1000 Flavors of Heavy: New Viking Times
The thing that has been most appealing about Amon Amarth since they first came to prominence in the late 1990s is that they really seemed to be having a blast, and their stomping, rowdy form of Scandinavian death metal was more than capable of infecting listeners with that good-time, kill-your-neighbors feeling. By the time they perfected their Viking-metal steez a decade later, they’d honed their chops to razor sharpness, and even in their most melodic moments they were scarcely lacking in aggression. They still made you want to go out and do pre-civilized things to anyone who got in your way, but they made you want to do it with a smile on your face. That was the key to understanding their freewheeling yet martial appeal: it had a barbaric freshness about it, and relieved the usual dour, lockstep modality of death metal with a feral sense of fun that, while just as vicious, wasn’t as moody or oppressive. It was the equivalent of reading a Robert E. Howard Conan novel after a steady diet of Anne Rice. Of course, the quickest way to ruin such a wild experience is to throw it over to the critics, and after all the praise heaped on 2008’s Twilight of the Thunder God, there were hints that Amon Amarth might start taking themselves seriously. But happily, the band that released action figures of itself as a premium a few years back isn’t about to go that route; if anything, they’ve headed even further in the direction of good old head-banging fun. (The presence of KISS and Accept covers as bonus tracks almost gives the game away.) There’s absolutely nothing on Surtur Rising, their new album on Metal Blade, that won’t absolutely thrill fans of Twilight; it’s a solid dozen slabs of Amon Amarth romping, stomping, and hollering about Viking glory like their arms are about to fall off. Johan Hegg’s voice is in particularly fine fettle, and the decision to ramp up the velocity on tracks like “A Beast Am I” was a good one, but there’s really not a dud in the bunch, with a few songs – especially the instant classic “Destroyers of the Universe” – that will immediately jump into your heavy rotation playlist. Amon Amarth knows exactly what side of the bread their butter is on, so step up to this one and get a heaping helping.
BONUS: It’s hard out here for a black metal band. Even in a medium as codified and stratified as metal, black metal fans are particularly harsh on experimentalism; they tend to know what they like, and unless it’s undeniably spectacular, they tend to frown on any deviation from the norm. (If you don’t believe it, ask Alcest.) American black metal bands have learned this lesson in spades; for all the new fans that Nachtmystium picked up when they started weirding up their sound, they lost an equal number of traditionalists. I’m sure most would agree it was a worthwhile tradeoff, but it’s one that has kept a lot of ABM outfits from straying too far from the currently-dominant raw basement sound of the second wave of Scandinavian black metal. Not so with Krallice, whose third album for Profound Lore, Diotima, is out later this month. In a way, Krallice is illustrative of the advantage of cultivating a so-called ‘hipster’ audience; Mick Barr and Colin Marston, whatever their bona fides, lost the purists early on thanks to their proggy tendencies, New York location, and tendency to dabble with collaborators – and fans – outside the circle of traditional black metal. That freed them up to do the kind of experimentation that characterizes Diotima, and while I’m not entirely convinced it’s their best album (I, too, have my purist tendencies, and I don’t think they’ve done anything here that surpasses Dimensional Bleedthrough), it’s definitely their most advanced. Of particular interest, especially given Marston’s extremely disciplined technical approach, is its sense, if not of improvisation, at least of a willingness to let happy accidents of noise and tone creep into their work. It’s a tense, creepy record, and while it lacks Bleedthrough’s relentless ferocity, it’s the work of a band that’s willing to go to strange and unfamiliar places. That’s not always how great albums get made, but it’s how music moves forward, and that’s never a bad thing.
DOUBLE BONUS: All apologies to Deathspell Omega fans, but the best metal band in France is Mondeville’s Blut Aus Nord, and it has been since the release of 2003’s phenomenal The Work Which Transforms God. 777 – Sect(s), their new release, is due out in next week, on Candlelight in the U.S., and it’s the first of a proposed series of three albums the band is set to release in 2011. There are worse things in the world to look forward to in this world than a trilogy of BAN albums, and if nothing else, Sect(s) leaves the listener curious as to where it’s all going to end up. It’s a very odd album in their catalog; while the songs (all entitled “Epitome”) feature a number of familiar elements – screeching, vertiginous guitars; ambient washes of droning noise; a chilly, despairing sense of space – it fits no predictable spot in the band’s catalog. The song structures, with their bursts of devastating riffing and cavernous drums, recall The Work Which Transforms God, but with a much more stripped-down, basic approach. The speed of the album is significantly slower than their last few efforts, as if they’re deliberately taking their time in establishing what they want to do. And the blend of ambient, draining waves of sound and intense, almost industrial ferociousness is way out of whack, leaning very heavily towards the former and quite far away from the latter. I’m not quite sure where I sit with this one yet; it’s certainly not bad, but it’s so unpredictable that it’s hard to analyze as a complete piece of music. It might not be possible to fully apprehend Sect(s) until the entire 777 series is complete; if one thing can be said about it, it’s that it has the feel of an establishing moment, a table-setter for something more complex. But if the worst that can be said of it is that it’s merely the first step into something greater, something that requires full attention to three albums from this astonishing band, that’s not too bad.
TRIPLE KITTY BONUS: Whether it’s age, infirmity, or just a steady diet of prison beatings, something has happened to former black metal murderkind Varg Vikernes since he became a free man. Belus, the first post-prison Burzum release, was a huge disappointment to those who had loved his early black metal savagery, and even some of those who liked his more folky, ambient tendencies found it a bit gutless. I thought it was a gassy failure – not his first, but certainly his worst – and I had an equally bad feeling about Fallen, out today from Byelobog Productions. The cover, certainly the fruitiest object ever to be associated with ol’ Varg, didn’t do much to alleviate my fears, nor did the rambling ambient noodling that opens and closes the album. That said, while this certainly isn’t a must-own record, or even a particularly good one, it shows enough flashes of the man’s former greatness to make you think he’s still god a good album in him, even if it isn’t this one. There are some powerful riffs on Fallen, “Jeg Faller” and “Valen” in particular, that showcase Varg’s guitar-playing skills, which can still surprise you at times, and he’s mostly abandoned the gormless folksy vocals he favored on Belus for a return to his sore-throat roar of the 1990s. (If there are any signs of his grotty racial and political beliefs in the lyrics of Fallen, I couldn’t be bothered to suss them out, and anyone who considers them a real issue likely isn’t buying any Burzum records anyway.) There’s really nothing exceptional happening here, and real Burzum fans can easily pass it buy in favor of giving Det Som en Gang Var another spin. But there’s just enough of the artist he sued to be to make it all the more frustrating.