Something different happens in an Amon Amarth pit

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Something different happens in an Amon Amarth pit

Words by Kosa Monteith

Something’s happening in the pit. It’s not the usual metal mosh or crowdsurfing, though that’s definitely a feature of tonight’s set, too.

There are about 50 people sitting on the floor of the Forum, surrounded by a standing crowd that cheers them on, punching the air and screaming. Vocalist Johan Hegg sweeps his arm over the crowd as he growls through ‘Put Your Back Into The Oar’. Led by Johan, the seated crowd rows in unison, miming the Viking longboat propulsion.

It’s one of Amon Amarth’s more theatrical Viking songs. The album recording features the sound of waves and wood creaking while a lonely horn calls across the water, and we hear the distant exhortation: Row! Row! Row!

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There’s something almost camp or kitschy about the fantasy Viking aesthetic that adorns the stage of an Amon Amarth performance, and every album cover: that painted illustration style favoured by both classic metal covers and pulpy high fantasy. For 30 years now, they’ve told stories almost exclusively drawn from Norse history and mythology, from Eddic tales of godly conflict to their 2022 album ‘The Great Heathen Army’, chronicling the 9th century Viking invasion of the British Isles. Tonight’s set opens with ‘Guardians of Asgaard’, the story of Asgaard’s thousand-year resistance to the giants. Drummer Jocke Wallgren plays atop an enormous Viking helm. Olavi Mikkonen is ripping out a melodic guitar solo amidst the chunky death metal bass and rhythm of Ted Lundström and Johan Söderberg. They’re all wearing embossed leather bracers, wearing belts for their drinking horns, showing Norse knotwork tattoos and whipping their long hair.

But Amon Amarth have always resisted the label of ‘Viking Metal’, preferring instead ‘melodic death metal’. To be fair, they tour with non-Viking metal bands more often than not, including this particular performance, supported by Trivium and Malevolence and appearing at Knotfest 2023. Emerging in the early 90s alongside the development of Viking and pagan Black metal genres (including early trailblazers like Bathory), Amon Amarth haven’t leaned as hard into the Scandinavian folk melodies and premodern chant-style of more explicitly Viking bands like Ensiferum and Wardruna. They wear the drinking horns, but haven’t gone for the full-on shamanic costume of Heilung. But they do share the essential characteristics of Norse mythology and history subject matter and a fantastical Viking aesthetic.

So why does Amon Amarth resist the genre label so strongly? It’s a world where we’ve learnt to give the side-eye to a white guy with a Norse tattoo or a Hammer of Thor necklace, Vikings being somewhat co-opted by the Far Right and fascists for their own shitty ends.

Amon Amarth aren’t fascists. They’re not Nazis. Not even Scandi occultists (that way lies Mayhem…) They don’t claim to be honouring the spiritual tradition of a thousand-year racial ancestry. The name? Not Norse. Not even Swedish. It’s Elvish: the name for Tolkien’s Mount Doom.

They’re just pleasant dudes geeking out about fantasy and cool stories. Which is pretty metal.

Historical accuracy is for the most part, irrelevant. Amon Amarth draw us into an imagined Norse world here in The Forum, the frenzy they whip us into is emotive, experiential, ecstatic. Down the front near the stage, you can feel the primal, pounding double-kick drum heartbeat in ‘Shield Wall’, like the smash of weapons against wood. Johan growls out an evocative scene in ‘The Pursuit of Vikings’ – Norse farmers setting off on a raiding expedition when the frost melts in spring, all stormy seas and blood sacrifice. We sing with him and the chorus is a prayer we all shout to Oden.

It’s a theatrical gig, with full-wall backdrops of charging Viking warriors and storm-battered longboats hanging behind the band. It’s a pro-wrestling kind of theatricality (they even recorded ‘Get In The Ring’ as Erick Redbeard’s walk-in song). When someone here holds up a sneaker in the front row and demands Johan do a shoey, he does not dignify it with an answer, but instead sculls from his own Viking horn along with the rest of the band as they play ‘Raise Your Horns’ – and there are a few dedicated fans in the crowd who have brought their own horns to join in.

But they’re still just cutting about on stage in jeans and T-shirts, like most of us. The weirdly formal grandeur of the Forum interior holds a bunch of metalheads playing pretend, tinnies and premixes in-hand. The band don’t hold ‘character’ between songs. They’re just nice guys from Sweden smiling and doing it because it’s fun. This is the kind of pure-hearted geekery for Vikings that is both self aware and perfectly earnest.

It’s worth mentioning they’re also Skaldic as hell. Proper Viking storytellers: the Norse subject matter, repetition, evocative language, cadence. Even the clarity and enunciation of Johan’s growling vocals are a storytelling choice, rather than losing language to incoherent black metal screams or death metal howls. Each song is a full narrative. We’re meant to hear every word in this live rendition of mini sagas, a setlist that follows the journeys of warriors and gods, from blood-soaked berserkers invading Northumberland in ‘Raven’s Flight’ to a furious Loki POV in ‘Deceiver of the Gods’.

Metal supports that kind of epic storytelling. The folk, and even classical, roots of the genre add a little Viking flavour. Trad arrangements and folk harmonies rather than rock blues scale. Little touches like the choral segment of ‘Raise Your Horns’, or ‘The Great Heathen Army’ mixing a heroic melodic riff with mosh-worthy beats. There’s an almost classical musicianship to the quality of this perfectly executed metal performance. Tight and accomplished. Skillful musical complexity. Seriously fucking good.

In 30 years of consistency and professionalism, Amon Amarth have mastered the art of uncontrived fun and absolutely stellar sound entwined with skaldic storytelling. It’s one unburdened by the angst of historical accuracy or spiritual mythologies.

Closing out the show with an encore, Johan and the band return to the stage – he has a prop hammer of Thor gripped in his hand. It’s ‘Twilight Of The Thunder God’, and he howls the tale of Thor as he holds a hammer aloft before a screaming, ale-fuelled horde.

Not Viking Metal. Just Vikings, and metal.

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