Review by William Seay
Photos by Jackson May (Amon Amarth main, Enslaved) and Jake Dodge (Amon Amarth)
So I’ve decided that Amon Amarth are, in their own way, the Manowar of death metal. They’ve stuck to their formula pretty much since 1998 and it has been paying off now for easily 10 years or more. Since 2003’s album Versus the World the band has just added more and more people to their fan base. In my opinion their best album remains With Oden on Our Side (2006), but even though you know what you’re going to get I’ve rarely been disappointed by a new Amon Amarth album.
The same can be said about their live performances. Seeing them at The Granada in Lawrence, Kansas, was my fourth time seeing the band, and I knew I was in line for a solid performance. And it’s a pretty good touring package too, including the road dogs from Ohio, Skeletonwitch, who have ridden the thrash revival movement through and through while leaning slightly more in the black metal direction than their contemporaries. The other support band needs no real introduction – Norway’s Enslaved are godfathers of black metal, folk metal, and “Viking metal,” a subgenre that doesn’t really exist yet we all know what it is.
But I was in for a surprise on all fronts and it starts with the location and time of year. Kansas and the Midwestern States don’t get as many good metal shows as larger markets do. For every touring package that rolls through the United States I’d wager that in Nebraska, Iowa, Missouri, and Kansas, we get about one in every three if we’re lucky. And it makes sense – promoters know it’s tough drawing a crowd here so we rarely get a show on a night that’s not a Tuesday or Thursday or in this case a Sunday. But when I arrived at the theater about 30 minutes before the start of the show, the line that shot down the street and wrapped around the block made me truly worry if there’d be a sellout – something that really doesn’t happen at shows here.
The show didn’t sell out to my knowledge, but it had to be damn close because The Granada was packed in a way I don’t think I’ve ever seen it. The theater has two main areas, a pit and a raised mezzanine that are only separated by a short staircase. Both areas were filled to the brim.
Skeletonwitch began their set right on time, and were high energy through and through. They burned through a nine-song, 30-minute romp of material from all four of their albums, focusing on their newest material from last year’s Serpents Unleashed. In my opinion Skeletonwitch is more a live band than a band on record. I enjoy listening to their discs, but their sound is meant for the stage. Watching vocalist Chance Garnette swing his hair and scraggly beard around while spewing his vitriol at max volume is a sight to see. And his stage banter just brings out the kid in us that remembers why we got into metal in the first place. At the end of their set, he encouraged all listeners to “Remember to eat pussy!,” a statement that I’m sure went well at an all ages show that actually had a decent number of women in the crowd.
During set change, there was a mass exodus for the bar. This venue made its bacon on four dollar canned beers this evening. I waited a solid 10 minutes for a couple brews, but the bartenders worked their asses off. They earned their keep on this night.
This is the fourth time I’ve seen Enslaved, and three of those times have been opening performances for whatever reason. For a band with 12 albums and a reputation for being trailblazers and genre-benders, Enslaved seems to be okay with playing support to others here in the United States. Their set was only six songs, but those familiar with the band will know that that’s enough for a solid 45 minutes of music.
I, personally, thought Enslaved were amazing at this show. The sound was extremely well-mixed, which helps for a band with so much going on in each composition. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that the crowd here was mixed on the response to Enslaved. Many Amon Amarth fans who didn’t seem to know Enslaved’s legacy among the black metal and “Viking metal” pantheon seemed a bit put off from their non-traditional sound. But leave it to a band that’s been around for 20+ years to reward everyone with a track from their 1992 demo. And their 2014 rendition of “Allfaðr Oðinn” was so heavy that it made me go into a headbanging frenzy that could have shaken my nerd glasses right off my skull. Enslaved ended their set with the song “Isa,” wherein vocalist/bassist Grutle Kjellson put as much emotion into it as I think I’ve ever seen a musician do. It was so powerful. I think in their time on that stage, they converted some of the younger listeners or some of the uninitiated.
After another exodus to the bar/bathroom/merch table, it was almost time for Amon Amarth to take the stage. In the minutes leading up to their performance the already large crowd seemed to get bigger and certainly more dense in the pit area. Like I said before, this was easily one of the largest crowds I have ever seen at this venue, and I’ve been going to shows here for almost four years now.
Amon Amarth has a commanding stage presence. They know how to whip their crowd into a frenzy. And I stayed in the pit area through their entire performance, moving with the ebb and flow of a throng of sweaty, fist-pumping, Viking madness. Their setlist focused on mostly newer material; they know what butters their bread. But for long-time fans it was a bit disappointing that they only played one song from Versus the World (the obligatory “Death in Fire”), and nothing from any albums prior. Regardless, their set was blistering, upbeat, fun, and extremely tight. This is a band at the apex of professionalism, and I am always impressed after seeing them.
Amon Amarth’s merch table was equally impressive, featuring a $100 custom hockey jersey. You know, for the metalheads who came in prepared to drop that kind of cash on a hockey jersey. It looked totally rad, but I spent most of my cash on a few beers.
Lastly, I was among a select few dedicated (i.e. idiotic) fans to brave single-digit February cold air for the chance to meet Amon Amarth after the show. The perseverance paid off as each member came out individually to sign autographs and take a scant few photos. Johan Hegg himself was a bit more stoic than his larger-than-life stage persona, but I can understand that if he puts everything into those performances he’d be understandably exhausted post-show.
The best interaction was with guitarist and founding member Olavi Mikkonen. When I told him that the EP of bonus tracks Under the Influence was one of the coolest things I’ve seen a band do in a while his eyes lit up like Christmas. If you’re unfamiliar, it’s a collection of four songs inspired by four proto-metal legends (Black Sabbath, AC/DC, Motorhead, and Judas Priest). They’re not covers, but songs that are in the style of those bands. Mikkonen said that unfortunately the EP has gone under the radar, but was very enthusiastic in telling me how much he and a few of the guys thought it was a unique tribute. We then discussed them doing more of those songs in the future. He said they’d already practiced a Metallica sounding tune. I told him to do one in the vein of King Diamond or Mercyful Fate, for which he said he holds in the highest regard. Who knows if anything will come from that? But it was nice to have the chat, and nice to finally leave with a few signatures and good memories.