REVIEW: AMON AMARTH – “Berserker”
You cannot talk about Viking metal without namedropping Amon Amarth, the Lord of The Rings named Swedes have become the poster-children for Norse mythos-themed melodic death metal with their eleven full-length records, and are the benchmark against which all other “Viking” metal is judged. And the Odin-sons are back in 2019 with their latest offering, the simply titled Berserker.
Part of the appeal of any Amon Amarth record is the album name, and Berserker isn’t an exception. In Norse mythology, the top god Odin and the God of War, Tyr, picked the bravest and meanest warriors in human battles to possess and imbue with their godlike battle-moxxy dubbing them the Berserker. The fans of Viking mythos will not be disappointed with many of the song titles on Berserker either, opener, Fafner’s Gold based off the legendary dragon guarding a dwarven treasure horde, only to be slain by Sigurd, a story often cited as one of the major influences for Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Skoll and Hati is based on the cosmic wolves that are said to keep the sun and moon in motion around the earth, and their catching up and eating the Sun will signal the beginning of the end, Ragnarok! Other song titles made popular by pop culture are Valkyria and Mjölner, Hammer of Thor, neither of which need any explanation.
The music on Berserker is surprisingly and unexpectedly, different. Many have accused Amon Amarth of running the genre tropes into the ground, and they have taken that feedback to heart, attempting to innovate as much as they can within an extremely confined subgenre. The opener, Fafner’s Gold kicks off with an almost classical-infused acoustic section, an almost unheard-of asset in the Amon Amarth catalog, and immediately indicates to listeners that this isn’t going to be like any other record. It is one of the more quicker paced tracks on the record and one which will be oft-returned to, a well-placed opener. Other tracks will catch you completely off-guard; anvil-strike opening Mjolner, Hammer of Thor sounds like a souped-up Iron Maiden track with the dueling melodies and soaring upbeat leads, albeit with the trademark Amon Amarth growls. In contrast, Mjolner also has among the heaviest chug-riffs before leading right back into Maiden territory, a real rollercoaster. The track Crack The Sky has the closest opening riff to The Pursuit of Vikings pump, that we get on Berserker, and Valkyria sounds like At the Gates worship in the best possible way. Overall, Berserker decidedly takes on a more steady-paced even-handed approach for most of its runtime, which will divide audiences expecting whirlwind-headbanging riffs in every song. This isn’t to say that there aren’t catchy sections to be found on Berserker. Within the first listen, it will be nigh impossible to not chant “VIKINGS! RAISE THE SHIELD WALL, HOLD THE FRONT LINE, FIGHT TILL DEATH!”, and will be a live staple for years to come.
There are more curveballs on Berserker than expected tropes. Slow acoustic passages, NWOBHM era dueling riffs/solos and throwing in mid-paced tracks proves that Amon Amarth are not trying to write the fifth Twilight of the Thunder God. Album closer Into The Dark opens with a multi-string ensemble which is a breath of fresh air, and a perfect way to end a record aiming to break new ground. This is high praise for a band having a nearly rock-solid lineup for the entirety of their discography. Guitarists Olavi Mikkonen and Johan Söderberg are firing on all cylinders on Berserker with riffs aplenty, slow chugs, victorious solos, and a surprise ever so often. The guitar tones and mix are masterful, giving the riffs, solos, and harmonies their independence yet keeping the entire sound cohesive. Truly standout in Berserker’s mix is the bass. Never has the Amon Amarth low-end been this chunky and well-defined in the mix, and bassist Ted Lundström is determined to not be left to hide behind the guitar duels. Vocalist and Viking-extraordinaire Johann Hegg does what he does best, and is one of those most dependable vocalists in the business, and will never cease to raise the battle-cry among fans and newcomers alike.
There is a price to pay for moving off the beaten path, and Berserker is not without its own faults. Right off the bat, the album title leads listeners to believe that Amon Amarth will push the heavy to eleven, and the step towards more innovative sections is almost disappointing. Tracks like The Berserker at Stamford Bridge attempt to tell a historically significant story, but the sound veers too far away from the tried-and-true formula, and falls short of living up to its name. The drums are passable, but never remarkable and are mixed in a relatively lackluster way too.
Amon Amarth tried something different with Berserker, and have successfully proven that they aren’t one-trick ponies, but many-legged Sleipnirs. Fans expecting another rehash of Versus the World or With Oden On Our Side will be sorely disappointed, but a band not moving forward is standing still!