With this, the the band’s tenth album, Amon Amarth take their penchant for their epic evocations and retelling of the ancient myths and sagas, the feats of bravery and heroism which soak the bloodstained page of their homeland’s history, to next level by producing their first concept album. Based around original stories written by vocalist Johan Hegg, it is rooted in the Norse sagas and legends of the Jomvikings, a legendary company of 10th and 11th Century pagan Viking mercenaries, who reputedly would fight for any lord able to pay their substantial fees.
‘Jomsviking’ is a classic tale of love and (ultimately doomed) revenge, told in retrospect by its unnamed protagonist, who finds the woman he loves married off to another: in his rage, he kills a man and is forced to flee, spending the rest of his life marauding the northlands in the ultimate hope of winning back his love and laying vengeance down upon the man whom he perceives took her from him. It’s a quest which is unfulfilled; but, as Hegg says of tragedies and sad endings, “they’re the ones that affect you the most”.
But, in that statement lies the problem with ‘Jomsviking’. It is, in itself, a quest unfulfilled. A saga lost in translation. Yes, it’s an Amon Amarth album. A good one at that. It has all the usual trademarks of an Amon Amarth album. And these, in themselves, are more than enough to sate the appetite and thirst of even the most hungry and thirsty of their warrior followers. But, it also has many flaws.
The first of these is evident in the opening track, ‘First Kill’: it starts off extremely well, with a strident spoken word intro from Hegg – a theme which is refrained, to varying degress of effectiveness, throughout the album – but quickly shows a flaw. As mentioned at the outset, this is a tale told in retropsect, with our unnamed hero looking back over his life, and how his quest was ultimately doomed to failure: but, while starting off with a suitably remorseful tone, ‘First Kill’ rapidly adopts a triumphalist one, with its narrator revelling in the bloodlust which subsequently fuelled his journey through life, rather than the regret which the subject obviously seeks to express. ‘Wanderer’ is better, with its winding guitar riff reflecting the theme of the song to superb effect, and an anger-fuelled vocal from Hegg which in turn echoes the emotions felt by the lone Viking warrior has he sets out on his requests.
‘On A Sea Of Blood’, however, is a stright-forward battle anthem and strikes with the effectiveness of a wooden sword against a wall of solid iron shields, while ‘One Against All’ is a rousing call to arms, a statement of defiance and single-minded determination. ‘Raise Your Horns’, however, is unfulfilling and a mediocre drinking song, albeit one with a snappy rhythm and a rousing riff from Johan Söderberg and Olavi Mikkonen. ‘The Way Of The Vikings’ is much more like it: a blood-soaked and furious rallying call to arms, very much in the traditional Amon Amarth mien, with an acidic vocal from Hegg, a huge drum sound and a blistering guitar line. But, then comes one of the album’s pivotal moments… one which just wants to make you stand on the nearest rooftop, raise your voice to Valhalla and scream “WHY?’…
‘At Dawn’s First Light’ is taken straight from Iron Maiden’s play book, circa the ‘Number Of The Beast’ album, from Ted Lundström’s Harris-esque rumbling bass line through the NWOBHM style riff and bridge to, most criminally, Hegg’s exact phrasing of the line “At dawn’s first light run for your lives” which is so eerily reminscent of a certain song with a similar lyrical theme… It’s saved only by the DM twist. ‘One Thousand Burning Arrows’ is a complete contrast: a towering, preposerously overblown slice of pure emotion-fuelled passion which barks, bites and snarls while at the same pumping blood through the veins with the desire to fight and die and honour.
‘Vengeance Is My Name’ also displays a fever pitch level of passion that is sadly missing so much of the rest of the album, and earnest and urgent slice of classic AA, from the heart-pounding rhythm through the strident guitar riffs to Hegg’s towering vocal, from which you can almost hear him spitting the blood from between his teeth. ‘A Dream That Cannot Be’ features the Queen of Metal, Doro, on guest vocals, and she perfectly counterpoints Hegg’s dark growling with her clear yet angry delivery as the two lovers around whom the story revolves reach out to each other in their doomed quest to be reunited. ‘Back On Northern Shores’ brings this Viking saga to a suitably epic conclusion, and again contains much of the passion and imagination, coupled with an effective use of light and shade, which helps to illustrate the consistency of the final third of the album, which sadly is missing in its two preceding fractions.
‘Jomsviking’ had the potential to be one of the great heavy metal albums of the decade. Instead, it is merely a good, if above-average one. It also had the potential to be one of the best heavy metal concept albums of all time. Unfortunately, the story which its protagonists have sought to recount has lost a lot of its original passion and pathos in its retelling, with the result being like erasing the Mona Lisa’s smile: a potential masterpiece despoiled.
- ‘Jomsviking’ is released next Friday (25 March) via Sony CMG UK.
First Kill / Wanderer / On A Sea Of Blood / One Against All / Raise Your Horns / The Way Of The Vikings / At Dawn’s First Light / One Thousand Burning Arrows / Vengeance Is My Name / A Dream That Cannot Be / Back On Northern Shores
Recommended listening: The Way Of The Vikings / One Thousand Burning Arrows / A Dream That Cannot Be
Amon Amarth play a series of four very special, intimate launch gigs across Europe, including the Underworld in Camden on Tuesday (22 March). They also play the main stage at Download on Sunday 12 June.