Tuesday 11 October 2022

Amon Amarth - The Great Heathen Army (2022)

Country: Sweden
Style: Melodic Death Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 5 Aug 2022
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There's a genre of crime fiction called cozy mysteries, the opposite of hardboiled detective stories because all the awful things that happen—and they're still rooted in murder—are kept away from the fore and the often female, often amateur sleuths quietly figure out whodunit without a lot of fuss. And then they get back to their cats and their chocolate and whatever signature dishes they have in their ovens. The reason I mention this is because it's hard not to like them. They're like an antidote to a down day. Just pick one up and suddenly you're turning the last page and the clouds have receded a little. And Amon Amarth are kind of cozy death metal for much the same reason.

I find it really hard to not like Amon Amarth. Everything they release is immediately accessible, as pleasant on a first listen as on a tenth. Their best songs can take root in our skulls to come out and play at random moments that we don't expect, but the majority sound good going in but promptly leave again to make room for the next one. And that means that, like most Amon Amarth albums, I enjoyed this one from the opener, Get in the Ring, to the closer, The Serpent's Tail three quarters of an hour later, and then promptly forgot whodunit.

Maybe part of this is because their focus on Viking history and mythology lends a brotherly sense of cameraderie to their sound. They've never been Viking metal, per se, but it's not hard to listen to a song like Find a Way or Make One and imagine yourself sitting in a centuries old wooden pub clinking large glasses of mead with whoever's sat around your table. Some of it is in the pleasant melodies wrought by guitarists Oliva Mikkonen and Johan Söderberg. It doesn't matter how fast or slow Jocke Wallgren plays his drums, those melodies weave around the room like magic.

And, quite frankly, a lot of it comes from the vocals of Johan Hegg, one of three founder members still in the band today. He sings in a gruff growl that doesn't carry any of the demonic overtones of the early death metal genre. He's like a giant teddy bear. We appreciate his skill in delivery, especially when he adds a narrative section in The Serpent's Tail, but he never sounds remotely threatening. We sit back and listen and, when he's done, we just ask what he's drinking and get the next round in.

All of which means that this is another Amon Amarth album. If they're your favourite band—and I can imagine that a good percentage of their fans consider them their favourite band—then this is another one. It doesn't do a single thing that you haven't heard already but you're going to love it anyway because they do what they do incredibly well. They're so tight that we don't even notice it any more. It's just a given, just like the subject matter and the riffs and every other aspect, right down to the pristine production by Andy Sneap.

The rest of us, who can't help but enjoy them but don't believe that the sun rises and falls on their say, want something else and there aren't too many moments that stand out. Oden Owns You All starts out as one, because the album suddenly feels urgent, the drums faster, the guitars deeper and, well, a little threat apparent. The beautifully intricate guitar duel during the midsection of Dawn of Norsemen is another. And Saxons and Vikings is the pinnacle of more.

That's not because it feels playful from the outset, though that doesn't hurt. It's because, oh hey, that's not Johan Hegg's voice all of a sudden. And, every old metalhead will immediately know it's Biff Byford of Saxon, his appearance perhaps heralded by the song's title. Saxon have got heavier over the years, but hearing Byford over a comfortable melodic death metal backdrop felt as if he had come home. He's a natural. Maybe Saxon should heavy up a little more!

And that's about it. Nothing I say here will make any difference to whether you pick this up or not or indeed how much you'll enjoy it. It is what it is and that'll be enough if you're an Amon Amarth fan. And yeah, this wasn't the greatest day but I feel a little better for having listened to this. And yet on I go to the next album, feeling no real need to listen to The Great Heathen Army again.

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