For many years, The New York Times basked in its semi-official reputation as the "newspaper of record". Virtually every publication under the sun took its national (and international) news cues from the Gray Lady like clockwork, often recycling its coverage and opinions verbatim, creating a media echo chamber that all but dictated trends in mainstream thought. The Metal journalism racket follows a similar pattern, and while our Times equivalent may be harder to identify, the stale continuity of thought can be obvious - blatantly so when discussing, say, the latest AMON AMARTH offering. The overarching emphasis of most reviews, whether positive or negative, appears to be the Swedish Viking horde's consistency and predictability, and their staunch refusal to evolve artistically. Fortunately for you, dear reader, this reviewer thinks the Times sucks, and trusts his own honest ears over any derivative album review any day.
So what does this mean for AMON AMARTH? Well, for starters, eight albums deep into a fifteen-year career, they certainly haven't made any radical departures. Their signature brand of Norse mythology by way of UNLEASHED and various Gothenburg strains is firmly entrenched and here to stay, as "Surtur Rising" demonstrates upon first spin. But the devil is in the details, and further spins will unveil a rich, layered tapestry of musical exploration as subtle as it is breathtaking. Put simply, AMON AMARTH have refused to rehash previous material and have instead bestowed upon us a collection of ten solid, memorable, standout songs that deserve to become instant classics in their already hefty catalogue.
"Originality" can be a relative term, and when used in the context of a band whose name has nearly become a punchline for repetition, a caveat is necessary: the originality of "Surtur Rising" is internal and organic, not external and phony. It's extra pressure on the gas pedal, not a U-turn. AMON AMARTH have bled and sweated within the existing framework of their musical style to craft sounds heretofore unexplored. For instance, their always-present buzzing melodic leads play an even more dominant role here, demanding increased songwriting attention from twin guitarists Olavi Mikkonen and Johan Soderberg. They deliver in spades, and if older classics like "Death In Fire" prompted you to hum along, then new tunes such as "Slaves Of Fear" and "Live Without Regrets" will inspire you to pick up a conductor's baton. The rhythmic right-hand riffing, interlocked with the lead work as seamlessly as ever, has been honed and sharpened, squeezing even more melody out of the harsher tones found on "Destroyer Of The Universe" or "Wrath Of The Norsemen". Smooth, fluid melodies spike the relentless march of "Tock's Taunt" and the skyrocketing "For Victory Or Death," the latter of which is a strong contender for best AMON AMARTH song ever written. Speedy opening track "War Of The Gods" is a superior successor to "Twilight Of The Thundergod" and other classic album starters, with an even greater emphasis on - you guessed it - powerful, emotional melodies. As the above observations may indicate, AMON AMARTH is very much a guitar-driven band, but a great deal of credit must go to charismatic frontman Johan Hegg. The physical embodiment of all things Viking, his bellowing growls and sandpaper screams have punctuated his band's music since the beginning, and on "Surtur Rising," place it in all caps. While many vocalists may distract from the music being played behind them, Hegg seems to achieve the opposite effect and blend in with his comrades - while simultaneously commanding your strict attention. Something of a paradox, yes, but strangely true.
Enough pretentious metaphors. Let's get to the point: AMON AMARTH have not reinvented the wheel, as many reviewers and snide Prog fans have no doubt reminded you. But with "Surtur Rising," they're doing what they do best, and they're doing it better and catchier than ever. THAT is what sets this album apart, and THAT is what will make it one of the best albums of 2011… and in case that wasn't enough for you, it's also really, really, REALLY heavy. Skal!