Sweden, in the northernmost corner of Europe, has a population of just over 10 million people. But somehow, the Swedes have been punching way above their weight on the global music scene for close to 50 years. It all began with ABBA, who won the Eurovision Song Contest in 1974 and proceeded to dominate the global pop charts, racking up hit singles and multi-platinum albums until their breakup in 1982. Subsequently, Swedish pop groups Roxette and Ace Of Base had major hits in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Max Martin is one of the biggest producers in global pop history, maintaining an iron grip on the pop charts beginning in the early 2000s. There’s never been a globally successful Swedish rapper (yet), but almost no other genre has gone untouched.
Sweden’s influence on metal has been particularly massive. Even as Roxette were storming the pop charts at the end of the ’80s, Entombed, Dismember, Unleashed and Grave were reshaping death metal in their own image. Hordes of young bands still play the “Swedish death metal” style, built around the Boss HM-2 guitar pedal. A more melodic style of death metal, adding fist-pumping choruses and cleaner guitar tones, came out of Gothenburg, led by bands like Dark Tranquillity, In Flames, and At The Gates. That sound, too, took hold across the globe.
Given the country’s pervasive influence on the scene, an all-Swedish metal tour was an inevitability, and this week, one is ending its run in L.A. Amon Amarth, the kings of Viking metal, are headlining, with support from Arch Enemy, At The Gates, and Grand Magus.
Power trio Grand Magus formed in 1999, releasing their self-titled debut album in 2001. Originally a doomy outfit in the vein of the Gates of Slumber or Candlemass, they shifted gears with 2008’s Iron Will, becoming more of a classicist power metal outfit. Short, stocky singer/guitarist JB Christoffersson sports truly stunning muttonchops and plays a white Gibson Flying V, and his Rob Halford-esque vocals are perfectly complemented by the band’s chugging riffs and pounding drums. His stage-right counterpart, awesomely named bassist Fox Skinner, is tall and thin, hyping up the crowd like a pro wrestler as drummer Ludwig Witt slams the kit. This is their first North American tour, and they make the most of their short opening set, exuding a “happy to be here” vibe while ripping into songs from Iron Will and their breakthrough album, 2010’s Hammer of the North, as well as their latest release, Wolf God.
At The Gates are one of the most important acts in death metal history; their farewell album, 1995’s Slaughter of the Soul, basically established the mold for melodic death metal. Their blend of machine-gun drumming, speedy but catchy guitar riffs, and shout-along choruses, delivered in a hoarse shriek by Tomas Lindberg, was irresistible to fans and other musicians alike. In the late ’90s and early ’00s, after AtG had left the scene, a thousand clone bands seemed to spring up in their wake. They reunited for live shows in 2007, and began recording new music in 2014, with At War With Reality. Their second reunion album, To Drink From the Night Itself, came out last year. Live, Lindberg’s voice is harsher and more guttural, close to Obituary’s John Tardy, but the new songs mix perfectly with choice cuts from Slaughter of the Soul. They’re the “legends still in the game” of this tour.
Guitarist Michael Amott formed Arch Enemy in 1995, after he left Carcass. From 2000 to 2014, they were fronted by Angela Gossow, a tornado of energy who became the band’s manager as well and eventually hand-picked her successor, ex-The Agonist singer Alissa White-Gluz. Their music has an anthemic, big-room sound that combines harsh death metal vocals and lightning-fast, headbanging riffs with actual hooks and choruses, allowing them to play big festivals and open for bands like Iron Maiden. One of the songs they’re playing on this tour, “My Apocalypse” from 2005’s Doomsday Machine, is a foot-stomping, clap-and-shout anthem begging to be adopted by a hockey team. White-Gluz is even more of a classic metal singer than Gossow was — she hypes the crowd up, throws the horns, whips her multicolored hair in wild arcs, and leaps off the drum riser in heels — and the guitar team of Amott and Jeff Loomis deliver shredtastic solos.
Amon Amarth took a few albums to find their sound. They always had a strong core idea, setting lyrics drawn from Norse mythology and tales of Viking warrior glory to At the Gates-style melodic death metal. But it wasn’t until their fourth album, 2002’s Versus The World, that they perfected it. That album’s opening track, “Death in Fire,” is a classic metal anthem that they closed shows with for years. On this tour, they’re playing it second, and it sends the pit into a frenzy. More recent albums like 2008’s Twilight of the Thunder God, 2011’s Surtur Rising, 2013’s Deceiver of the Gods, and the brand-new Berserker are the work of a band totally confident in their ability to deliver exactly what their audience wants. (Their 2016 concept album Jomsviking was a rare stumble, though the songs they play from it fit into the set well enough.)
Amon Amarth have long had some of the best visual iconography in metal, including transforming their stage set into the prow of a Viking longship. As a result, they’ve crossed into the Iron Maiden zone where it’s not only cool to wear the band’s shirts to their shows, it’s practically mandatory. On this tour, they squeeze an arena-worthy production into a large hall. The drum riser has gigantic horns protruding from each side, fireballs explode toward the ceiling, and a man dressed as Loki, with a horned helmet, a staff adorned with a skull, and glowing green eyes stalks the stage as epically bearded frontman Johan Hegg barks and roars. Amon Amarth, and Swedish metal, has come to conquer.