Amon Amarth - _Twilight of the Thunder God_
(Metal Blade, 2008)
by: Alexandra Erickson (8 out of 10)
It landed on my desk a few days ago, much to my fan girl delight. What is probably one of the most widely-anticipated releases of 2008 in the metal universe, _Twilight of the Thunder God_ from Amon Amarth made its American debut without much public fervor. We still have to wait to see how it hits the charts, but it's safe to say it probably won't make the top 10 spots that it's seen on European charts. Alas, I digress. I've been waiting for a year for this album, since they announced they had begun compiling material for it. I've followed the progress of it with bated breath; the studio blogs, the album art releases, the tracks leaked on their MySpace page, the comic strips.

Simply from an aesthetic standpoint, this album is a step back in their discography. The cover art itself stands shoulder to shoulder with the heroic interpretations on the covers of their earlier releases. _Twilight_'s art depicts Thor grasping his hammer high while Jörmungandr is poised to strike in an epic artistic rendition, befitting the grand battle recounted down through Norse tradition. They released this album in a plethora of formats and special issues; I ended up with the DVD special edition. Bound as a book (yes, a hardback book), it not only contains the album but also live recordings of their performance at Summer Breeze 2007, both in CD format as well as a DVD from the festival. But this entire _Twilight_ campaign has been slightly self-indulgent on the band's part; they released a set of ceramic bobble heads of the band members, as well as commissioning a comic book depicting the aforementioned battle between Thor and Jörmungandr, that's been running in Terrorizer magazine. The comic book was also turned into a hard back book and released in limited quantities with certain special edition sets of the album, only available via Metal Blade's mail-order. I didn't know exactly how to receive this merchandising frenzy, and on some level, it greatly lowered my expectations for the album. A band that I've respected and held dear for as long as I've listened to metal, taking a step into the limelight this way?

I've had the album on nonstop since I received it, and it had taken me a good fifteen times through to really start appreciating it. When they announced the guest appearances from Apocalyptica and Children of Bodom's Roope Larvala, my heart sank a little. Their popularity has skyrocketed over the past few releases, and taking in members from the easily-digestible, overly popular metal standards for guest spots on this album was disheartening for most all of Amon Amarth's cornerstone fan base. But, like I said, after listening to the full album without pause has brought me full circle from my preconceived "This is going to be a hard pill to swallow" notions, to actually liking -- no, loving the album.

The album opens on a particularly strong note with the title track, "Twilight of the Thunder God". Getting back to the speedier, Swedish melodic death sound they've honed so well but lost pretty drastically on their last two releases (_With Oden on Our Side_ and _Fate of Norns_), it's nothing short of a standard, epic Amon Amarth song that we all fell in (and out) of love with. Ripped open midstream by a solo from Roope Larvala, it heralds Vikings worldwide to take up arms and fight on 'til Ragnarok. I'm not sure how the solo will translate live between Soderberg and Mikkonen; the band hasn't been known for its wailing solos and goosebump-inducing shredding, but I'm sure they worked that out beforehand... right?

The second track, "Free Will Sacrifice", starts on a terribly standard death metal note, and if you listen to nothing but the first fifteen seconds of the song, you won't want to continue on; but do. Unapologetically they tear into fist-raising, melodic territory, countered gloriously with Johan Hegg's leathery vocals. The track does chug on at points, feeling more like your local death metal opening act rather than giants of "Viking metal", but it redeems itself with the melodies. The same can be said about the third track, "Guardians of Asgaard", in so much as it can be taken as generic in every sense of the word at points. Seemingly written to be easily head-banged and circle-pitted to, it's one of the weaker tracks on the album. A crying shame, because it features guest vocals from none other than Entombed's Lars Göran Petrov, whose voice pairs exquisitely with Heggs. Both incalculably strong male death metal vocalists, play off each other in such a way that you can't help but find yourself tapping your foot or finger-drumming along. It does prove itself as a slightly stronger track at points, with a melodic refrain capped off by a wailing solo from Soderberg.

The fourth track, "Where Is Your God?" showcases Hegg's vocal abilities, the high rasp but easily-understood terrain often lost in death metal. It's one of the faster paced songs on the album, the chorus lifted by dual guitar harmony that accompanies the lyrics perfectly ("Raid is done! See the country burn. All are gone! Only misery remains."). The fourth track, "Varyags of Miklagaard" (a reference to the Vikings who traveled to south to Constantinople) is strongly reminiscent of classic Amon Amarth; ripping, unrelenting with its annihilating vocals and tight drumming. Not sounding at all generic, aside from being standard Amon Amarth, they bring staunch fans back into the album with this track. I'll even give them many kudos for the lyrical content. While being still very much Viking-centric, they pay homage to those that travelled out of the Russian realm and down to the Middle East, a subject that's never come up in previous albums.

The latter portion of the album is head and shoulders above the first four tracks. If steadfast fans made it through the first half, it will redeem itself greatly with the second. "Tattered Banners and Bloody Flags" is epic in every sense of the word. With lyrics about Ragnarok, this track can easily become one of their vanguard efforts. Tremolo picking abounding, dual guitar harmonies, machine-gun drumming, all seemingly a call to arms to fight in the epic battle. This track, and this one alone, made up for the weaknesses found earlier on the album. "No Fear for the Setting Sun", track seven, is another step in the right direction. Sliced through by a strong guitar solo that tears right into a brutal chorus, fond memories of _the Avenger_ are brought to the forefront.

The last three tracks stand out even farther, and I'm thankful for that. Ending the album on an ever ascending strong note was a brilliant way to go, whether it was an intentional act or not. "The Hero" is an outstanding track, slightly thrashy but still very death-laden and never straying too terribly far from the melodic path. The ability Amon Amarth shows to stay very tight-knit and almost organic in not only their song-writing but also in their production, working as a single unit rather than individuals, is showcased beautifully on this track. Timing is key, and whether it's when to back off and accent the lyrics, or when to drop in the double bass louder, or when to shred, they do it well.

Track nine, "Live for the Kill", is my personal favorite. I'm a sucker for dual guitar harmonies, as well as Johan Hegg and everything he does. His vocals are as stirring and strong as ever. It's Amon Amarth at their best, very standard swampy chugging parts, melodic parts that show an ability to focus the listener on the lyrics. I was surprised completely at how well the Apocalyptica appearance fits with the track, as much to my chagrin as that is to admit. They use the strings well, especially in a lyrical context. Coming at the end of a fast paced, balls-out effort from every instrument in the band, falling into the pillowy soft cello work, it works. In a song written to exalt the majesty of wolves and their hunting tactics, it works to tell the story of the hunt.

The album ends with "Embrace of the Endless Ocean". It's an epic effort, even by Amon Amarth standards. Opening with typical Swedish melodic death work, the track never strays into the generic death realm seen earlier on the album, nor does it stray too far from the path beaten by the band on all of their previous releases. The song recounts the tale of a Viking who was enslaved and is freed and is now on his way home, but meets tragedy on his journey when the seas overtake his ship and he is consumed by the ocean and meets his fate there. Clocking in at almost seven minutes long, it's epic in every sense. A majority of the track is instrumental and almost miserable in its aura. Quite lovely.

I'm a staunch Amon Amarth fan; I wear it on my sleeve. Parts of _Twilight of the Thunder God_ leave me with jaw agape in what feel like the ruins of my once-dear band's career. The nu-metal crowds will flock to this release, no doubt about it, with deep chugging bass lines and awkward breakdowns. But rest assured they redeem themselves fully with parts of the album. While it was recorded at Fascination Street Studio (where they recorded _Fate of Norns_), it feels like they fell back into 1999 during _the Avenger_ recordings. It's a catchy album, overall. Every fan, old and new alike, will be sated with this one. Just please, listen to it in its entirety. It'll be worth your patience, I guarantee.


(article published 8/10/2008)

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