“The thing is, we’re from Sweden. We’re in love with alcohol.”
It’s later than you think on a long and muggy Monday night in Chicago. Hammer has spent the last 13-or-so hours watching Viking Metal champs Amon Amarth guzzle every form of booze imaginable, and only now is it even taking visible effect. Only two Amarths are still on the prowl, the rest of their warrior clan resting from a night of sonic plundering back on their crowded tour bus.
Weird-bearded man-mountain Johan Hegg, Amarth’s frontman, is two seats down, holding court with a clutch of enraptured fans. Next to me is bass player Ted Lundström, the joker in the pack, who has just uttered the understatement of the year.
“Hashish and marijuana, that stuff is around, but it’s very rare in Sweden,” Ted continues. He promises me that at the end of this monologue, Hammer will know exactly what the difference is between Europe and the US.
“So, we’re on our very first European tour, and we’re sharing a bus with the American band Brutal Truth. This is about 12 years ago. You know, I wake up, and I make a vodka and orange juice drink. It’s like 10 in the morning. Now Dan Lilker, he smokes his first bowl of whatever the fuck it is that he smokes. And I’m like, ‘Dude, it’s 10 o’clock in the morning and you’re smoking weed? That’s fucked up’. And he says, ‘You’re drinking vodka at 10 in the morning, and that’s more fucked up’. And I’m like, ‘Fuck that, in Sweden, it’s perfectly OK to drink vodka at nine in the morning, man’. It was, how do you call it? A culture collision.”
The Congress theatre is in a blown-out mess of a Chicago neighbourhood called Bucktown. It’s spackled with Taquerias, pawn shops, and make-shift whore-houses. It looks like the kind of place where low-rent vampires feast after nightfall. The perfect spot, then, for the Sounds Of The Underground tour, a gangly, many-tentacled freakshow headlined by GWAR and attended, seemingly, by every awkward teenage misfit in America.
The shows start early and feature an ungodly amount of faceless baby-bands that suckle the teats of whatever screamo and hardcore acts managed to pass through their suburbs two years ago. It seems like the last place you’d find five surly, long-haired Swedes, which is exactly why they’ve chosen it. Amon Amarth are the only European band on the tour. Physically they tower over most of the other bands, and their music is a two megaton warhead in comparison to the reedy noise that punctuates most of the show’s running time. They are here, simply, to flatten the competition and conquer America.
“That’s exactly what we’re here for”, says Amon frontman Jogan Hegg over breakfast beers on the band’s bus. “That’s what we came here to do.”
Amon Amarth formed in Stockholm in 1992. They have strayed very little from their initial agenda over the years, to bash out chest-beating true metal for a fanatical cult of headbanging hordes.
“Our style of music has always been the same”, says guitarist Ollie Mikkonen. “We have gotten more melodic over time, and you can hear what Johan is singing more now, but we are a traditional metal band, and we have been this way for 15 years.”
Part of Amon’s enduring allure is their affection for all things Viking. Their songs are solemn battle metal epics, and usually end with their horn-helmeted heroes bleeding to death in the snow and pledging vengeance from beyond the grave. This obsession with ancient warriors has earned them many thousands of dedicated fans, but it’s also caused them a fair amount of grief, mostly from Swedish journalists, who’ve called them everything from cheese-dealers to right-wing fanatics. Neither of these accusations are true, however. Amon Amarth just really, really like Vikings.
“In Europe, we incorporate real Vikings in our stage show”, Ollie tells me. He says this so matter of factly it takes a few seconds to sink in.
Er, what do you mean by the term, ‘real Vikings’?
“They’re fighting Vikings, man. I play in a band, and they fight with swords. There’s Viking marketplaces in Europe all summer long, where Vikings meet and have these battles.”
Johan pulls a laptop from somewhere and shows me footage of the band playing at a festival. Between songs, guys in chain-mail and armour batter each other with blunted swords. It’s quite remarkable.
“In Detroit, we have some fans that always bring us mead to drink”, Johan says.
I ask him if they bring it to them in a horn.
“No, they bring it in fuckin’ Gatorade bottles”, he says, laughing.
I point out that Vikings didn’t have electricity, so there’s no way of knowing whether Amon’s horse-panicking wall-of-riffs would have pleased their ancestors.
“Yeah. of course”, Ollie says, rolling his eyes. “But listen, if they had this kind of music back then, believe me, Vikings would listen to metal.”
Hammer tends to agree with that statement. And so, the morning burns on. Amon prefer the sanctuary of their battered bus to the unrelenting sun, heat, and chaos that lurks just outside. They nurse Budweisers and tell tall tales. Their road manager, a sly, long-haired Swede with deceptively disarming granny glasses named Arne, brings a mother and daughter on board. The mom is 35 and aged to perfection, her daughter 17 and stunning.
“Listen guys”, he says, “These two lovely ladies are taking me to see the Sears tower. You’re OK, yah?”
The band nod, bemused. It’s the last we will see of Arne today. A few minutes later, Amon’s guitar tech, an excitable American kid named Brian, bounds onto the bus.
“Jesus, listen to this”, he says. “So I’m out back, and this kid goes, ‘Excuse me while I piss in this cup’, and then he pisses in the cup. And then the fuckin’ guy takes a sip. Fuckin’ gross. Who drinks piss?”
The band crack up. The mood is so light, you’d never expect the sheer sonic terror Amon unleashes on the crowd less than an hour later. “Hey Chicago, so how are you guys feeling tonight?” It’s actually three in the afternoon, but that’s close enough for rock’n’roll, Johan.
Live, Amon Amarth don’t deal in riffs so much as skull splintering hammer blows. You can hear the ancient Berserker blood flowing through their veins as they dole out pure aural devastation in a bludgeoning 25-minute set laced with perennial fan favourites like Runes To My Memory, Death In Fire and a lumbering,doom-powered The Pursuit Of Vikings. The kids are decimated, slayed, left shaky and open- jawed. On a tour laced with skinny, short-haired suburban brats, Amon Amarth command the stage like true Gods of Thunder.
After their set is over, Amon’s real work begins.
This was published in Metal Hammer issue 170
Amon Amarth play on the Ronnie James Dio Stage at the Bloodstock Open Air Festival on August 10. Get your tickets here.
Johan Hegg has landed his first role. It’s typecasting, really. Find out about it here