With Oden on Our Side
he term "Viking metal" refers more to a lyrical obsession than a musical style. Viking metal bands run the gamut from folk to black to death metal, but lyrically they share an affinity for Norsemen, paganism, and good old-fashioned war. Some bands, like Kampfar, Vintersorg, and Týr, apply the Viking ethic musically through epic compositions, traditional instrumentation, or songs sung in Scandinavian languages.
Swedish band Amon Amarth sings in English, but has become perhaps the preeminent Viking metal band, with almost 15 years of songs about dudes fighting other dudes behind them. Like Ephel Duath, Cirith Ungol, and Gorgoroth, among many others, the band takes its name from Tolkien. Naturally, this invites Dungeons & Dragons stereotypes. But think about it for a moment: Nile and Lair of the Minotaur sing exclusively about Egyptian and Greek mythology, respectively, and they're perceived as "scholars," not "geeks." The Vikings didn't wear horned helmets into battle, nor did they wear tights while chasing an ovoid ball, so put aside your preconceptions—or face the wrath of Thor.
The band's first full-length, 1998's Once Sent from the Golden Hall, is best forgotten, an enthusiastic but messy and tuneless exercise in Swedish death metal. However, the following year's The Avenger was a dramatic improvement, beginning a trend of "swords and shirtless beefcakes" album covers rivaled only by Manowar. On its next three albums, the band honed its brand of midtempo death metal with simple, melodic riffs. Over time, the band's songwriting has matured, and Johan Hegg's growl has grown rhythmic and powerful.
With Oden on Our Side finds Amon Amarth in fighting shape. The songs are tight, the performances are flawless, and the lyrics are as bloody as ever. But despite its warlike bluster, what the band does best is evoke the pathos of the dying warrior. This is evident in the album's first single, "Runes to My Memory." The song portrays a mortally wounded warrior: "I tilt my head to the side / And think of those back home / I see the river rushing by / Like blood runs from my wound." Despite the anachronism of such subject matter, the chords and melodies convey the scene's emotion (the video, too, is worth a look, if only for its unintentionally humorous synchronized hair-twirling).
"Prediction of Warfare" also connects the music to the lyrics expertly. The song begins, "Ships were prepared / Weapons and shields / Sails were raised / We headed out to sea." The song then raises anchor and a fluid melody enters over rolling riffs, with the lyrics later dispensing the requisite ass-kicking to the Irish; the Vikings founded Dublin, after all. "Cry of the Black Birds" delivers the album's most stirring moments. As anthemic melodies spiral over thundering kicks and crystalline production, Legg roars, "Raise your swords up high / See the black birds fly / Let them hear your rage / Show no fear / Attack!" At that moment, it's impossible not to raise a fist.