The Metal Examiner: Amon Amarth’s Surtur Rising

Every Friday, The Metal Examiner delves metal’s endless depths to present the genre’s most important and exciting albums.

Amon Amarth: Surtur RisingAmon Amarth: Surtur Rising (Metal Blade, 3/28/11)

Amon Amarth: “War of the Gods”

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Some hard rock fuels itself on anxiety and doubt, some on an absolute clarity of purpose. Swedish five-piece Amon Amarth stays in the latter camp and pillages it too, playing melodic death-metal songs of fearlessness and bloodthirsty honor. The band’s rune-like fonts and references to Norse myths and Viking battles are only a sign of what’s at the core. Amon Amarth’s power comes not from all the references to Yggdrasil and Asgaard and the like, but from evoking times (real or mythical) in which civilization revolved around the momentous import of war.

Its seamless meld of death-metal agony and Iron Maiden-style songwriting sounds like the man you’d want at your side in combat. He doesn’t bother with a subtle range of emotions, because he’s occupied, from his soul to his skull collection, with a few very solid ones: loyalty, glory-lust, pitiless determination, and pride in his ability to slay.

Our blond-mammoth war buddies don’t much change their outlook on the new Surtur Rising, nor do they tire of it. As with previous triumphs — see Vs. The World from 2003 and Twilight Of The Thunder God from 2008 — the band’s eighth album is carnage writ absolute. Early into opening track “War of the Gods,” it becomes busy with 16th-note drums and tremolo-picked guitar notes, yet it never feels too busy for its own good. For as stately and epic as it is, there’s no fat, no drag of the ponderous. Once again, Amon Amarth is a model of the thrilling interlock that any band should have, whether savaging the underground or longing for shiny hard-rock hooks.

Again, the band brings the satisfaction of simplicity to technically versatile songwriting. “The Last Stand of Frej” may provide the best example of this on the album, moving from a dirge-like verse with a pleasingly strange progression to the band’s usual pounding menace. “Destroyer of the Universe” could rival “Twilight of the Thunder God” in its chorus, yet it starts with more guttural, speeding death rhythms. It helps that Johann Hegg isn’t one of those metal vocalists who seems in danger of getting sunk in the low end. There’s gravel and cold salt water in his voice. It complements the palm-muted gouging but also can get on top of the mix. He has enough high screech to harness the dramatic chorus of “Tock’s Taunt: Loke’s Treachery Part II” and enough resonant growl to get straight to the belligerent point of “A Beast Am I.”

Once he’s done that, the guitar solo on “Beast” feels like its own thoroughly considered part of the song, a complete statement of its own, the way that a good Iron Maiden guitar break does. (Speaking of Maiden again, the harmonized leads on “Tock’s Taunt” have the soul of “The Duellists” in them.)

There are variations here on the usual anthems of honor and slaughter. “Wrath of the Norsemen” tells the story from the point of view of the plunderee, but only to better put you in awe at the warriors’ brutality. “Slaves of Fear” turns the band’s vengeance on real-life warmongers, mind controllers, and religion, and the servility they breed. Still, it doesn’t put you out of the mood to belt along when Hegg sings, “We’ll split their skulls and spill their guts on the frozen ground!” on the track “For Victory or Death.”

There isn’t much to say about Surtur Rising that hasn’t been said about Amon Amarth before. Olavi Mikkonen and Johan Soderberg‘s guitars see no conflict between drilling hurt and bolted-down finesse, and Fredrik Andersson‘s drums sound eerily perfect yet not entirely mechanical. Occasionally, even Norsemen get a little despondent, like the narrator on closing track “Doom Over Dead Man,” who mourns a wasted life and wishes that he were never born. His lethargy doesn’t seep into the song itself. Instead, the band sears it down to a piercing bitterness. Even in the face of despair and even in sticking to a well-machined approach, Amon Amarth can’t help but play the almighty fuck out of each moment.