Heavy metal has long drawn parallels between the rampaging Norse conquerors of the Middle Ages and life as a touring band. Since Led Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song in 1970, Vikings have held special fascination for our favourite musicians, with Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden, Manowar, Sabaton, The Darkness and countless more paying tribute to their roving spirit.
Viking Metal isn’t a sound, it spans all the best heavy styles: death, black, trad, doom, power, prog, folk, even the Norse glam of TNT. Wherever the thematic obsession with hairy heathens storming coastlines is writ largest, there shall ye find Viking Metal. Here are ten crucial exemplars, each worthy of a place on Valhalla’s Golden Jukebox.
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Heavy Load – Stronger Than Evil (1983)
The world’s first Viking-obsessed metal band, Stockholm’s Heavy Load were penning odes to Thor and Valhalla as far back as the mid-70s. By 1983 the theme had really taken root, fitting perfectly into the era’s sword-wielding metal milieu. Along with pumped-up Norse headbangers like The King, Singing Swords and Roar Of The North, the LP gloried in an 80s-as-fuck hand-painted sleeve depicting a Nordic beefcake mid-pillage, while the song titles written as carved runes and the big Thor’s Hammer confirmed this cult Swedish gem as the full epic Viking motherlode, way ahead of the curve.
Bathory – Hammerheart (1990)
It was a radical reinvention that saw Quorthon develop away from the snarling Satanic black thrash that had made Bathory such an inspirational force in the 80s, towards the epic, doom-laden throb dominating his early 90s work, which proved equally influential on another generation of heathen headbangers. Giving authentically wayward voice to an impassioned clean-voiced chant that seems to echo across a thousand years, Quorthon nailed the effects-laden atmospherics with a stack of tunes that still define Viking metal as powerfully as ever, especially the infectious staccato Baptised In Fire And Ice and the closing grandeur of One Rode To Asa Bay.
Enslaved – Eld (1997)
Seizing the Viking mantle from Bathory with the most full-throttle visual commitment, Enslaved reached the obsessive pinnacle with their third album, frontman Grutle Kjellson on the cover looking every inch the relaxed Norseman back from a raid. Often overlooked between their earlier BM and later prog material, Eld zeroes in on the essence of Viking metal, constructing its most windswept and mighty epic, 793 (The Battle Of Lindisfarne), an immersive masterpiece building and shifting with savage grace. The rest of the album’s no slouch either, with Hordalendingen (The Man From Hordaland) kicking off with one of the greatest playful-but-sinister riffs in any genre.
Borknagar – The Olden Domain (1997)
Broadening out from the arcane, nature-worshipping raw black metal of their 1996 debut, this authentic supergroup were one of a spearhead of Norwegian bands pushing genre boundaries in ’97, but never losing the importance of their cryptic black metallic backbone. The Olden Domain was partly the result of guitarist Øystein G. Brun rediscovering the Pink Floyd and Jethro Tull albums in his dad’s record collection, seeking to wed 70s prog influences to the extreme metal backdrop, drawing it all together with impassioned clean vocal chants, haunting synths, fragile folk melodies and a tangible atmosphere of ancient mystique.
Vintersorg – Till Fjälls (1998)
It’s rare enough for a band to make their definitive statement right off the bat, with a debut that nails every aspect of a precociously distinctive sound with compositional maturity and atmospheric mastery. It’s properly unheard of for that band to also consist of just one man, yet Andreas Hedlund bears the sole responsibility for every note written and performed on Till Fjälls (To The Mountains), a cult classic opus bringing the gentlest folky cadances up against the most tumultuous pagan black metal, Vintersorg’s resonant mysticism and bardic eccentricity offering a glance at Viking tropes, from outside looking in at the Great Heathen Army.
Doomsword – Let Battle Commence (2003)
Viking metal tends to flourish most in the historic Viking strongholds of Northern Europe, so cult Italian die-hards DoomSword are virtually unique, actively repudiating the discipline and order of their Roman forebears to conjur rich atmospheres of marauding Norsemen in battle as powerfully as any Scandi-native. The whole album tells the story of the Viking siege of York in 866, the rugged, economical riffs augmented with sounds of galloping hooves, clashing swords, crackling fires and resounding war horns, while the criminally overlooked power-doom quintet sensitively capture both the brutish bravado and the war-weary melancholy of the Norse frontline.
Einherjer – Blot (2003)
These men from Rogaland named themselves after the warriors escorted by valkyries to Valhalla for feasting and fighting while awaiting the final battle of Ragnarok. On their fourth album the Norwegians sound ready for the challenge; the sound is darker and slicker, Grimar’s voice dirtier and nastier, and the tunes have greater punch and more elegant melody. In fact, the album was so strong the band split up in 2004, unsure how to follow such a definitive statement of Viking metal fundamentals. They were back eight years later, but they have yet to capture the dramatic essence as powerfully as Blot.
Tyr – Eric The Red (2003)
Bringing a fresh perspective on the scene from a former Viking enclave where no metal band had hitherto emerged – the mysterious Faroe Islands – Týr were a breath of fresh North Atlantic air right from their beguilingly off-kilter 2002 debut. This follow-up sharpened and advanced the quartet’s unorthodox impulses, the assimilation of traditional Faroese folk music into a progressive-power metal framework guaranteeing the band their own extraordinary sound, style and perspective, demanding and rewarding repeated exploration. Quirkily anthemic, diverse, emotional, upbeat, strangely beautiful and wholly unique, Eric The Red guaranteed Týr recognition and respect far beyond their homeland’s narrow boundaries.
Unleashed – Midvinterblot (2006)
Among the rarefied elite of Swedish death metal, Unleashed set themselves firmly in the Viking vanguard on a string of so-so mid-90s releases. Midvinterblot is where it all came together, the razor-sharp brutality of their early work cohering alongside Berserker moves to gift Viking metal one of its most incisive masterworks; no sound effects or fancy-dress faff, just brute-force riffing and bloodthirsty roaring. It’s not all Viking-based - serial killers, Rwandan genocide and even Sauron get a look in - but when the rollicking title track demands we “Hail Odin,” “raise your horns” and “drink to victory”, how can we refuse?
Amon Amarth – Twilight Of The Thunder God (2008)
These sainted Swedes made six killer Viking-based albums before TOTTG, but this was both the breakthrough and the abiding fan favourite. Entering the Billboard Top 50 and edging the hirsute quintet into metal’s mainstream, the LP represented a neatly-executed move towards a more fulsomely melodic and streamlined sound that made Sabaton sit up and take notice (the Swedish War Machine covered the thrilling title track, one of AA’s most-played and best-loved songs). Amon Amarth became such visible cultural representives of Viking themes, frontman Johan Hegg was headhunted to play a brutal Norseman in 2014 movie Northmen - A Viking Saga.