The Viking gimmick has always been a fun little part of heavy metal, dating back to Yngwie Malmsteen’s “I Am a Viking”, Manowar’s Into Glory Ride, Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song”, and hell, all the way back to Wagner’s “Ride of the Valyries”. What metalhead doesn’t like the kind of bracing music that makes them feel like they’re on the bow of a ship barreling into a fierce North Sea wind?
As with any other pop culture interest, however, there are Viking metal enthusiasts, and there are fanatics. That was hammered home into my own head in 2008 when I walked down Queen Street East in Toronto with a backpack and laptop to cover the first week of the inaugural Paganfest tour. Outside the Opera House, at four in the bloody afternoon, were kids dressed to the hilt: chain mail, helmets, toy axes and swords, shields, facepaint, and even one industrious fellow wearing a fur coat made out of carpet swatches. I was an admirer the bands I was going to tour with – Ensiferum, Turisas, Tyr, Eluveitie – but this felt like madness at first. The more I saw that response on that run across the Northeast, the more it became utterly charming. This wasn’t cultural appropriation; this was play-acting. It wasn’t an historical re-enactment; it was metal ComicCon.
Since 2008 no band has capitalized on Viking metal’s popularity like Amon Amarth has. Starting with 2004’s Fate of Norns album the Swedes have hit an extraordinary peak, putting out five more albums that further refined their blend of classic heavy metal and Swedish death metal. All the while they have toured North America hard, to the point now where they are a formidable draw, especially in Canada, where the last two albums, 2013’s Deceiver of the Gods and 2016’s Jomsviking, have charted in the mainstream top ten.
A ferocious, hugely entertaining live band, Amon Amarth are still rather predictable enough to make reviewing a show seem redundant – right down to the between-song banter – but things are a little different on the band’s current tour. For the first time, there’s actual production value that ranges from an elaborate stage set-up to a performance that gleefully indulges in the undeniable corniness of Viking metal.
The mood was set early on, upon entering the downtown Saskatoon venue. Nearly a thousand happy individuals filed merrily and politely into the theatre, where they were greeted by pair of bearded dudes clad in full Viking regalia, complete with metal helmets and swords. My own initial thought was, how did those fans get into the venue dressed like that? But there they were, posing for photos with little kids and nerdy adults alike, and it was so endearing you couldn’t help but approve.
After perfunctory but impressive sets by thrashers Exmortus and death metal veterans Entombed A.D., Amon Amarth strode on to a multi-level stage set built around a gigantic horned helmet, featuring several appearances by those same Viking dudes who greeted folks at the door, brandishing swords, banners, spears, bows and arrows (I couldn’t help but wince whenever a pulled-back arrow was pointed at me) and even staging a swordfight at one point. It was over the top and adorable, eliciting cheers from headbangers and incredulous smiles from neophytes, a welcome reminder that we’re all in this for the harmless, escapist fun of it, and nothing more.
Musically the band pushed all the buttons fans expected them to push. The superb Jomsviking album was given plenty of attention (“First Kill”, “One Against All”, “At Dawn’s First Light”, “One Thousand Burning Arrows”, and the wonderfully silly “Raise Your Horns”) but the biggest reactions of course were for the live staples. Normally a set closer, opening the show with “The Pursuit of Vikings” was an inspired choice, as the large, sweaty throng erupted into a gigantic sing-along. The list of fan favourites grows with each year, to the point now where it’s phenomenal: “Death in Fire”, “Victorious March”, “Runes to My Memory”, “Twilight of the Thunder God”, “Guardians of Asgard”, “Destroyer of the Universe”, “Deceiver of the Gods”, “Father of the Wolf”. As a result there’s not much wiggle room for deep cuts, but it was a nice surprise to see 2002’s “Thousand Years of Oppression” dusted off.
By the end of the show the venue became oppressively hot and humid to the point of fogging up peoples’ glasses, but not a soul left before towering singer Johan Hegg brandished a gigantic Thor’s hammer for “Twilight of the Thunder God”. Harmless fun was had, copious beers were consumed, a lot of steam was let out – especially when the doors opened – and a bevy of metal brothers and sisters exited into the cool outdoor air with sweaty shirts and visions of Valhalla dancing in their heads well into the night.