Twilight of the emo gods
Amon Amarth pushes the Valhallan threshold
Named for Mount Doom in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings saga, Amon Amarth is one of Sweden’s preeminent death metal bands. As melodic as it is brutal in their musical methods, berserker vocalist Johan Hegg, guitarists Olavi Mikkonen and Johan Söderberg, bassist Ted Lundström and drummer Fredrik Andersson have forged eight full-length releases since the forging of their frostbitten coalition in 1992.
Intermeshing dark funereal themes with lightning quick riffery and thundering percussion, the so-called Viking metal act has become synonymous with horned-helmets and vicious blade-work thanks to Ragnaröking albums such as With Oden on Our Side (2006) and Twilight of the Thunder Gods (2008). Echoing their ordained "loot-and-pillage" motif, Amon Amarth’s 2011 release on the infamous Metal Blade, Surtur Rising, features pagan-friendly cuts such as "War of the Gods," "The Last Stand of Frej” and "Wrath of the Norsemen," effectively capturing the visceral vehemence and quick-fingered prowess of this enigmatic and galvanizing entity.
Bassist and founding member Ted Lundstrom pauses mid-tour to reflect on Amon Amarth’s mythical past and the uncertainty of navigating the Middle-Earthean path laid out before them.
Interviewer Christine Leonard-Cripps: Casting back to your band’s formative years, how difficult was it to distinguish Amon Amarth from the other “metal” bands who were emerging from Sweden at that time?
Ted Lundstrom: Since we were from Stockholm playing something sounding more like a Gothenburg-style, we never really had to compete with the other bands from our area and at the same time we never sounded too much like the Gothenburg bands anyway...
But as a new band people and press like to label you sounding like this and that and it took a couple of years until people started to say we actually had our own style. I guess you have to reach a level before you stop getting compared to other bands and getting other bands compared to you.
CLC: Why do you think Sweden has become such a Mecca for heavy metal music? Is it something to do with the cultural climate, the physical geography or simply the ability of the individual citizen to pursue their “dream careers”?
TL: Yes, yes and yes. I think there are as many reasons as there are interview victims. One of the reasons we are playing as a band is probably because it was very easy to start a band in our neighbourhood, we had a youth place where we could borrow instruments and get help from experienced people to get started. Later we also could get rehearsal room and studio time at a very reasonable cost. Where the quality comes from is harder to explain though.
CLC: How did you initially determine what your sound would be, what themes or ideas informed your artistic direction?
TL: We just took inspiration from all the music we listened to and tried to make something we enjoyed ourselves. Black metal was on the uprising at the moment but Satanism was not really our thing so we decided to go towards Vikings and battles instead, I think Johan’s big interest in Norse mythology and my interest in fantasy gave us a little kick in the right direction.” Of the eight studio albums in Amon Amarth’s impressive discography which stand(s) out as your personal favourite(s)? “I like the last three albums best, they are a step up production wise and the songwriting is more mature and homogenic. I still love the old albums; they all have a special place in our hearts.
CLC: Is there a particular album or performance that you believed changed the future of the band?
TL: We’ve had a quite slow and steady growth as a band but I think Versus the World gave us a big push in Europe and in North America Fate of Norns was the album that started something bigger. We also had a north American tour together with Children of Bodom and Trivium in 2005 that was an important step for us.
CLC: How important is it to you to produce music that has meaning beyond the sheer physical enjoyment of listening to one of your songs? In other words, how do you balance intellectual substance with sheer emotional power?
TL: Our music is written as a concept in a way, of course the music is the most important part but we want everything to be a unit. We spend a lot of time to get music, lyrics and also album cover art to fit each other. I think this is something we have from the time we where young and listened to heavy metal vinyl albums. You could spend hours looking for cool details on the latest Iron maiden cover, reading every lyric over and over again, this is something that I miss with downloaded music and also CDs.”
CLC: Which comes first the lyrics or the music? Do you use any musical instruments or techniques that might be considered unusual for “heavy metal” bands?
TL: It could be either way, sometimes we start with some phrases written by Johan and start building the song and other times we might have a full song written and we try to get a feeling of what the lyrics should be about. I would love to say that we’re using old instruments made of reindeer hides but we’re just an old school rock’n’roll band playing guitars and drums.
CLC: How mindful are you of past accomplishments, releases, collaborations when you are penning new songs? Are you ever concerned with repeating yourself? What’s more important – breaking new ground to keep yourselves interested or representing the quintessential Amon Amarth sound and preserving its legacy?
TL: It’s tricky to keep everybody happy, no matter what you do some people will love it and some will hate it. After twenty years as a band we have fans of our older stuff and we have newer fans that prefer the last couple of albums, but in the end we as a band have to be happy with the songs otherwise it would never work.
CLC: What motivates you when you’re going on stage, on tour, or stepping in the studio?
TL: At a live concert it is the energy you get from the audience that is the motivation, we love to play live. when it comes to the studio it is all about making something better than the last time, better production, better songs. You work hard in the studio for weeks or months and when everything falls into place and you can hear the final product it is a great reward.”
CLC: Any advice (including guidelines for looting and/or pillaging) for the up-and-comers who want to thunder like Amon Amarth?
TL: Just listen to your own heart and have fun along the way. We’ve played together for almost twenty years now and we have had up’s and down’s along the way but there is nothing I regret.
By Christine Leonard-Cripps
Originally published August 4, 2011 in Fast Forward Magazine