Fire! Vikings! Metal! The new AMON AMARTH documentary has it all.
In the early 90s, a group of friends from Tumba, Sweden, got together to write death metal songs about Vikings. In 2018, that same band are headlining the world’s biggest metal festivals, packing one of the best live shows in music and, perhaps most bizarrely, starring in their own documentary…
Just over a quarter of a century ago, Johan Hegg had a moment of inspiration. As frontman with nascent death metal crew Scum, he was charged with writing lyrics for the band’s first demo under their new name, Amon Amarth. Three of the four original songs on the demo conformed to standard notions of metal lyrics, but the fourth was different. Inspired by his heartfelt obsession with Norse mythology, Thor Arise was the first definitive step on the band’s long and fervently Viking-themed march to glory. Not that Johan noticed at the time, of course.
“I’d never been in a band before. I’d never written lyrics, so I was very new to all that,” he recalls. “When I started in Amon Amarth, I was writing lyrics that reminded me of my favourite bands, like Iron Maiden and Metallica. Then I was introduced to Bathory. They were doing albums like Twilight
Of The Gods and Hammerheart, and I thought, ‘Wow, you can write lyrics about one of my favourite topics! Awesome!’
“I was a big Viking nerd back then, and I still am, so I decided to write Thor Arise… and it felt good! It felt like it fit. Once we started writing material for the next demo, The
Arrival Of The Fimbulwinter, our music became a little bit more epic and I felt more confident using mythology and Viking history as the lyrical concept. That started the ball rolling more than anything, I guess. And here we are today.”
We speak with Johan and bassist Ted Lundström as they take a quick break from working on Amon Amarth’s next studio album, the follow-up to 2016’s wildly successful
Jomsviking, due for release next year. But while the Swedes are primarily focused on their future, their past is also very much in their thoughts. To celebrate their anniversary as a band, they are releasing The Pursuit Of Vikings: 25 Years In
The Eye Of The Storm, an expansive DVD featuring tons of eye-melting live footage and, significantly, an extensive documentary detailing their story so far. From humble beginnings as aspiring members of Stockholm’s fledgling death metal scene through to the commercial breakthroughs and festival-headlining triumphs of recent years, it’s the kind of comprehensive, quietly momentous retrospective that you only get to make if you’re a genuine big deal.
“It feels very strange in some ways, you know, both that we’re in a band that someone wants to make a documentary about, and that we get to star in it! Ha ha ha!” Johan laughs. “I really had to think back a lot to try to remember stuff that I haven’t thought of for years. Some things were surprisingly emotional.”
“It’s super-weird, but at the same time, this is something we’ve been wanting to do for a long time, to give people a little glimpse of us away from the stage,” adds Ted.
“If someone had told me 25 years ago that we would have our own documentary, I would’ve said, ‘That’s insane, it’s not gonna happen!’ Ha ha ha! But things do happen.” f the new documentary confirms anything, it’s that things
definitely happen to Amon Amarth, although not always in a good way. It’s undeniable that the band have risen to their current position of prominence thanks to a great deal of determination, hard work and dedication to their creative cause. As a result, each successive triumph has been sweeter still. But there have also been a handful of daunting challenges to face along the way: moments of collective self-doubt, the omnipresent threat of physical burnout from all that touring and the obligatory line-up changes that nearly all bands go through have all tested but ultimately strengthened Amon Amarth’s resolve.
One of the documentary’s funniest moments comes when Johan recalls the band’s first-ever gig outside of Sweden: an impromptu show in Berlin that they were so excited about, they managed to get shit-faced drunk before they even reached the airport in Stockholm. Amazingly, and in spite of their own youthful exuberance, they still made it to Germany and to the venue, had a quick, restorative nap and went on to play the show. Even back then, when expectations were understandably meagre, metal’s Vikings-in-Chief exhibited a resilience and enthusiasm that has served them well. If you want to know why it’s Amon Amarth that are headlining festivals, rather than any other comparable band that emerged during the mid-to-late 90s, the answer seems to lie in their ability to soak up the punishment and keep forging ahead.
“The only way to learn is to make mistakes, you know?” Johan shrugs. “The trick is to actually learn from them. If you learn from your mistakes, you won’t repeat them and then you’ll grow and become better, both as a person and as a band. So that’s one of the key things that we’ve always been good at, to take away the lessons and bring them with us for when things have gone to shit. We know to say, ‘We won’t do that again!’ and then take a different approach.”
It’s hard to imagine now, but Amon Amarth received a fair amount of criticism back in their early days for their passionate embracing of Viking imagery and symbols that were being routinely hijacked by far right, Nazisympathising movements in Sweden and beyond. Once again, unwavering belief in what they were trying to achieve saw them through and made it possible to eventually establish themselves as official heavy metal figureheads for Viking culture.
“Back then our approach was, ‘Fuck that!’ We shouldn’t have to stop doing what we like just because someone else was using those symbols,” says Ted. “The neo-Nazis use Viking symbols, but we didn’t care about that. We had the absolute right to use that stuff in the proper way, in a good way. So we just went full steam ahead, showing people that
we were the real Vikings. I guess it paid off!”
Basking in the glow of a 25-year job well done, Amon Amarth don’t have much to complain about at this point in time, but just over a decade ago the band’s story nearly came to an abrupt halt. Despite growing in popularity with each successive album and tour, the Swedes were feeling deeply frustrated by their lack of major breakthroughs as they began work on what would become their fourth studio album, 2002’s Versus The World. As Johan explains, the reality of being a full-time band with all the pressures and trials that entails was nearly enough to bring Amon Amarth to a premature end.
“Back then, in our warped minds, we’d been touring a lot and we felt we were better than we actually were,” Johan admits today. “We felt we deserved to get a shot at headlining and we decided to do it. We got a chance to do a headline tour in Europe but it was a disaster. We made it through, but after that we just felt like, ‘Fuck this, it’s not worth it!’ We were taking time off work so we couldn’t have any vacation, because all of that went towards touring and recording. It was too much. In the end, we decided to do the last album we had on our contract with Metal Blade. We were going to call it The End and it was gonna be this big thing about the end of the world and then that would be it.”
Of course, we know that Amon Amarth didn’t give up. Realising that their new material was actually pretty fucking good, The End became Versus The World and went on to be the breakthrough the band had needed in Europe. Songs like riotous opener Death In Fire confirmed that Johan and his comrades were refining and upgrading their trademark sound. Suddenly, everything started to come together and Amon Amarth marched forward with renewed alacrity.
“When we’d recorded Versus The World, we had a press day and everybody loved the album, so we were all feeling pretty positive about it,” Johan remembers. “But then at Wacken Open Air, we played Death In Fire for the very first time and the response was amazing. That was one of those pivotal moments. I felt like, ‘OK, maybe this is worth doing…’ I felt there was a chance for us to keep doing this.”
“When you’ve had many disappointments, the music scene can be very tough,” adds Ted. “You hit obstacles on the way and you become frustrated and start to think, ‘Fuck this shit, let’s go back to the normal 9 to 5 thing…’ But hopefully
“We learned lessons from the times things Went to shit!”
“We ignored the neo-nazis and used Viking symbols in a good Way”
you always think, ‘Give it one more chance!’ It’s always worth trying a little more. So we got over that bump, and from that moment we were stronger and more focused, to go 100% into this.”
Steady and incremental, Amon Amarth’s success took a lot of people by surprise, but you would have to be daft to deny that the Swedes have taken to their headlining status with great style. Few metal bands of the modern era have such a profound understanding of what makes heavy metal work and why it means so much to so many people. Even fewer bands have a stage show that features a full-size longboat, authentic battling Vikings and enough fire to make Satan himself feel like opening a window. What comes across most strongly in Amon Amarth’s live performances, however, is how much fun the band are having, living out their heavy metal dreams and defying the usual commercial odds into the bargain. Twenty-five years after penning Thor Arise, Amon Amarth are still putting in the work and deservedly reaping the rewards. For now, Valhalla can wait. In 2019, the march to glory begins all over again.
“We have a great fucking album on the way and we’re really happy,” states Ted. “It feels like we’re taking everything to the next step. We have a super-cool vibe in the band at the moment. We have the DVD and the documentary, too, so there are a lot of things going on and that’s how we like it. We want to be busy and creative all the time.”
“It feels great to be where we are right now,” Johan concludes. “For me personally, playing the shows is definitely the best part of this job, because you get the connection with the fans. So when you have some success and you can put on a big, Iron Maiden-esque stage show and it’s an experience, the crowd can walk away and feel that they’ve been part of something. That’s one of the best feelings there is.”
the drum riser is a Viking helmet. a VIKING helmet
You don’t get this shit with michael Bublé
couple of people tuned up.to Summer Breeze last year…
ted lundström: absolute Vikingbloody #lad
Valhalla can wait – amon amarth are having far toomuch fun on midgard
Johan hegg: massive wristbands or badass ferret saddles?
ted lundström and olavi mikkonen give us a tour oftheir hometown, tumba