By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
By Steve Brennan
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By Christian Schaeffer
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It's easy to understand why Amon Amarth gains new fans on each U.S. tour. Starting with its fourth album, Versus the World (released in the United States in 2004), the Swedish "Viking-metal" band has perfected its brand of stripped-down, fist-pumping anthems, songs that drive longhaired dudes into frenzies of head-banging and horn-throwing. And as its genre's descriptor implies, the band has a very specific (if somewhat narrow) lyrical range: Every Amon Amarth song is about the glory of being a Viking. Of sailing the oceans and hacking your enemies to bits with a sword or an ax. Of dying in flames and glory and ascending to Valhalla to dwell among the Norse gods. Who couldn't love that?
It also helps that the band really knows how to bring it live. Vocalist Johan Hegg, his chest-length beard wet with beer from the drinking horn he wears on his belt (seriously), barks the lyrics while the guitarists spin their hair like madmen on either side of him. "We try to involve the audience in the show, and I like to move around a lot on stage," says Hegg. "Even if there's not a lot of pyro or anything like that, it's important to have a lot of energy and keep the fans involved."
The band's latest album, 2008's Twilight of the Thunder God, came with a bonus DVD of a live European performance from the previous year — and a super-deluxe edition also offered a comic book, a poster, a CD version of the European concert and bobblehead statues of the entire band. This kind of elaborate package may be the best way for a band to survive in the marketplace, given widespread (and unavoidable) downloading. It's hard to download a set of bobblehead dolls, after all. "It may help a little bit," Hegg says, "but [either way] in this day and age, you have to do something. We always feel like it's important to give people something more than just a CD in a jewel case. When I was young, music was really important and the packaging was very important, and we try to preserve that."
Throughout 2009, Amon Amarth is reissuing its first four albums — Once Sent from the Golden Hall, The Crusher, The Avenger and Versus the World — as two-CD sets, paired with live recordings of the full albums from a four-night stand of concerts in Germany last year. "We still play a lot of the old songs, so it wasn't like they were strangers to us," Hegg recalls. "But some of them we hadn't played since recording the albums, so that was fun." The vocalist also insists these new editions aren't just for diehards — they paint a picture of how the band has evolved. "We've really changed musically. We're a very different band," he says. But who knows? Maybe some of those deep cuts will stay in the live set for a while.