They come from the land of the ice and snow, with swords and beards and drinking horns, pillaging and looting, fighting and marauding. That kind of thing.
They’ve been a hardy mainstay of heavy metal iconography for decades, even inspiring their own loosely definable sub-genre.
We donned our horned headgear and manned the longboats to work out the 10 best rock and metal songs about Vikings – and because there are too many to choose from, and because we always wanted to use this pun for something: Bathory’s not included.
Led Zeppelin – Immigrant Song (Led Zeppelin III, 1970)
With Page’s urgent choppy riff and Percy’s chest-beating bravado, this provocatively-titled rampage set the template for future Viking metal, these glorious lyrics tapping into an ancient spirit of roving conquest with clear parallels to the decadent devastation of Zeppelin on tour.
Cover versions by Dark Angel, The Sword, Infectious Grooves, Demons & Wizards, even the brilliantly bold live mangling by Enslaved, can’t match the swashbuckling majesty of the original.
Peter Hammill – Viking (Fool’s Mate, 1971)
The first solo album by Van Der Graaf Generator’s founding frontman and all-round prog mastermind was an expansive affair.
This moody conjuration of authentic Viking names (“Aud the Deep-Minded, Snorri Thorbrandsson, Thorstein The Black”) and sensations (“Helmets and sheepskins salt-damp in the sea-mist”) begins like a Bathory intro, with crashing waves and acoustic chords, but builds into a blissful folk-jazz psych jam with harmonica, saxophone, flute and harp.
Iron Maiden – Invaders (The Number Of The Beast,1982)
An inauspicious kids’ TV theme tune of a song to open Iron Maiden’s defining statement, Invaders gave Bruce a convoluted tongue-twister to kick off his first Maiden album: “Longboats have been sighted and the evidence of war has begun.”
However it’s a poetical improvement on the first line of Maiden’s earlier demo track on the same theme, Invasion: “The Vikings are coming, you’d better get ready for we’re having a fight.”
Heavy Load – Singing Swords (Stronger Than Evil, 1983)
Debuting in 1978, Stockholm’s nattiest barbarians Heavy Load were the world’s first devotedly Viking metal band, with dead-giveaway song titles like Heathens From The North and Son Of The Northern Light and endearingly amateurish sleeve art depicting fur-clad Nordic beefcakes brandishing swords in a fjord. Singing Swords is the Trooper-esque song of a dying Viking as he bleeds to death on the battlefield anticipating Valhalla, heavy metal’s second favourite afterlife.
TNT– Seven Seas (Knights Of The New Thunder, 1984)
An unfairly forgotten nugget of ‘80s melodic rock with diamond-hard guitars and a poodle-soft chorus, with a video that introduced longboats to MTV (along with TNT’s 1984-to-a-tee hair and wardrobe). Lyrically the Norwegian band proudly place themselves in the Viking tradition, declaring: “The longboat force is back again to take on all the world.” TNT didn’t quite conquer the world, but this stirring chorus can still reduce (drunk) grown men to tears.
Yngwie J. Malmsteen’S Rising Force – I Am A Viking (Marching Out, 1985)
This weighty slice of ornate Gothic doom is far more elegant and sublime than its comically overstated title – and this Swedish shred virtuoso’s reputation for cheese – would seem to suggest. His music was faintly risible at times, but this prime ‘80s metal cut retains its power and dignity, even with lyrics like “You are a loser and it’s such a shame that you’re a fool and you don’t know that I’m a Viking.”
Black Sabbath – Valhalla (Tyr, 1990)
It took Tony Iommi 20 years to lend his hulking dark riff-tones to a Viking theme, but it was worth the wait. 1990’s Tyr is an underrated classic of Sabbath’s middle period, unleashing a heavier, more epic sound after the borderline AOR of the late ‘80s.
Drenched in atmospheres of Norse mythology, Tyr was a cornerstone in the development of Viking metal in the ‘90s, and Valhalla was perhaps its strongest punch-the-air chorus.
Enslaved – 793 (The Battle Of Lindisfarne) (Eld, 1997)
These Norwegian black metallers were always proudly steeped in Norse myth, but on their masterly third album they embraced the Viking aesthetic with gleeful rigour, from the fancy-dress photo shoot to the drums that sound like woodblocks. This magisterial 16-minute opener commemorates the year that a marauding mob of hairy hooligans arrived in Northumberland and slaughtered a load of peaceful unarmed monks. Not much of a battle, then, really.
Amon Amarth – The Dragons’ Flight Across The Waves (Once Sent From The Golden Hall, 1997)
Metal’s most Viking-obsessed band have a catalogue bulging with killer songs on this theme, but there’s something audaciously sensitive about these early lyrics.
Bands often sing of the fearless Norseman off on a raid, they seldom mention his heartbreak at leaving his family behind: “He returns to his bed kissing his sleeping wife goodbye, And as he leaves his youngest son a tear rolls from his eye.” Aw, bless the Viking.
Sabaton – Swedish Pagans (The Art Of War Re-Armed, 2010)
With one of the catchiest rallying chants in recent heavy metal history, Sabaton’s inevitable take on the military tactics of their own Viking history - written for the live environment – carries a special emotive surge.
Although avowedly neutral politically, the Swedish War Machine allow themselves a measure of pride in their marauding heathen ancestors, “Forged in Valhalla by the hammer of Thor.” And who can blame them?