Monday, 15 April 2019 17:57

Bringing Ragnarok: The Debt to Amon Amarth

I am more than a bit obsessed with Swedish melodic death metal.

This is actually a relatively new development in my life, though not entirely unforeseen, I suppose. I’m autistic, and hypersensitive to sound. The downside to this: One form of personal torment for me is sunny days, where the lawnmowers and airplanes (we live near an “Airpark”) are out and about, buzzing endlessly and without obvious productive purpose.

The more fortunate flip side of this hypersensitivity is that I have always gained extreme enjoyment from listening to music. In fact, I actually suspect autism is somehow related to synesthesia, because I’m not only sensitive to music in terms of rhythm and tone, but I can – provided I am in the right frame of mind – actually see the story the music tells.

For an author, this is a damned handy thing. It not only tends to eliminate writer’s block the moment the music begins, but it also helps me dream up some of (what I think are) my best scenes. Truth be told, there are entire chapters in Bringing Ragnarok specifically structured to give life to a musically-induced vision, and I'm totally cool with that.

But what I think is kind of funny, is how far I’ve come from my musical roots. As I mentioned, I didn’t always like Swedish melodeath – I didn’t know my absolute favorite band, Amon Amarth (Arch Enemy is a close second), even existed, until about 2015. I grew up in the rural US West, in a deeply Christian household, and both parents liked old-school Country music. It wasn’t exactly a rock n’ roll household, by any stretch, and to this day I don’t even know any Beatles or Rolling Stones songs when I hear them.

Even worse, the radio stations where I grew up - a little slice of the old Confederacy transplanted to Northern California -  were mostly country, christian, or classic rock. A veritable auditory desert.

Thankfully, about age fourteen (about the same time I abandoned the whole Christianity thing), I discovered that my new stereo system could – just barely, and only with much manipulation of antennae – pick up a radio station broadcasting from the nearest college town, Chico. This was – before the death of non-corporate radio – 106.7 Z-Rock, and through it I discovered the broader world of rock and metal.

Being an angsty teenager, I of course gravitated towards the most aggressive-sounding music typically played. Which in the late ‘90s, was (in the USA) the start of the Nu-metal trend. Limp Bizkit (oh gods, why?!), Papa Roach (the first CD was alright), and Korn (actually good in their early years) offered a different sound than the then-dominant grunge rock of Nirvana (which I like, but it was played a LOT in the ‘90s).

And then, I discovered contemporary American heavy metal. Slipknot, Mudvayne, Spineshank, System of a Down. I was listening to the last when I heard about the September 11 attacks – (appropriate, in retrospect) and Slipknot in particular (Spineshank’s Height Of Callousness was spectacular, and underrated) kept me going through college and into my Army days. I’d have been happy to have been called a maggot in the 2000’s, and I still pull out their early albums every so often even now that I’ve pretty fully converted to European melodeath.

In FlamesSoundtrack to Your Escape was my first introduction to the genre (I'll always remember walking to my Medieval English History course at Berkeley with that screaming in my headphones), but I could never predicted how much of a gateway drug that would turn out to be! Sometimes I wonder how different my life would be if I had encountered Amon Amarth’s work then, when they had just published Fate of Norns. But, maybe, those aforementioned goddesses knew that it was not yet my time.

Regardless, it was another ten years before I would re-encounter Swedish melodeath – in fact, I didn’t really do much to develop my personal aesthetic tastes on any front for a decade. Too busy trying (failing) to figure out the whole career thing, getting graduate degrees, building a household, and all that good jazz.

In late 2015 I was working on a statistical analysis project (published!) with Pandora active, set to play some In Flames, because I had listened to the CD again for the first time in a few years and remembered how much I really liked it. Naturally, other Swedish bands out of Gothenborg seen as similar to In Flames started coming up on the Pandora playlist. So I heard Dark Tranquility for the first time, and started buying their CDs. And I heard Amon Amarth.

To be absolutely honest, I had heard of Amon Amarth before – I’m a massive Tolkien-nerd, and in my various deep dives into Wikipedia and Tvtropes I’d run across the random factoid that a Swedish death metal band used Tolkien’s Sindarin name for Mount Doom (the place you throw the Ring of Fire, gentle Hobbits). Something I wholeheartedly approved of, but never had the motivation to track down the band’s work.

So when I heard a song come on that was, well, fucking awesome, and realized who it was by, I was hooked. “Valhall Awaits Me”, from With Oden on Our Side, is about a warrior in the heat of combat, slaying one foe after another – until being slain in turn. Sound grimdark? Yeah, well, that’s life, when you boil it right down to its bare essence.

Amon Amarth, for me, represents the perfect fusion of sonic complexity and lyrical storytelling. Death metal, even Swedish melodeath (as the name implies, it is death metal with an emphasis on melody), is difficult music, to play or to hear. The entire point of the genre is to explore that most terrifying and fundamental inevitability of human existence: the End. Because once you have explored that, the greatest of terrors, in all its aspects – only then, can you conquer it, and truly understand what it means to live.

Death is a difficult concept for Americans, accustomed as the culture is to avoiding hard material realities of life. The American music that does go down this road (Rap, Folk, and some Hip-Hop come to mind) traditionally comes from communities that have been trampled on throughout US history – and as a result, if it enters mainstream consciousness at all, it is usually stripped of all its subversive passion. I suspect that death metal too is appreciated mostly by marginalized populations in the United States – the people who have actually lived the nightmare that is the American Dream, for anyone outside the mainstream.

Another thing I positively adore about Amon Amarth is the way they elicit, in sonic form, the spirit of the old Norse – and really, thereby, the broader Germanic and ultimately Indo-European – history and way of life. Western “Civilization” has largely been a long process of Greco-Roman cultural imperialism and cultural homogenization. The old ways were mostly lost as a result of switching from oral to written history at a time when those in control of writing actively worked to bury or re-interpret the past to suit their political goals.

One of the most fundamental factors enabling the virus of white supremacy is this loss of heritage. The many European peoples have been falsely taught to believe that they are united as a distinct race with a shared and unique history. This is bullshit, but the obliteration of our true past – as a tapestry of tribal groups not that different from those in any other part of the world – has enabled generations of “scholars” to claim otherwise. And so billions of other humans became our victims – and our leaders justify these atrocities as the price of “progress.”

To counter white supremacy, to destroy the false story it tells, “white” people must rediscover their true heritage, their actual deeper origins. And not just going back to Europe, but to Central Asia and before that, Africa. We must all reconnect with what makes us just like everyone else on this planet (and others?), the true day-to-day struggles and cares that define life in this mad, mad world.

Amon Amarth does a gorgeous job of carrying on the old traditions of Germanic storytelling, passed down in truncated form in the Eddas and Sagas. Something to keep in mind about this world: metaphor is essential. Pre-Christian Europeans were apparently particularly fond of word-play, of connecting concepts that seem unrelated in novel ways. Kennings are a classic example: If you want to be poetic in how you say “ship” you can call it a “sea-steed” – which makes sense, if you think of a ship and a horse as both being things a person can ride, with the environmental context determining what is ridden.

This works in death metal, and especially in Amon Amarth’s style, both because of the poetic flexibility needed for songwriting but also because once you make death a metaphor, you reduce its terror and allow for more deeper investigation of its structural nature. Which – and this is important – directly reflects the nature of the real world.

“Valhall Awaits Me” is a song about a warrior fighting to the death, but it is also a song about heedlessly throwing yourself into whatever challenge you face, saying to hell with the consequences. A scary thing to do, so most don’t. Which means that anyone who does, has a tremendous advantage. Whether you are writing a book, managing a project, or just getting through your 9-5, there are moments when single-minded devotion to surmounting challenges is the best possible response. And yeah, so in the end, you may lose – but so what? Sometimes, the experience is the point of endeavor. And fortunately, most challenges aren’t fatal. So knowing that even when they are, the same basic behavior is the best option? Helps you see that whatever you’re facing now, is probably less bad than it could be.

Something I learned in the military, doing things that terrified me: Motivation to courage comes from strange places.

Amon Amarth’s music is (to my ears) inventive, exploring, and thoughtful – even when it is also physically difficult to listen to. Death metal requires active listening, if you want to truly experience it. And there’s a lot going on, with a lot of volume, and tone changes. Drums roar like thunder, and death metal guitarists can do things with strings and tension that you wouldn’t believe possible. It is worth listening to just to appreciate the skill required.

And as for the growling vocals – hey, not everybody in this world can sing pretty. Weather-worn vikings (raiding is a very good metaphor for how to survive in the modern economy) get to sing in whatever voice all the sea air and shouting challenges at foes leaves after a few years.

And just for fun, here’s the part of the essay you probably just skimmed to: Where I list and rank all ten (it will be eleven SO VERY SOON!!!) Amon Amarth albums, with some Bringing Ragnarok relevant details.

Note: As I mentioned before, I listen to Amon Amarth, and I see things. The initial inspiration for sitting down and starting Bringing Ragnarok in 2016 was my attempt to make a playlist of all the Ragnarok-themed songs on their discography. Some scenes are derived directly from particular songs, and the major supporting character Sandra Chavez acts as a vehicle for my Amon Amarth fan-ness in the 2041 Thread. And the overall aesthetic is buried in the work.

Also: This is not intended to be a critical review. I like all the albums, some slightly more than others. On a scale of 0-100, I’d give each and every one a 92 or better. Better is a relative thing in aesthetics, and I don’t much see the value in musical criticism that isn't intended to help a band achieve what it wants to do with the music.

So without further yammering, to the rankings (inverse order), with my favorite three songs from each (woe that I can only pick three - but this can't go much longer than 4,000 words or nobody will read it)

 

Jomsviking (92/100)
Again, I REALLY like this album! The sound has evolved slightly from albums 8-9, and not in my absolute favorite direction, yet. When Berserker comes out I feel like it will tell me more about the direction they’re heading (a female lead singer if Johan Hegg ever decides to retire from raiding the distant shores? I hope!)

Back on Northern Shores
Epic ending track. Actually based on an attested battle, and one of those where I’m sailing right there in the prow of a Dragon Ship as the Berserks launch their desperate, doomed attack...

First Kill
I don’t think there’s a better way to start an album than roaring “The first man I killed, was the Earl’s right-hand man, when he came to take her away!”

One Thousand Burning Arrows
The song that always makes me think about anyone I’ve ever lost. And rpretty much what I'd want for my own funeral sendoff!



The Avenger (92/100)
The only criticism I have with this album is that it isn’t long enough. I’ve seen it referred to in reviews as a simple extension of the first album, Once Sent from the Golden Hall, which are probably fair, but who cares? They’re great. “Metalwrath” is an exception, it isn’t a bad song, just a bid of a parody and so kind of a one-off I listen to on its own, not part of the album.

The Last With Pagan Blood
The song describing the afterlife I sincerely hope exists. An endless party in Valhalla with all your friends, family, and pets healed and happy. So yeah, this describes Val-hall and the Einherjar in Bringing Ragnarok quite well.

Legend of a Banished Man
Quintessential song about someone forced from their home by Christians, who returns for vengeance.

Bleed for Ancient Gods
Just an all-out, aggressive statement of what ancestor veneration is really all about. Living according to their ethic to honor their memory and sacrifice.



Once Sent from the Golden Hall (93/100)
First album, and still an excellent album. I sincerely wish I had been exposed to this in high school. Apparently it was intended to be a concept album with a linked storyline (achieved in Jomsviking), and a number of the tracks fit that description well. Starts off with a song about someone losing their child, and swearing vengeance. Can’t think of a better motivation.

The Dragons’ Flight Across the Waves
With “Ride for Vengeance” basically a 9-minute track about one warrior swearing vengeance, then a companion bidding his family farewell as he goes along on the quest for retribution. I listen to it whenever I have to take a long trip away from home.

Victorious March
A song I like to listen to after a triumph of reasonable magnitude. About taking due vengeance against the perpetrators of a heinous act – another topic where the metaphor is key. Oddly enough, I kind of prefer the German language version of the track, “Siegreicher Marsch”

Amon Amarth
The track named the same as the band has got to be a statement. This one is about a grimdark battle between vikings and a great army on the slopes of a dark mountain. So, what you listen to before you do battle with Orcs.



The Crusher (94/100)
This is hands-down the angriest Amon Amarth album, and properly so, as it hits on topics of censorship and enforced faith. This is the album that is most clearly inspired by the forced Christianization of Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire. Also appears to be the album that was the hardest on Johan Hegg’s voicebox.

The Sound of Eight Hooves
This song is how I’d like to see Mike Pence meet his fate. Preacher hung by pagans, discovers Odin (Odin = Icelandic spelling, Oden = Swedish) is more interested in him than the Christian god...

As Long as the Raven Flies
Sandra Chavez’ favorite song, and life ethic. About the inevitability of war (struggle), and a statement of commitment to the basic human struggle to build a better life while we’ve got the opportunity. Only through this struggle can we build a better world in this life or any that may come after.

Releasing Surtur’s Fire
To be written ;)

Note: “Risen From the Sea” is one of the few only ok Amon Amarth songs. I sometimes listen to it, but not with any album, same with “Metalwrath” and “Eyes of Horror” and a couple other one-offs.



Fate of Norns (94/100)
Every few albums Amon Amarth gets a little experimental, and this one came after what the band sees as its first era, albums 1-4. It gets a bit slower, and even a bit heavier than those before (already extremely heavy). This one is atmospheric for me, one I listen to when I want to think strange thoughts.

The Pursuit of Vikings
A long, epic-like song about a group of vikings preparing to launch on a raid. There’s a live version that I think is absolutely effing cool just for Johan Hegg’s joking on stage about how nobody can understand the lyrics. “Odin, guide our ships, our axes spears and swords!” will get written into an upcoming scene with reference to that video.

The Beheading of a King
Shorter than the usual Amon Amarth track, I love how they lyrically tell the story of a battle between two kings, that goes terribly wrong (for one side). I wish I could pay them to do this for like, half the battles in history.

The Fate of Norns
A song I can’t be objective about because it reminds me of the animals we’ve lost and who I still miss. The song itself is about a man mourning the death of his child. ‘Nuff said.



Deceiver of the Gods (95/100)
This is just one of those all-around good albums that I listen to again and again and again, from start to finish and in the proper order. I do that with most, but some of the earlier albums (that I like to listen to later in the day, for some reason) I leave a song off or my spouse often comes home in the middle, so I’m less rigoros. DotG, however – nope. Full listen, every time, if possible. It’s just that good, though there is a slight tone shift on this album that leaves it feeling distinctly more up-tempo than, say, Fate of Norns.

As Loke Falls
About the last moments of the Last Battle, Ragnarok, just before Loke loses his head. Naturally, this is baked in to Bringing Ragnarok at a particular point (ok, maybe more than one – we’re dealing with parallel Threads here, y’know). Glorious description of Heimdall and Loke’s mutual battle to the death.

Blood Eagle
How I so desperately want Donald Trump to meet his fate. ‘Nuff said.

Warriors of the North
A song about being true to your vows, even when betrayed, then rising up after years in exile to defend those you vowed to protect, despite their betrayal. Very much a scene that ought to be in a movie set in Middle Earth (oh, how I wish Tolkien had the time to write more)



Twilight of the Thunder God (96/100)
This is just one long stretch of loud, fast, fun songs. This is one of the easiest Amon Amarth albums to listen to, I think, it simply thunders along from one great track to another. I would say this is the best produced of the Amon Amarth albums, in terms of the overall structure. It also always makes me want to listen to another album, given the tragic way it ends!

Tattered Banners and Bloody Flags
Yeah, this one shows up in Bringing Ragnarok, because it’s about the march of the risen Dead to Vegris – an essential component of the mythos, as I’m re-telling it. The imagery here is stunning, and drawn straight from the Eddas.

Varyags of Miklagaard
Another of their history-themed songs, and one of their absolute best tracks. A song about the Northern European warriors who for centuries traveled from Scandinavia to Constantinople to fight as mercenaries in the armies of the Emperor. As a reward, they traditionally got to raid the palace treasury at the end of their contract period, carrying off whatever they could back home.

Free Will Sacrifice
Directly quoted by Sandra Chavez in the Battle of the Teton River Valley, September 2041, as the Missoula Regiment counterattack begins against the attacking Deseret Army. Just that damn epic a song about battle.



Surtur Rising (96/100)
I feel like this is a more melancholy version of Twilight of the Thunder God, even more focused on history and the Norse ethic. As a result, it has an even more epic quality to it, and explores more of the arcana of Norse mythology, like Fenris-Wolf, Surtur, and the Loke-Baldur conflict (all touched on in Bringing Ragnarok). Just another well done album that I listen to from start to finish, then again in a few days or a week.

The Last Stand of Frej
Frej, which I English-ize to Freyr, is Freyja’s twin brother and a fellow Vanir god into love and nature and fertility and getting really drunk. This song is about his final stand against his nemesis: Surtur, the destroyer, whose flames will consume Midgard after Freyr’s suicidal final charge. Beautiful, melancholy track.

Slaves of Fear
This one is unusual for Amon Amarth in that it addresses contemporary world issues, though through the lens of the Norse mythos and its particular ethic. This song is simply about how Greco-Roman Christianity and Capitalists preach to us, scare us, do whatever they can to make us give them our money.

Doom Over Dead Man
A slow, mournful track, about a man on his deathbed, who realizes he has accomplished nothing in his life that will matter after he is gone. According to the most ancient Indo-European ethic known (and a similar ethic holds in most cultures), “one’s name” – in other words, the things they accomplish or build that impact the world enough that people bother to remember them – is all of any of us that will ever last in this world.



Versus the World (97/100)
This was almost Amon Amarth’s last album. That’s why the whole thing is about Ragnarok, in one way or another, from the Dead rising at Loke’s call, to the Einherjar preparing for war, to Odin’s last ride on Sleipnir to face the Fenris-Wolf at the End of Days. Thank the gods things didn’t turn out like they feared – but also, thank the gods that they were motivated to make what remains one of their best albums. This was actually the album that convinced me I had to get all of Amon Amarth’s albums.

For the Stabwounds in Our Backs
This song directly inspires a scene in Book 2 of Bringing Ragnarok. It’s about the Dead rising at Loke’s call to fight the gods at the Last Battle, dealing with their motivations and rage. It also (perhaps inadvertently) touches on one of the oldest and most famous rhetorical tactics in politics, the “Stab in the Back” myth. I combine these two ideas to explain why the Dead fight for Loke – and it isn’t about good vs evil.

Death in Fire
This one is essentially about the Einherjar, the gods’ counterpart to the Dead, slain warriors taken by the gods to fight for them, and their motivations. I quote it at the start of Part 1, and certain of these themes will come up again and again in the course of the full Saga.

Thousand Years of Oppression
Johan Hegg gets extra points in my book for using a poem written by his sister as part of this song, about Odin’s sacrifice of himself to himself in search of wisdom, and the hypocrisy of Christianity as it destroyed the old Norse culture in Europe, pretending to be about peace, but in truth about dominance. I love the call for returning to our roots inherent in the piece, and certain aspects of this story will become very important as Bringing Ragnarok proceeds.



With Oden on Our Side (98/100)
Not much more I can say than you could already glean from the above. This album is as close to perfection as any I've ever heard. Each track flows to the next, there are glorious highs and melancholy lows, with each track its own special bit of awesome. I only wish there were more! This album, along with Versus the World, are what got me writing fiction again after a long break. Basically, narmy as it sounds, they got me pursuing my dream. And I want to return the favor by amplifying their message, and incorporating their aesthetic and Tolkiens into the heart of Bringing Ragnarok.

Gods of War Arise
Rexburg, Idaho, 2041. If the gods grant me success, I will make this chapter into the most anti-war film sequence, ever. Saving Private Ryan for the War on Terror.

Cry of the Black Birds
Every time I listen to this track, I have a vision of the riders of Rohan charging to Gondor’s defense at the Battle of the Pelennor Fields. Which is probably my all-time favorite moment in fiction, ever. Yes, this one will make it into Bringing Ragnarok, at a similar point in the narrative. Only, with tanks.

Valhall Awaits Me
Given what I wrote above, need I say more? This exemplifies my approach to, well, everything. Win, lose, or draw, I believe in the struggle.

So there you have it! All ten Amon Amarth albums published as of April, 2019. I can’t effing wait for Berserker to drop, and what visions it will bring to me. If you are a fan of this kind of music, or are willing to try something new, check them out, like, yesterday.

 

UPDATE May 2019:

I have finally had the time to sit down and listen to Berserker.

It is awesome. Buy it now.

That is all.

 

Thank you Amon Amarth!