|3.5 (2 votes):|
Stuck somewhere between a burnout and heartwarming nostalgia
I don’t think there should be much left to say about who Amon Amarth are and how successful they have become over the last 15+ years. But just in case you are one of the chosen few who don’t know who these Swedish vikings are – they’ve been on the forefront of the Scandinavian melodic death metal scene for a long time now, with their music being rooted in traditional death metal, as opposed to the more classic metal-oriented roots of their Gothenburg-counterparts (In Flames, Dark Tranquillity, etc.). With them releasing chart-topping (!) albums in the last few years, Amon Amarth achieved a level of popularity largely unheard of before in the more extreme metal realms.
While their core ingredients have remained pretty similar throughout the years – effective, powerful but still easily decipherable mid-range death metal vocals by the inimitable Johan Hegg, down-tuned tremolo-picked guitar riffs, heavy single-note grooves and prominently melodic leads provided by longtime axe-wielding protagonists Olavi Mikkonen and Johan Söderberg plus a frequent use of predominantly fast-paced & forceful drumming including lots of double-bass passages – the way they are integrated into their modern day presentation is not always on par when compared to earlier incantations of the band. Of course, a band like them would very probably not like to do carbon copies of their early masterpieces over and over again but their stylistic choices have not always been the most immaculate in more recent times…
In my personal view, Amon Amarth have been losing it somewhat since the release of Surtur Rising back in 2011. Up to and including 2008’s Twilight of the Thundergod there’s been a constant streak of songs now considered classics on every single record with hardly a true filler to be found. Back then, they managed to create various climaxes due to the perfect mix of vivid Viking imagery, a classic death metal riff-set more at home in the realms of Bolt Thrower and similar, crawling, steamrolling rhythm guitar-stylings sans sacrificing basic melody, with a bag of tricks providing the “how-to” in terms of epic musical landscape-building, achieved through variable, yet infectious lead guitar hooks and some of the more impressive heavy drumming displayed in a comparatively “accessible” style of death metal. Putting Johan Hegg atop, a moderately brutal, yet powerful, distinctive and likeable vocalist that almost every metalhead could easily be a fan of or at least get accustomed to, finalized the formula.
So if you think I’m repeating myself a little, you are definitely not wrong. Said formula has largely remained the same, but the vintage battle axe does the old chopping-off-heads a little less effectively these days; the most glaring issue can be found in the drumming, which might still be okay by modern standards, but is barely comparable to the driving force of earlier days. Part of this can be traced back to the rather slick, restrained production job – courtesy of Jay Ruston, who’s also been responsible for creations by Killswitch Engage and Stone Sour (even the Freddy Got Fingered – soundtrack was handled by him!) – but I’m afraid that Jocke Wallgreen (who’s been the band’s drummer since 2016) is just not quite the man-machine that Fredik Andersson had proven to be in his almost 20-year stay with the band. Time and subsequent albums may prove me wrong, but so far I’m not impressed. While the man is certainly no amateur, there is a gaudy powerlessness in his delivery that’s never been this noticeable in their music, even though Andersson’s later performances had become more lackluster as well, at least by the end of his tenure. So go ahead, call me a traditionalist, but I want my “Sound of Eight Hooves” back!
Oh and Johan, for the love of Odin, please stop singing cleanly! It sucks. Your repeated attempts at striking the right notes kill off every atmospheric buildup and every emotion that might have poured through my speakers. He’s already been trying to include clean singing on the previous album Jomsviking with similar results, so Johan and I might have differing opinions…
When it comes to describing the guitar and songwriting-meat and potatoes, we might discover another conflict here; you already now that the ingredients have indeed remained stable, but one cannot deny the lack of freshness and creativity in the rhythm guitar department. This is – compared to their classic period – another slap in the face, but to soften the blow a little, Berserker is still more memorable and a little heavier than the last record(s) from this band, resulting in a few glorious moments whose surpluses are either achieved due to the use of more dominant and often harmonized guitar leads or fruitful efforts to shake things up a little. Not too much – it’s still Amon Amarth after all – and yet the introduction of (almost alien to them!) acoustic guitars and piano (totally alien!) in a few places does offer some minor creative enhancements.
It’s very difficult to pick individual highlights here, because the presented songs either suffer from too much repetition (“Crack the Sky”), are too short to develop into proper epics (“Shield Wall”) or include a bunch of weaker/even off-putting sections preventing a thoroughly enjoyable listen (“The Berserker at Stamford Bridge”, “Ironside”). Ditching the most forgettable ones, which are frankly just AA-by-the-numbers and have many prettier siblings on previous records, there’s only two entirely great songs on here that’d find their way on a long-term-playlist of mine: “When Once Again We Can Set Our Sails” and “Into the Dark”. The former succeeds in delivering an all-encompassing mid-era Amon Amarth experience in four and a half-minutes while the second one is the only epic worth the name tag due to its efficient use of crescendo/decrescendo dynamics and smooth experimentation.
Honestly, by now I’m pretty certain that we will never get another thunderous opus like “Where Silent Gods Stand Guard” again, nor do I really expect that they have another sledgehammer in the vein of “Masters of War” in them. But as long as they keep doing what they do, there’ll always be something worth salvaging off their albums because despite my moaning about the shortage of top-tier-workmanship on Berserker, this is still not bad overall and probably fun enough to headbang to in a live environment. Just don’t wait for consistently great results anymore, because they haven’t been able to deliver an entirely satisfying album package since Twilight of the Thundergod.