“The Jomsvikings were a shadowy and legendary sect of Viking mercenaries, as shrouded in myth now as they were when they fought across Europe and the Middle East. Ruthless and deadly warriors who fought for the highest bidder, their code was simple: Show no fear. Never retreat. Defend your brothers, and when called upon, avenge their deaths. I felt we were finally ready to use their story as the jumping off point for an Amon Amarth album. The Jomsvikings and their world is the background for the story of a young man that is in love with a girl but unfortunately she’s being married off. He accidentally kills a man when this happens and he has to flee – but he swears to have revenge and win her back. He can’t let go of the past. He feels that he’s been wronged and his life has been destroyed. The way the story evolves is not a happy story.” ~ Johan Hegg
Meanwhile: Cape Town, South Africa
It has already been widely publicized that Swedish overlords of melodic death metal Amon Amarth have completed their new album Jomsviking which will be released on 25 March 2016. What is lesser known is that their story, and indeed the story of the new album, has some vague threads tied back to South Africa…
Sony Music, who will be distributing the album locally, hooked us up for an interview with longtime guitarist Johan Söderberg to talk about the band’s development and up until this point to where they have arrived at their first concept album; and how it relates in some way to our distant tip of the forgotten continent.
Wait! What’s this? A concept album! Are Amon Amarth not a concept band? Universally referred to by fans as a ‘Viking Metal’ band, Amon Amarth astutely disagree, rather having donned for themselves the title of Melodic Death Metal for many years. True, whilst the subject material of nine prior studio albums have all focused strongly on Viking myths and legends, Johan tells us that this is the first time the band is creating an album which follows a specific story line, leading the listener on an unbroken journey from beginning to end.
“All of our albums before were about Gods, myths and characters from legends. Jomsviking is the first time that the lyrics will be telling about normal people living out their lives in this extraordinary setting, experiencing normal human emotions.” ~ Johan Söderberg (guitars, Amon Amarth)
As to how this came about, Johan tells us, is that vocalist Johan Hegg has developed a fascination with film which culminated at his brief appearance in the 2014 film Northmen: A viking Saga as the warrior Valli. Of course, the link which pulls this all to relevance here is that Northmen: A Viking Saga, was in fact filmed right here in South Africa, which brought Johan Hegg as a visitor to our very home soil.
“For the concept album, it was something we had discussed in the past. Johan wrote a movie script, and it was not long until he had turned the story into lyrics. So it was just a matter of this being the right time to do a concept.” ~ Johan Söderberg
The story is described by Johan as actually being a love story. Drenched in blood and intrigue, of course, in steadfast Amon Amarth tradition and keeping in line with the general historical setting of the Viking era; and being a tragedy in the end as “sort of a lost cause” for the main character, our enterprising “Jomsviking”. But how did we get here from the days of Gods and Men mighty as Gods warring ethereal battle? It was time to delve into Johan’s personal journey with the band and to uncover the evolution of Amon Amarth, as no thing remains eternally the same…
The beginning: Album one.
With Jomsviking being released as the tenth studio album by Amon Amarth in a career which can be traced back to about 24 years, we learned that Johan Söderberg was not actually there to see the beginning. The band’s first album, Once Sent From The Golden Hall, was already recorded before the arrival of Johan in 1998. However, with the band never having actually done a proper tour up until that point, this presented an opportunity.
“I joined after Once Sent from The Golden Hall was recorded. There was going to be a tour to promote the album but Anders (Hansson) could not leave others things he was busy with. Learning the songs and playing the tour was actually like a trial for me to see if I would make it in the band. I managed to adapt well to the special style of playing, although it’s still the same style that I played – death metal – it had it’s own way.” ~ Johan Söderberg
And so the journey began, in a sense, as Amon Amarth strode towards metal glory and a slow but steady climb towards global domination with Johan at heel. A point we have noticed, even from our perch at the bottom end of the world in Africa, and as long-time fans of the band, is that a certain type of change began to filter through to the Amon Amarth sound at around the time of 2004’s Fate of Norns (and studio album number five). I boldly ventured to describe to Johan that it felt to me – as a listener – almost as though the band had become truly comfortable with themselves; ready to try new things, and Fate Of Norns was the first album where the feel of the music started becoming more human in a way; more attuned to emotion than just the regular gung-ho! attitude of bloody conquest so typical of Death Metal in general.
“Yes, I think that is true. I actually only started to write in The Crusher (2001), but only contributing in one song here and there where Olavi was the main writer. Fate Of Norns was the first album where on guitars we wrote as two writers; using the strength of two writers and bringing in equally our different styles.” ~ Johan Söderberg
The next album to follow in this mighty chain of procession was to be the 2006 release of With Oden On Our Side which, to many of today’s Metal Viking Horde, was their earliest introduction point to the music of Amon Amarth. But why? What was so special about this point in the timeline?
A new phase in evolution: working with a producer
With the ground broken in Fate Of Norns where Amon Amarth had opened a new era in writing, it was time to raise the ante. Amon Amarth had become one of those bands with a strong enough repertoire to begin working with top-dog names in heavy metal production. For example, Jomsviking has been recorded with producer Andy Sneap (has worked with Opeth, Arch Enemy, Megadeth, to name a few) at the helm, as was the prior album Deceiver Of The Gods released in 2013. The three predecessors, dating back to the landmark 2006 release, With Oden On Our Side, were all produced by Jens Bogren (has worked with Devin Townsend, Paradise Lost, Dragonforce, to name a few). It seemed to me that since Amon Amarth released With Oden On Our Side, that the album title had become somehow prophetic; the ‘God’ had indeed vested his powers upon them, granting the band with the properties required to prevail. It was since the release of this album that Amon Amarth was not a band simply suggested to friends for a casual listen anymore, but rather recommended as an essential inclusion to their collections.
“Yes, I think it was because this was the first time we worked with somebody to actually be a producer. All the times before it was more a situation where we just come and play our songs the way we think it should sound, and it gets recorded like that. But now there was one guy in charge of how things should sound, and he would know how to get the best out of all the melodies and variations of all the songs. To make an album, it’s difficult when you have five guys who are very close to the music trying to be in charge. It’s much better to have a fresh and outsider view.” ~ Johan Söderberg
With the success of With Oden On Our Side, the band consolidated this new-found power with their 2008 release of Twilight Of The Thunder God, also with Jens Bogren at the helm, and again with the 2011 Surtur Rising. By 2013, and with the release of Deceiver Of The Gods, the time had come for a fresh set of ears, and Andy Sneap was brought in as producer.
Coming full circle: Looking back in order to move forward
But a producer does not replace band members in the creation process! Rather, he lends a gleam to the raw product. I wanted to know more about where the source was coming from. After nine previous albums and almost 20 years of playing in the same band, there must surely be some challenges with where to go in terms of each member’s personal development and to stay musically inspired?
“Well, lately I’m more looking back at my roots, to be honest. I mean, not only my roots in death metal, but also before that, I was inspired by classic metal. Stuff like Iron Maiden. For me, it’s time to try and let those influences shine through more in my playing.” ~ Johan Söderberg
And so we now have our first taste of the Jomsviking with ‘First Kill’. Whilst, at a glance, it sounds like good ol’ Amon–Amarth-by-numbers (which, needless to say, is just the way we like it), the information shared already tells us that as a final product, there is much more that we can expect to get from Jomsviking. When asked if we’d see any more guest appearances, such as Messiah (known for his time in Candlemass) who lent his charismatic voice to the song ‘Hell’ in Deceiver Of The Gods, Johan replied:
“This will be another first. We have worked only with male singers as collaborations in the past, with ‘Guardians Of Asgaard’ and ‘Hel’ as examples. This time we have got a female voice in one of the songs, ‘A Dream That Cannot Be’. Since this is a story about a guy being taken away from the love of his life, it needed a voice to portray the female part.” ~ Johan Söderberg
The voice in question has been provided by none other than the vocalist from German Heavy Metal legends Warlock, Doro Pesch, who now continues to perform as Doro since the disbanding of Warlock more than two decades ago. All in all, this should make for a very exciting and refreshing turn of the wheel for Amon Amarth fans, new and old. As to whether or not we will ever see them perform in South Africa? That is a matter up to higher powers than myself or Johan can decide, but there is no doubt that the band would love to after having heard about the sights and the people from Johan Hegg during his visit here in 2014.
Jomsviking pre-orders can be placed now via iTunes.