Since their formation in the early '90s, the monumental death metal of Sweden's Amon Amarth has leaned heavily toward Norse mythology and history, making them key players in the "Viking Metal" subgenre. The band doesn't actually apply that tag to themselves, but they're usually the first name that springs to mind when you think of viking-themed death metal. Their crushing but melodic anthems capture the fury of the gods and grew them a huge and loyal following. The band's eighth album Surtur Rising not only boasts one of the awesomest cover images of the year (it totally makes we want to buy a '70s van just to have it airbrushed on the side), it's also a feast of world-destroying metal on par with the band's career-defining 2008 release Twilight of the Thunder God. Read on for the full breakdown...
The album's subject, the evil Norse fire giant Surtur – who hails from Muspelheim, the land of flame – already sounds like the ultimate icon of badassery: legend has it that his sword of eternal flame will give him the power to destroy the mythical Nine Worlds. "It was a cool story and character," says frontman Johan Hegg, "and one we knew we could write a really brutal song around." Well, they managed to do a lot more: in its depiction of the clash between Surtur and the god Frej, the entire album calls to mind images of mighty war gods charging headlong into apocalyptic battle with giant swords and axes swinging.
To achieve that larger-than-life fury, the band decided on "a harder, tougher sound," Hegg explained. "It was one of the main things we had discussed before going into the studio. We thought we needed to be a bit more aggressive and rougher than the previous two [albums]." I'd say they nailed that: the overall feel of the album is a little darker and more intense than Thunder God (which is saying a lot), with a faster pace and more intricate leads – but it's still essentially a continuation of that record, never straying far from the band's recognizable style of melodic death metal. If anything sets this one apart from its predecessor, it's the production quality, which is their cleanest to date.
"War of the Gods" sets the stage for the epic clash between Surtur and Frej (the god of peace and fertility), and it's a perfect cut to lead the charge, blending old-school metal riffs and solos from guitarists Olavi Mikkonen & Johan Söderberg with Fredrik Andersson's thrashy blastbeats, beneath Hegg's feral growls. The ominous mid-tempo track "Tock's Taunt – Loke's Treachery Part II" is a sequel to "Hemrod's Ride to Hel" from the 2006 release With Oden On Our Side, this time focusing on the mischievous god Loke carrying out his rebellious plans (according to Hegg, this is the moment "When he totally told the gods to go fuck off"), although it's less aggressive than you might expect. But don't worry... the slamming anthem "Destroyer of the Universe" is completely ferocious: this one is basically Surtur's theme song, carried on a straight-up hurricane of high-speed riffs, powerful drumming and manic neck-tapping leads.
The intensity takes another dip for the moody "Slaves of Fear," but think of it as a breather before the massively heavy "Live Without Regrets," which of all the tracks is tied in closest to the sound and feel of Thunder God, with all of the band's strengths coming into play. "The Last Stand of Frej" is the thematic flipside to "Destroyer of the Universe," describing the apocalyptic battle from the perspective of Surtur's foe – which explains the undertone of grim sadness, with deep dirge riffs and trudging tempo. "For Victory or Death" features a bright-sounding lead guitar, backing synth strings and some moments of teeth-gnashing riffage, and "Wrath of the Norsemen" is driven by a steady, pulsating rhythm underpinning a tale of blood and horror.
The album climaxes with two of its strongest tracks: "A Beast Am I" is perfectly titled, opening with a monstrous roar from Hegg and never letting up. It's simple but totally effective, and a perfect balance of classic and modern metal elements. A clean, subdued instrumental ballad transitions into "Doom Over Dead Man," which continues on the same mighty symphonic path to bring the journey to a cinematic conclusion.
Surtur Rising is definitely one for the band's fans, who spent the last few years craving more of the same ferocious death metal and Norse themes. Those less familiar with their style might want to pick up Thunder God first, because the two records fit very well together to represent their strongest work. Of course, if you're not into the vocal style (the metal universe will always be split on that topic), it's not likely Amon Amarth will change your mind... but in their genre, they're at the head of the class.