Jomsviking, the 10th album by Swedish Viking-metal heroes Amon Amarth, is a departure in many ways. The band has changed drummers, altered its colour scheme—going for cold blues and whites instead of its usual apocalyptic reds and blacks—and, most surprisingly, abandoned Norse mythology as its central lyrical inspiration.
“We wanted to try something new,” guitarist Johan Söderberg, reached on the road in Omaha, tells the Straight. “It’s more like a story,” he explains. “We’re not going to say we’re not going to go back and write about mythology again. It’s just on this album we wanted a story of a guy instead.”
Their main character is a young Viking, exiled after a murder, who joins the Jomsvikings, a real-life order of pagan mercenaries and warriors that existed in 10th- and 11th-century Scandinavia. After many battles, the protagonist returns home to find that the girl he loves has forgotten him, and his father holds him in scorn. After one last battle, he’s dispatched to Valhalla forevermore.
The story may be grim—Söderberg says unhappy endings are “more convincing”, and that “a little darkness makes the story more appealing to us”—but the music, this time out, is some of the band’s most anthemic, melodic, and empowering. Söderberg explains this is partly because the album was written without a drummer. (Fredrik Andersson left the band in 2015, after 17 years behind the kit; he was replaced on the album by Tobias Gustafsson, and on the road by Joakim “Jocke” Wallgren, who might become a permanent member.)
Not having a drummer when writing “gave more room for us”—Söderberg and his fellow guitarist Olavi Mikkonen—“to also write the drum parts, and not to have so much kick drums all the time, which makes the melodies stand out more.”
The two wrote music based around singer Johan Hegg’s narrative framework; Hegg then added the finished lyrics to their music. Söderberg’s contributions include most of “A Dream That Cannot Be”, “One Thousand Burning Arrows”, and “One Against All”.
You can roughly tell who wrote what by following who plays the lead guitar in concert.
“If I write the song,” Söderberg explains, “then usually I play the lead part, and if Olavi writes the song, usually he plays the lead part. But sometimes, of course, that switches.”
The band will be bringing to Vancouver the “biggest production we’ve ever had on an American tour, and the most theatrical”, which is saying something, considering that past productions have seen a whole Viking ship on-stage. “We have a very big Viking helmet as a drum riser, we change backdrops lots, and we have two guys who do some Viking fights on-stage.”
As for Norse myth, there are still hints of it—references to Odin, Thor, and the dragon Níðhöggr. But its presence or absence is of no great concern to Söderberg. “For me, it’s just a cool theme to write music to.”
It’s hard to resist asking at least one question about the Viking world-view, though. Like, how does he understand the concept of Valhalla, the Viking afterlife?
“To live back in those days must have been really hard,” Söderberg offers. “So it was an image that made everyday life easier, so they wouldn’t be afraid of dying, or adventure—to not be afraid to go out on the sea on a small boat. They really believed ‘When I die, I’m going to go to a big hall and drink beer and eat roasted pig every night.’ ”
Does the idea have any bearing on his own conception of the afterlife?
“I think there’s probably something that’s going to happen when you die,” he says. “I don’t know what it is, but I would think it strange if it’s only, you fade to black and nothing else happens. But I’m pretty sure I’m not going to wake up in Valhalla!”
Amon Amarth plays the Commodore Ballroom on Monday (May 16).