The Universe" and "Slaves Of Fear." Those are fun to play live. Even "Doom Over Dead Man" is quite fun to play. "Wrath Of The Norsemen" is also fun. I think they are all fun (laughs). It's really hard to pick. Usually the faster songs are the fun songs to play.
People often brand Amon Amarth as a viking metal band. You don't dress up as vikings on stage, and I don't see you as a viking metal band. What do you have to say about that?
I don't know, I'm not sure if I agree with you. To me, obviously we play metal and our lyrics are about vikings, and our imagery when it comes to t-shirts and album covers is viking. So to me it kind of makes sense, but of course if you look at viking metal and you think about the pagan thing and the folk music, of course we are not even close musically to that. So, I don't know. If people want to call us viking metal, or if they want to call us death metal, or just metal, I'm fine with it. To me we are Amon Amarth, and that's it.
Andrew is a Los Angeles-based writer who has been running his own website, Metal Assault, since early 2010, and has been prolific in covering the hard rock and heavy metal scene by posting interviews, reviews and pictures on his website -- with the help of a small group of people. Besides being hugely passionate about heavy metal, he is an avid follower of jazz music and recently started a blog called Jazz Explorer to pursue that interest.