LIVE REVIEW: Amon Amarth May 6, 2011, TLA, Philadelphia

Let’s put this in perspective. I can’t recall — ever! — a band of Amon Amarth’s music style and profile doing a full U.S. tour without direct or local support. That includes every legend in the book. Entombed, Morbid Angel, Cannibal Corpse, Vader, Carcass, Napalm Death, Obituary, etc. Sure, they may’ve done a string of gigs where they were their own opening act, but I seriously doubt any of the aforementioned could set the same itinerary, book the same venues, and live to tell about it financially happy as Thor’s hammer-shaped package after a night in one of Valhalla’s dark corridors with Freya. Amon Amarth are huge!

As kid after kid—all sporting Amon Amarth t-shirts from various albums and tours past—poured into the Theater of Living Arts, I quickly thought about the possibility of any Hall of Fame act doing a similar deal. Incantation? Shit, those dudes can’t even show up to their own Hall of Fame induction show on time. True story. A full U.S. tour of Amon Amarth’s caliber? Never, ever. Paradise Lost? Legends for sure, but Americans have never truly warmed to the sad sounds of Greg Mackintosh and Nick Holmes. What about Entombed? Last time I remember Entombed limping through the U.S. was for the Inferno record. And they could barely fill half the Balcony Bar (capacity 250) in Philadelphia. OK, we do have some pretty amazing Hall of Famers. Slayer, Testament, Anthrax, Rollins Band, Meshuggah, Converge, Mastodon, Down, Metallica, Black Sabbath, Motörhead, and Killing Joke could pull off Amon Amarth’s brave no-support, two-set feat. But none of the aforementioned are death metal. Pretty incredible, actually.

Unfortunately, for Amon Amarth the set-up took ages. For one band, hitting the stage on time shouldn’t be an issue, but there we were bored to tears as the drum tech fiddled with this, pounded on that. Then, the guitar tech came out. A mélange of notes here. Fidgeting with gear there. Unless “the deuce” arrived in Philadelphia late, there should be no reason battle-ready, pumpkin-colored (have you seen Amon Amarth t-shirts?) punters be left waiting and waiting for Viking-powered death metal to blow minds.

But once Amon Amarth took the stage, all was forgotten and the Theater of Living Arts was sent into sweaty frenzy, as “War of the Gods”, the lead-off track from Surtur Rising, thundered like Odin flatuating from the tippy-top of a Cumulonimbus. In truth, Amon Amarth sounded a bit sheepish. To the point where me and my fellow concert warrior Tim had to unseat our earplugs to get the full effect. Exactly why Amon Amarth were touring sans-support was to promote Surtur Rising. The Swedes played Surtur Rising front to back, and apart from “Slaves of Fear”, which premiered on the dBlog to much fanfare, “The Last Stand of Frej”, “A Beast Am I”, and “Wrath of the Norsemen” kind of sounded…well, uneventful. Most of Johan Söderberg and Olavi Mikkonen’s fret work was lost in heavy helpings of bass, drums, and, weirdly enough, vocals. “Doom over Dead Man”, as slow-tempo-ed as it, was a fitting closer to set one. Finally, Söderberg and Mikkonen’s creeping melodicism (midway into the song, especially) peeked out from the unfair (and unfortunate) mix.

Now, here’s what I don’t get. Frontman Johan Hegg has turned into Amon Amarth’s focal center. Every time a song ended, the rest of the band would separate from Hegg as if he suddenly turned into a leper, a spotlight would shine on the intimidating but gentle Swede, and he’d take a few minutes to ramble on about beer, drinking and whatnot. In fact, the crowd, at one point, started chanting “Johan’s beard! Johan’s beard! Johan’s beard!” Not only has Hegg taken on a public persona, but so too has his facial hair. Wonder if the same kids would be fascinated with his bushy pubes (not that I would know). When he finished, the spotlight would go off, the rest of the band would resume their respective places and off they’d go into another mid-tempo rager. Also, Johan would throw goat horns every 2.33337 seconds. After the 5,970th maloik, Hegg’s incessant gesturing went from comical to annoying. Yes, we get it. It’s a metal show.

Another note: after set two commenced, starting with “Twilight of the Thunder God”, I got the feeling I was watching a cartoon. At various points, Söderberg and Mikkonen would both step up on risers adjacent to drummer Fredrik Andersson. They’d windmill hair for a few bars, look up, step off the risers, as if controlled by a puppeteer. Some parts were so choreographed it was like watching Dethklok (animated version) perform.
As far as setlists go, the foundation of part two was based predominantly on the Twilight of the Thunder God and With Oden on Our Side albums. Not that I don’t understand why. Most of the kids in attendance cut their Monster Energy drink-covered teeth on late period Amon Amarth albums. I have to admit being overjoyed (relatively speaking, of course) to hear “Without Fear”, the lone track from debut album, Once Sent from the Golden Hall.

Amon Amarth are a powerhouse live unit, but, to be frank, I’d like to see a little more spontaneity in the quintet. A little more aggression. A little more grit. A night with Amon Amarth felt, this time, more like a formal dinner than two sets of full-on Viking death metal.

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