Amon Amarth - Jomsviking Review

Amon Amarth - Jomsviking
Amon Amarth - Jomsviking. Metal Blade Records

Amon Amarth have enjoyed a steady upswing since 2006’s With Oden On Our Side ushered in a new era of high-quality songwriting and refined production that finally managed to capture both the savagery and nuance that the band’s earlier efforts didn’t quite nail down. Each successive release has been met with critical and fan acclaim, with 2013’s paving the way for a wildly successful tour cycle that saw Amon Amarth remain one of Metal Blade’s top worldwide earners.

On the heels of this success comes Jomsviking, a release that sees the Swedish melo-death Viking horde unleash their first attempt at a true concept album. Now, this term’s been bandied about in the metal community to the point of utter worthlessness, so here’s a quick refresher: there’s, like, an actual story here, not some implied collection of ideas or a nebulous strand of themes that may or may not complement one another.

The Plot and the Highlights

Jomsviking weaves a tale of a young man who, after being denied the woman he loves and being cast out of his home, joins the ranks of the Jomsvikings, a legendary band of Scandinavian mercenaries. While the story plays on a number of tropes that are well-worn in the Amon Amarth canon (revenge, violence, camaraderie, bravery, boozing, the list goes on), the presence of an actual plot, when combined with the accompanying music, delivers a genuinely fresh listening experience.

Jomsviking offers some of Amon Amarth’s most refined compositions yet, but it also boasts a rawer edge that gives the songs a leg up over 2013’s Deceiver of The Gods, which, for all its accomplishment, felt a bit lackluster in intensity. Opener “First Kill” forgoes the slow build of “Deceiver of The Gods” or “Valhall Awaits Me” in favor of an immediate salvo reminiscent of The Avenger’s “Bleed For Ancient Gods.” And that same fervent immediacy permeates the entire outing.

While Amon Amarth’s been known to pepper their records with the occasional breather or lull (Fate of Norns’s “Where Death Seems To Dwell” or Versus The World’s “Where Silent Gods Stand Guard”), there’s not really a full song during which Jomsviking lets up significantly. “The Way of Vikings” and “One Against All” are some of the most vicious cuts the band’s delivered in years, and “Back On Northern Shores” may be Amon Amarth’s most epic finale yet.

“Raise Your Horns” feels a bit like low-hanging fruit; the song’s chorus (“raise your horns, raise ‘em up to the sky / we will drink to glory tonight”) was clearly chosen early on as a phrase destined to emblazon Amon Amarth merch, from t-shirts to beer steins, but it’s a catchy enough number that no critic could hate on it too hard. Besides, it’s not like Amon Amarth encouraging their fans to drink more beer is unfamiliar territory.

The Weak Point and the Bottom Line

Jomsviking is the first album since 1998’s to not feature longtime drummer Fredrik Andersson,  but that’s no cause for worry. While Andersson’s presence behind the kit was certainly enjoyable during his eight-album tenure in the band, Jomsviking proves Amon Amarth are more than capable of soldiering on without him. Percussion for the new album was handled by session drummer and former Vomitory skinsman, Tobias Gustafsson.

And while Gustafsson turns in a stellar performance, the band have elected not to name a permanent replacement for Andersson, opting instead to move forward as a four-piece. If Jomsviking suffers anywhere, it’s with a stylistic choice singer Johan Hegg has embraced that’s been absent thus far in Amon Amarth’s career. To aid the songs in carrying the record’s story, Hegg adds several spoken word interludes throughout the record.

And even though he growls them as best he can without roaring, they are absolutely atrocious distractions to songs that are sometimes nearly perfect in every other regard. A lot of listeners probably won’t care, as the narration fits well with the campiness of the band’s subject matter (and I say that with utmost reverence). Thematically and theoretically, it makes sense. But in practice, it’s just an awkward, throbbing eyesore.

In the end however, the spoken word intervals don’t take up too much space. The rest of the record stands strong on its own, and if you’re like me and can’t stand the narration, just skip it. On the whole, Jomsviking is Amon Amarth delivering some of their finest material. For the first time since Twilight of The Thunder God, the band’s intensity matches its refinement, and the result is a fiery, marauding longship of a record that, apart from a few missteps, pursues its ends relentlessly and shows prisoners no quarter.

(released March 25, 2016 on Metal Blade Records)