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Amon Amarth - Twilight of the Thunder God

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Artist: Amon Amarth

Album: Twilight of the Thunder God

Label: Metal Blade

Review date: Nov. 3, 2008

A thousand years ago, if you walked into a Viking long house, you might notice a station near the fire pit where the women would heat up glass bulbs. The purpose? To iron clothing on whale-bone ironing boards. The Vikings preferred linen shrits, and if you’ve ever owned one yourself, you know that getting that shit presentable is a bitch. After ransacking monasteries and sailing the icy seas, Vikings appreciated looking sharp.

Amon Amarth, Swedish metalheads who write songs about Viking life and death, got their start in the grindcore era. For a long time now, they’ve been driving the ladies wild with synchronized stage moves, troll doll looks and a heaping of growls and grunts. But it took hooking up with producer Jens Bogren to get the wrinkles ironed out. If studio gloss can drain the life out of some loud bands, Amon Amarth buck that trend. The potential guitar soup and airless drum patterns of death metal is helped along by Bogren’s crisp production. And with Twilight of the Thunder God, they’ve written a set that takes full advantage of experience and polish.

It’s the riffing that’s going to carry any album like this, and Olavi Mikkonen and Johan Söderberg deserve to have more than just one umlaut spread across their proper names. The expected lava leads are here, but what sets them apart is their staccato playing. Like Dick Dale’s "Miserlou" or the balalika style that informed it, their picking is so rapid, it becomes orchestral. As Johan Hegg barks his monster-voiced lines, Mikkonen and Söderberg’s ripping gives him a cinematic backdrop. Melody is teased out of the guttural, and something resembling emotion arises from two guys who strive for the inhuman. "Live for the Kill" builds from stop-start thrash to trembling sawtooth picking. When breaks turn suddenly into real cellos, the handoff is completely natural (perhaps because Amon Amarth hired fellow headbangers Apocalyptica). They’ve worked out so much somber interplay between the guitars and bass that the switch to acoustic instruments doesn’t change the dynamics all that much. What it does do, however, is open up enough space that when the guitars make their return, they bludgeon.

As fast as things get on Twilight, the band gets the most power from a marching pace, the sort of tempos that conjure up an advancing horde. "Varyags of Miklagaard" (my very favorite kind of varyag...) showcases a riff that, were it plopped over a brighter beat, could be bouncy, sunny even. On a track like this, it’s the vocals that rein in the band, ensuring a mood of doom even when there’s a spring in its step. "Tattered Banners and Bloody Flags" has a riff so precise, it’s brittle. As it pushes along a slogging kick drum, the lyrics detail Norse gods in their end-of-time battle. I needed to look at the lyrics booklet to figure out the specific words, but I listened for weeks just assuming it was about some sort of clash of titans.

Even if you find giant wolves and white steeds a bit silly, it’s hard to deny the force Amon Amarth can summon. Grant them harbor on your shores, and with their iron axes and well-ironed tunics, they’ll take over.

By Ben Donnelly

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