Victory or Death! An Interview With Amon Amarth

By Adrien Begrand

One of the great metal success stories in recent memory is how through simple hard work Swedish veterans Amon Amarth have managed to slowly build an audience that now spans the globe. We could feel the crescendo building over the years, crucial albums like The Fate of Norns and With Oden on Our Side drawing new fans with their impressive balance of brutality and accessibility, but their seventh album, 2008’s Twilight of the Thunder God, was finally the breakthrough everyone had been expecting, universally praised by critics and ranking as their biggest selling record to date. And after touring relentlessly, Twilight finally broke Amon Amarth in the very difficult American market, debuting at #50.

Three years later, and with a lot more people expecting even bigger things this time around, their eighth album is without doubt a crucial one. True to form, the amiable band of burly Vikings have returned with Surtur Rising (out on March 29 via Metal Blade), an album that successfully continues the positive creative momentum the band has been riding for the past seven years. Of course, we all know what it’s going to sound like – Amon Amarth is nothing if not charmingly predictable – but with its more focused, direct attack, it’s a decided change from the polished Twilight. Most importantly, though, the songwriting is top-notch yet again, as this latest batch of Nordic anthems delivers mightily, from the powerful one-two punch of “War of the Gods” and “Töck’s Taunt – Loke’s Treachery Part II”, to the rousing “For Victory or Death” and the elegiac “Doom Over Dead Man”. Back in January, in the midst of being interviewed by media from all corners of the world, and mere days before departing on the massive 70000 Tons of Metal cruise in Florida (which the band went on to conquer), vocalist Johan Hegg took time to talk to yours truly about the making of the new album, one that is certain to have fans raising their horns – both the devil and the drinking variety – in jubilation.

Did you ever expect Twilight of the Thunder God to become as popular with metal fans as it turned out to be?

Johan Hegg: I knew we had a good album, that the songs were good, so we had high hopes, but with everything you can never tell how people are going to react to it. The only thing you can tell is what you yourself feel, and we felt very good about it. We had pretty high expectations, and we’re really happy with how it turned out. It gave us the opportunity to travel to new places, play bigger shows, tour with Slayer for instance. That was great.

Do you think that success was a direct result of how hard you tour for every album?

The touring definitely has helped, but I’m not sure that that’s the only reason. It has something to do with it. I think also the fact that on the past couple of albums we’ve been able to work more relaxed when writing material. We’ve also worked with a producer properly. That definitely helps, to work with Jens [Bogren].

What do you like about working with Jens? This is your third straight album with him producing.

He’s meticulous, he’s very thorough in everything he does. He’s a perfectionist in so many ways. I feel that we like his style of working. He always tries to focus very hard on the album, and he also has very good ideas. He was really clear to us on the very first album we started working with him, this was something he really wanted to do. You can tell when you work with him in the studio, he’s very enthusiastic and committed to the recording process and producing the albums. I think that’s a very important thing for us to feel, that the producer is committed to the band and to the album.

How smoothly did the whole writing and recording process go compared to the last album?

It went very well, actually. The writing process went very quick, four of us wrote the album in two or three months total. It was fast work for us. With the recording, we spent more time in the studio than we’ve ever had, mainly to be able to experiment a little bit more and see what we can get out of it. This was the first time we’d recorded in Jens’ new studio, so it was slightly different. The drums were actually not recorded in his studio at all, we recorded them in Stockholm, and I wasn’t there. So that was different from the start. On the previous album we were all in the studio together. But we didn’t really feel it was that necessary to spend that much time in the studio, all of us.

The new album sounds a little rawer and more direct than the last one. Was that your intention all along?

Very much. We felt that although Twilight had a really good sound and production, we wanted to have a little bit more sound on this album, and I think we had an intention to deliver harder stuff once again, although we didn’t really want to lose the melodic parts. Go a bit rougher with the production and sound, and also the actual songs themselves.

Did you take any different approaches in the recording of your vocals this time around?

For me, the main difference was before entering the studio, during the writing process, I started working with a vocal coach for the very first time. I wouldn’t say that it’s very noticeable in the way my vocals sound, but definitely it felt different for me recording. I could work a lot more relaxed, it kind of gave me the opportunity to work faster and try somewhat difficult stuff. In “A Beast Am I” for instance, which is maybe the fastest vocals I’ve ever done. [laughs] It was tricky though, it was hard to get through it, with the articulation and everything, but I think it came out really great at the end. Hopefully I’ll be able to work with this vocal coach, she’s been really helping me a lot. The way I use my body when I sing, warm-up techniques, not so much with the voice. I have to take care of my voice more.

You toured for such a long time for Twilight, was your voice fatigued at the end?

I think the recording of Twilight was very rough on me, so I figured before the next album I should get a vocal coach. I should have gotten it a lot sooner actually, but being on the road and all that stuff, it’s hard to get it in schedule-wise. But during the writing process for [Surtur Rising] we had a lot of time for it. I could get into it seriously.

Whose idea was it to use strings so prominently on “Doom Over Dead Man”?

The idea for the part came from Jens. He wanted to add something to the sound, to get the attention of people on that particular riff. I think it works beautifully. It’s so unexpected. It felt really weird at the beginning. After a couple of listens, I love it.

What song on the album are you most proud of?

One thing that strikes me is that I think this album is more even than the previous one. On Twilight of the Thunder God there were some songs that were instant hits, they stuck out from the other songs. But on this album, the songs have a higher level of quality to them, which doesn’t make any song stick out particularly. They’re all hits. [laughs] But if I had to choose a couple of songs I’d say “A Beast Am I” is one of my favorites, and also “War of the Gods”. That’s a great opening track.

So what is it about the character Surtur that made you want to name an album after him?

Not much is told about him in Norse mythology, he’s a very interesting character. He was there when the universe was created, he was there when the universe perishes, he kind of destroys the universe. That’s what makes it interesting, without him the universe couldn’t exist, and also he destroys it at the end. Also, I wouldn’t say he’s an evil being. He is just what he is. Not evil, not good. We have the album title and the album cover, and the imagery surrounding him and the story of him at the end of the world is very powerful.

How do you come up with ideas for songs? Do you read the Eddas or anything like that for inspiration?

It happens. Usually I’ll dig into my memory and think about stuff…it can be anything that inspires me when it comes to lyrics. A movie, the news, a book I read, it doesn’t necessarily have to do with Northern mythology. Or I’d dig into my memory and think of what stories I liked to read about the gods and the Vikings, and just to make sure I got the facts right I’d do some research, look into the Edda, stuff like that. I do like to read a lit, the gothic stuff, I get inspired by it.

Someone recently said online, “Anyone who doesn’t like Amon Amarth doesn’t like fun.” Would you agree?

[laughs] I’m glad he feels that way! We don’t like to take ourselves too seriously. Although if we were just joking about it wouldn’t make sense. Obviously there is some seriousness to everything, but that’s a different thing. We like to enjoy ourselves and have a good time, especially live, and I’m glad our fans and people who come to the shows and listen to the albums felt he same way. It would be horrible if they came there and had a bad time! [laughs]

It’s always great how you’re obviously proud of your Viking heritage, but you always look like you’re enjoying yourself onstage. Do too many metal bands take themselves too seriously and forget how much fun metal music can be?

I think actually very few metal bands take themselves too seriously. I think it’s a matter of letting you express that stuff onstage, which perhaps is more difficult for bands than others. I guess if you sing about Satan and be as evil as possible, then I guess you can’t go around smiling onstage. [laughs] Unless you’re Tom Araya. [laughs] But Vikings, the topic itself is really cool, depending on how you want to look at it, it does have a more fun side to it. Although as I said, some stories that I write are very personal or even tragic. But it wouldn’t be any fun if we couldn’t enjoy ourselves onstage.

How does it feel to be at a creative peak like you are now, more than two decades after starting out as a band?

It feels great that we can still produce great songs and record albums, and continue doing what we love. As long as we can to that, that’s perfect for us.

This is an expanded version of a story written by yours truly featured in the current issue of France’s Metallian magazine. It’s been reprinted in English with their kind permission.

Sean Palmerston

Sean is the founder/publisher of Hellbound.ca; he has also written about metal for Exclaim!, Metal Maniacs, Roadburn, Unrestrained! and Vice.