Thursday, December 29, 2016

My Metal Top Five countdown for 2016 continues.  It's been a good year for metal but then again, nearly every year is good for the greatest music known to man.  Keep in mind that my picks are based not on what I think are the "best" albums of the year, but the ones I loved the most.  My only criteria was how much I listened to it as compared to other albums.  These Five are the ones that got the most play.


Amon Amarth

Here is a band I have loved for a long time but have fallen out of my favor somewhat over the last ten years.  Since the Odin on Our Side album, I feel like Amon Amarth have veered too much into the melodic realm and too far from their death metal roots.  While there are many great songs on the ensuing records, they don’t stick with me as much as the older stuff.  Plus, there is the trap of repeating yourself too often; Amon Amarth are kind of a one trick pony, and there’s nothing wrong with that.  Many bands can be successful carrying on like they always have (Motorhead, Slayer, etc.) but most get into a rut and cannot escape it.  Maybe this is why they wandered a bit from their home into melodic lands full of brighter guitar harmonies and “cleaner” vocals.  In any case, I didn’t mind, I just didn’t like it as much as the older music.  And then they came back with this amazing record.

Right away they are in your face, pummeling drums, twin harmonic leads, like a heavier Maiden or Lizzy, and the bass rumbles and the song drops and in comes Johan Hegg with that powerful vocal of his, and you know you’re in for a treat.  Yes, “First Kill,” the first song on the record, is much like their last few albums, all blazing, bright melodies, but there’s an urgency here that they lacked on some of those other recordings.  We are reminded that Amon Amarth aren’t a death metal band anymore, but something a shade south (of heaven) of power metal.  The vocals keep it in line, really, but as the album continues, the riffs come on stronger, deeper, from a guttural place Amon Amarth haven’t visited in some time.

“Wanderer” starts melodic, almost like a song off Ride the Lightning, and then the riffs dig in and this is the first inkling that things are going to be a bit different with this album.  It’s still not death metal, and that’s fine, but it is something closer, and it bites but never loses the melody.  A mid-paced affair, this satisfies on many levels, and ends with a narration from Hegg that sounds like King Fowley, which brings a smile to the face.

Third song, “On a Sea of Blood” goes right for the riffs at the front end, sliding into some melodic harmony (Amon Amarth are masters of this; just amazing).  Hegg brings the pain and we’re moving along, the song flowing faster than mead after a hunt.  The chorus here is perfect Amon Amarth, you can chant along but it’s not catchy in an obnoxious way (as I found some of the songs on, say, Twilight of the Thunder God).  Riffs dig in again and Hegg’s voice drops.  Ah, that rumble.  Good stuff.

“One Man Against All” goes back to the melodic opening but then it does a funny thing about 16 seconds in; that melody starts to chug a bit more, and it’s so pleasing to the ear.  Hegg carries us along with the story (this is a concept record, telling a story from beginning to end, of a Viking warrior outcast from his home, journeying out into the world, finding a new home, and coming back for the woman he loves) as we reach one of the catchiest choruses Amon Amarth have ever recorded.  And it could be of the annoying kind if it wasn’t so damned cool, and if those massive riffs didn’t follow it.  When I say massive, I mean like ocean waves crashing against the hull of a small boat.  If you’re not careful, you’ll get capsized.

Next song “Raise Your Horns” is just straight up metal, a mid-paced affair right from the Accept playbook.  Yeah, it’s “commercial,” as much as such things like this can be called commercial, and sure, it’s a stadium sing-along, but so what?  These guys have made this thing their own, and you can either enjoy it or get lost.  The video for this song is pretty incredible, too.

“The Way of Vikings” opens with stirring guitar harmonies that make me feel like I’m Conan, staring into the rising sun, about to ride off into adventure.  The drums come rumbling and bring with them the riffs and Hegg’s guttural growls.  Again, this is what Amon Amarth do so well, welding melody with heft and throwing in some epic atmosphere to go along with it.  This is truly the way of the Vikings.

A semi-narrated line starts the next song, “At Dawn’s First Light” and then we’re off.  This is a faster song, riding through the forest on a steed breathing fire, carrying us to a melodic chorus but doing so by bludgeoning through the underbrush, first.  This one will trample you, if you’re not careful.

An atmospheric beginning, chiming guitars washing over the ears, waves of the ocean crashing to shore, ushers in the mid-paced chug of “One Thousand Burning Arrows.”  Hegg goes low here.  A slow-burn epic, this one, it will probably be looked over by most fans, but this is vintage Amon Amarth, moody and grim, the ashes of the fallen dead filling the air with a suffocating smoke.

“Vengeance is Mine” swaggers in on a spoken verse followed by ripping guitars and we’re galloping again, in all the right ways, plenty of melody but also plenty of heft and gravity.  Like so much of the rest of this record, this melds the two worlds of Amon Amarth in a perfect way.  They’re on fire.  And then the magnificent chorus comes in about 1:13 into the song and nothing can stop the smile that’s creeping across your face at this point.

The next to last song, “A Dream that Cannot Be” does something Amon Amarth have never done before:  It’s a duet.  Doro Pesch plays the part of the narrator’s lost love and man, she just nails it.  This comes across as kind of hokey at first (like what are these guys trying to do?), but the emotional power of the narrative takes over and the tragic outcome is remarkable (no spoilers here).  The song works, but really only in the context of the story the album is telling.  I’m not sure if this is an experiment they should repeat, but again, they make it happen, despite the long odds. 

Final song brings the story and the album to a close.  Melodic, ringing notes play an almost circular pattern to lead us into the meat of the epic “Back on Northern Shores.”  This song kind of sums the whole thing up, plenty of melody, plenty of riffing, and a nice touch of grand chorusing.  And as another Amon Amarth album ends, we stand at the shore and watch it sail into the sunset, smiles all around.

An epic, energized return to form for an amazing band that is improbably popular, Jomsviking brings us metal, pure and furious and glorious.  Raise your horns!

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