Johan Hegg of Amon Amarth

by Greg Prato

"Viking metal" is a term that is often foisted upon Sweden's Amon Amarth. And with good reason: Their lyrics often focus on a certain type of barbaric gentlemen who utilized sea vessels as their preferred form of transportation, their music is certainly heavy, and put a horned helmet on singer Johan Hegg and he could definitely be mistaken for an actual Viking.

The group has remained true to the genre over the years, of which they are often considered one of two bands from their homeland that helped popularize the style (the other being Unleashed). On their tenth studio album overall, Jomsviking, Amon Amarth used the concept album format for the first time in their career, and despite following a storyline throughout, the set does not sacrifice any of the heaviness fans have grown to expect from the lads.

Johan spoke with Songfacts about a month before the arrival of Jomsviking. Despite his larger-than-life image, he turned out to be a friendly and talkative chap, chatting about the storyline behind the album, the stories behind several Amon Amarth tunes, and the aforementioned metal sub-genre.
Greg Prato (Songfacts): Let's discuss the new album, Jomsviking. How is it different or similar to previous albums from the band?

Johan Hegg: First of all, it's a concept album, which we've never done before. So there is a story that goes through the whole album chronologically, which also gives it a slightly more epic touch to the songs.

We went about it differently: writing songs for the album was sort of like writing movie music. That gives it a lot more direction, which really lifts the whole thing, compared to older Amon Amarth albums. There is more room for melodies and riffs, to take place without having to drop any of the aggressiveness, which I really enjoy. Also, we have a new drummer on the recording [Tobias Gustafsson] whose style is different from Fredrik's [Fredrik Andersson]. So there are a couple of major differences, but it still sounds very much like Amon Amarth. I don't think any fans of Amon Amarth are going to be disappointed.

Songfacts: What is the album's storyline?

Johan: The story I have been thinking about writing for a long time, I just never really got around to it. It was sort of a private project for me, but for this album, I just had to start writing this script and show the guys the pieces and a concept album to make, and they said it was cool, so we went for it.

The story is very intriguing: it's a story about a man who commits a murder, and has to flee. And in doing so, he joins a group of Viking mercenaries called the Jomsvikings, and he becomes one of them. In short terms, that is kind of what happens. I based my story - which is the general story - on the saga of the Jomsvikings, which is an old Norse legend written around the 12th century. There is a lot of brutality and treachery and violence in it, but it's a pretty cool story.

The Jomsvikings were written about in Icelandic sagas circa the 12th and 13th centuries, but were supposedly walking the earth earlier than that (circa the 10th and 11th centuries). Jomsvikings were considered mercenaries and worshipped such deities as Odin and Thor, and were snuffed out by King Magnus I of Norway in 1043. The subject of Jomsvikings has popped up quite a bit over the years in fiction, including in E. R. Eddison's novel Styrbiorn the Strong (from 1926) and in the film An Ancient Tale: When the Sun Was a God (from 2003).
Songfacts: How does the songwriting work primarily in the band, and how was it different working on this album?

Johan: Writing the songs for this album was different because we had a story that we had to follow. Before, we normally would write the music and then we would write lyrics for the music. But this time around, we had the story, we had the lyrics, we had the foundation of what the music should be, feeling-wise. We had to follow that so it would be the story. That was a bit of a challenge, but I think it came out really well at the end. It was interesting to see the lyrics and the music come together and paint this picture.

Songfacts: Would you like to see the band work on concept albums again in the future?

Johan: That's way too early to say. We've never been a band to look too far ahead. I think right now, we just want to focus on this album, and the release of it, and upcoming tours. But personally, I would love to do it again, even though it was hard work. But it has to be a good conceptual story. It has to be something that we feel strongly enough about.

Songfacts: Since it is a concept album, do you think Jomsviking would make a good film?

Johan: I actually wrote the whole story as a movie script. I did show it to some people who are involved in the movie business, but I don't think anything will ever come of it. If it does, that would be awesome, but I'm not expecting anything to happen with that. So, we'll see.

Songfacts: Who are some of your favorite songwriters?

Johan: Lyrically and musically, one of my absolute favorite bands is Primordial. They write awesome songs. Amazing, epic songs. Musically - I know it's going to sound corny - but I think our guitar players in Amon Amarth are amazing songwriters [Olavi Mikkonen and Johan Söderberg]. I mean, they write such awesome riffs and the music in my opinion is just phenomenal. It's exactly my cup of tea. I really love the stuff they create. But otherwise, Iron Maiden is always one of my favorites.

Songfacts: What is the lyrical inspiration behind the song "First Kill"?

Johan: The inspiration obviously comes from the story, and it's the story about this young man - who is the main character - and how he kills a man, and that's how he becomes an outlaw.

Songfacts: What are some memories of filming the video for that song?

Johan: Waiting around a lot. [Laughs] And then just repetition, repetition. We played the song over and over again. But it was fun. It was cool to have that big set-up, with that big stage and the dragon head.

Songfacts: Are you happy with how the acting scenes came out in the video?

Johan: Yeah, they were awesome. We were not there for the filming of those in particular, but I think the Vikings and the whole film crew did it fantastically. I'm really happy with how it came out.

Songfacts: "Death in Fire"?

Johan: Actually, it's funny - it started as kind of a joke. The whole title came from Dan Lilker, actually. We toured with him a few years ago, and then we met him at the Milwaukee Metal Fest, and I was wearing a jersey of my favorite football team back home in Sweden, called Djurgårdens IF, which the abbreviation is "DIF." So Dan said, "What does that stand for? Death in Fire?" [Laughs] We wrote about everything in the end of the world: fire, burning, and everything crashing and dying. So the whole song itself is about the end of the world in Norse mythology, which is called the Ragnarök.

Songfacts: "Guardians of Asgaard"?

Johan: "Guardians of Asgaard" was just one of those songs where we wanted to have a powerful metal song, and just came up with this idea of Vikings that were the guardians of Asgaard, and then I started writing it. Then the idea came up to do it as a duet, and that's why we asked [Entombed singer] Lars Göran Petrov to do it. The idea was to make it into this Viking battle hymn kind of thing.

Songfacts: "Destroyer of the Universe"?

Johan: "Destroyer of the Universe" is also a story about the end of the world, where a fire giant, Surtur, arises, and he is the one that brings the end to everything by spreading his lethal fire across the universe. Everything is consumed.

Songfacts: What do you think of the band being described as "Viking metal"?

Johan: I guess it's alright. I always thought it was kind of weird to describe a band's musical content based on the lyrics, but I guess in some ways, it makes sense. I just feel that it's kind of a lazy way to describe that, because if you're going to base it on lyrics, Led Zeppelin is Viking metal ["Immigrant Song"]. Black Sabbath is Viking metal [the album Tyr]. Iron Maiden is Viking metal ["Invasion" and "Invaders"]. And musically, we're really far apart. But it's OK, I don't really care. [Laughs]

February 25, 2016.
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