There’s a certain comfort in picking up a new Amon Amarth album. It’s like your weekly grocery list. Vikings? Check. Battle and glory? Most definitely. Blood of your enemies? Better get a 12-pack in case there’s company. It took about 15 years, and eight albums for their mead of poetry to properly age but Deceiver of the Gods proved that constant improvement always brings rewards; their magnum opus came to them after worldwide renown and countless international tours. So what happens when you reach the point of the subgenre you created? For this Swedish quintet, the answer seems to be slowly breaking the mold you created.
What once was a band of raging, wild, young bloods seems to have mellowed slightly. With the subtle stylistic modifications and lyrical themes centering around great fighters of Norse legends (alongside the standard menu of Viking related tales), this feels like the introspective musings of an aging warrior who is nearing his final, glorious battle and simply wants to ascend to Valhalla with a blaze of honor and glory. The only true problem with building a niche market in the metal world is that, from day one, your sound is slowly being backed into a corner. Sabaton, Civil War, and Keldian have all carved out their corners of the empire in a similar manner. And with Amon Amarth leading the pack in seniority and popularity, Berserker feels like a rejection of what we think we know about the brotherhood of steel as well as a deft maneuver to continue down the path they started with the concept album Jomsviking just a few years ago.
What was once deemed melodic death metal has morphed into an extreme form of death-tinged folk metal. The characteristic unstoppable shield wall of sound is still evident in every track on Berserker, but the use of drums is somehow more focused on blending with the charge instead of leading it. It becomes less about brutal beatdowns and more of a skilled dance; blast beats aren’t needed when the inherent nature of the beast is pure heavy metal. Their new recording style of completely finishing a song before moving on (thanks to Jay Ruston of Anthrax recording fame) shows through in just the thoughtfulness of layering sounds as well as finer attention to detail in the technical playing aspect. The final track “Into the Dark” features an orchestral intro as well as “Valkeria” surprising us all with a pensive piano outdo (which seems to be an austere and well-placed nod to the song’s conflicting lyrical content). Instrumentals aside, Johan Hegg takes a few risky steps with his already established sound, but it pays off when his guttural, grinding pipes do a volte-face and swings to a full, rich bass that reminds me of a granite block being dragged across polished marble. His voice retains the deadly edge of a trusted battle axe, a known entity full of surprising potential in the hands of this particular wielder who’s drive is rage tempered with experience and wisdom.
All in all, I know Berserker isn’t enough to change the minds of those metalheads who’ve fallen into the “it all sounds the same” mindset, but to fans and fence riders, it’s most definitely good enough to pick up and dig into. The breakdown in Shieldwall alone constantly reminds me just why Amon Amarth has had the staying power to compete on the international stage for decades. I wish they had taken bigger leaps on the tracks that ventured into the softer side of going Viking. From the small hints and hooks they dangled in front of us on this album I’m left wanting more or just a little more commitment to the idea, especially Hegg’s clean vocals. In the end, a solid 7/10. Some small surprises here and there but nothing to raid home about.