If you look up Viking-themed metal, you get slapped with pages upon pages of content related to the Swedes in Amon Amarth. A twenty-five-year and twelve-album career later, they remain the poster children of the subgenre, and the standard against every other Viking-themed melodic metal band that came after. Well, they’re back, this time as The Great Heathen Army.
Anyone who has been following the Amon Amarth machine knows what to expect from a new record to a high degree of accuracy, and as a long-time fan of the band (Versus the World and The Fate of Norns being my introduction), I was more cautious than optimistic. This record follows Berserker which I reviewed here, an enjoyable fare with a few welcome surprises. I went into this record, hoping Amon Amarth would lean more heavily onto some of the more experimental choices made on Berserker.
Album opener “Get in the Ring”, also used as the entrance music for WWE wrestler, and thematically sound, Erik Redbeard. The track is very, Amon Amarth, with power-chord-laden riffs with mid-paced melodies and mid-tempo tremolo-picked arrangements. Nothing we haven’t heard plenty of variations of, even within their own discography. In contrast, the title track “The Great Heathen Army” had a welcome chorus melody, that had a menacing, almost evil flavor to it, which was a great change from the stereotypical “victorious glory” upbeat nature that Amon Amarth has made their calling card.
If “The Great Heathen Army” was a pleasant surprise, its follow-up “Heidrun” was so cheesy it nearly made me lactose intolerant. For those who aren’t steeped in Norse Mythology, Heidrun is the legendary goat that provides milk and meat to the Einherjar, the bravest dead warriors that reside in Valhalla. So that’s it, this is a song about a goat! So when the chorus break hit me with “Who’s the GOAT? HEIDRUN! HEIDRUN!” in its war chant manner, I giggled and cringed with equal measure. Unless this was an elaborate inside joke from within the Swedish camp, this gimmick failed to resonate with me. The chorus break in “Heidrun” is an illustrative example of one of the weakest parts of Amon Amarth’s songwriting, viz. the over-reliance on big-arena war-chant choruses. While it fits the Viking battle cry aesthetic and would get live-setting moshpits started, when used as frequently on more recent albums, it has quickly diminishing returns.
Thankfully, “Oden Owns You All” is a return to form, leaning more into their death metal roots with a thrashy intro riff and a refreshingly heavy “breakdown”. By the halfway point on The Great Heathen Army, with tracks like “Find a Way or Make One” and “Dawn of the Norsemen”, Amon Amarth sounds less like a melodeath band, and more like a hair/glam metal band with growled vocals. The Viking lords now come off as Hell’s Angels, the old bearded biker band dudes you stay away from at dive bars, who drink good liquor and yell at anyone who is in their immediate vicinity about the “glory days”. The album art for The Great Heathen Army perfectly illustrates this point better than words ever could.
Further on “Saxons and Vikings” opens with a drum line that was lifted straight from Children of Bodom’s “Bodom Beach Terror”, and this time around, Amon Amarth digs deeper into telling entire stories in their lyrics, a genre trope of NWOBHM and Power Metal. “Saxons and Vikings” also features the guest vocals of Saxon (how convenient!) Billy Byford. My lack of expertise with power metal and NWOBHM was painfully evident when my first reaction was “oh this track has dollar store brand Bruce Dickinson!” (from Iron Maiden). For that view, even internal, I apologize to all the fans of the vocalist, band, and genre! The idea of incorporating more clean vocals into the Amon Amarth would be an interesting direction for future records, but would need to be executed with meticulous care, as clean vocals in metal are a high-risk high-reward maneuver! The saving grace of “Saxons and Vikings” was the blistering guitar solo! Hey Amon Amarth? MORE SOLOS! Album closer “The Serpent’s Trail” was as enjoyable as “Oden Owns You All” with more focus on darker-sounding chord progressions, this time with string arrangements to add to its grandiosity. The choice of spoken-word verse vocals landed flat with me, but the track was still a win.
My major gripe with Amon Amarth has largely distilled into tired predictability. The new elements are few and far between and The Great Heathen Army gets quickly filed away as “yet another Amon Amarth record”. A big contributor to that is the monotonous vocals of Johan Hegg. While he IS the quintessential tough-guy Viking, twelve records later, his single timbre vocals get wallpapered very quickly. With the added inclusion of cheesy crowd-chant lyrics as previously mentioned, the entire frontman section holds the entire product back. This is a damn shame because guitarists Olavi Mikkonen and Johan Soderberg are trying their best. The drum work courtesy of relative newcomer Jocke Wallgren is serviceable, but I do miss the raw aggression of the previous drummer Frederik Andersson.
The Great Heathen Army is a serviceable yet predictable record in a genre held back by its own tropes. Amon Amarth needs to shake themselves out of their own shackles and innovate further on future records, or risk being cast aside as another gem from a bygone era.