Singalongs are common enough at concerts. Fan participation is encouraged on staples like Paul McCartney’s “Hey Jude,” which can go well into the 10-minute mark, Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” is a common at sporting events, and good luck finding someone who doesn’t know the words to “Friends In Low Places” at a Garth concert — or wedding, or anywhere, really.
Still, at an Amon Amarth gig, it’s a little different.
“The phenomenon is once or twice a show, the fans will get down on the ground and, in mass, pretend they’re all rowing Viking ships,” says Justin Arcangel at 5B Artists + Media, manager of Swedish metal band Amon Amarth since 2012. The “rowing pit,” with fans doing a sort of stationary heavy metal conga line on the floor, takes place appropriately during the band’s “Put Your Back Into The Oar.”
“They want to pretend this band on stage is some marauding pack of Vikings that have descended from Valhalla and suspend belief for two hours. So everybody’s drinking beer, they’re having fun and it’s just like this heavy metal party,” Arcangel adds.
With Sweden long known as hallowed ground in heavy metal circles, Amon Amarth has stood out as a band with its own take on death metal, with influence from British icons like Iron Maiden and a more modern growling vocal style with clear lyrics and catchy hooks. Formed in 1992, the band embraces Viking lore, with appropriate imagery and lyrics related to Scandinavian mythology and history. While that content can be kind of heavy, frontman Johan Hegg says it’s all part of the show.
“There is some serious stuff, historically, mythologically, philosophically or personally that I weave into the lyrics that makes for serious topics, but it’s not necessarily anything I need to explain to anyone,” says Hegg. “But when it comes to the show, that has to be fun for us and for the audience. And when you get the whole visual aspect as well, that gives another dimension to the experience.”
The visual aspect has led to a show that not only features pyro and epic stage props but requires it. Long able to headline festivals and large halls in its native Europe, word of mouth and loyal fans continue to make that a reality Stateside. The band wrapped its largest U.S. headline run yet with a full-production show at the Kia Forum Dec. 17, which comes after a full European run with Machine Head that began in September.
“When you are in the midst of the venue with Amon Amarth, you really are transported somewhere else,” says Live Nation’s Kelly Kapp, a champion of the band for 15 years. “You’re on the floor rowing the Viking ship with them. It’s like no other interaction that any artist on this level in this genre has. That buy-in and that fan participation and being right there in that energy has more and more people going, ‘I can’t miss that. I have to be a part of that.’”
Kapp saw the fruits of the band’s labor paying off in 2019, when they sold out a Hollywood Palladium gig six weeks in advance. The problem bringing them back, however, was the pandemic, which may have actually led to a bigger tour this time around.
“We had always done our best not to over-tour them in the U.S., but I’m not positive we would have waited three years to bring them back,” Kapp said. “The buildup between the pandemic and not being able to tour a new fantastic record and seeing the just frenzy for them in Europe really had us being thoughtful about what markets they had done very well in, and what markets we may have not touched yet.”
That tour kicked off at the Brooklyn Bowl in Las Vegas, with dates across the continent including at the new MGM Music Hall Fenway in Boston, Place Bell in Quebec (10,000 capacity), Fillmore Auditorium in Denver and more.
“We’re just out of our minds about what’s going on with this band,” Kapp added. “We knew that this tour was going to be a pinnacle move for the band, and hopefully be the thing that solidified them as an artist that is going to tour for as long as they want to.”
It’s taken a while to get to this point, but the build has been deliberate and the belief always there.
“We’ve had this specific marketing vision for them ever since we started working with them in 2012,” says Arcangel, who said he was a true “civilian” fan of the band before working with them. “What we saw in them, and when I saw them specifically, was that they were this really powerful, epic heavy metal band that wrote songs with power and melody. Basically our job was to take those basic elements of what they do and amplify it and put it in front of bigger audiences, because those elements played for bigger audiences.”
Taking a page out of classic heavy metal productions including Iron Maiden, Alice Cooper and Ozzy Osbourne, Amon Amarth’s show features an analog-feeling production rather than video walls, with high-tech inflatable props that look real and take up physical space.
“We have giant inflatable Viking ships, we have a drum that’s shaped like a Viking helmet with walls in the eyes that show various things for every song,” says Arcangel. “If the space allows for it, that drum rises up into the rafters. We have 7-meter tall giant stone Vikings on stage with glowing eyes. We have a giant sea serpent that comes out in three pieces, and we have pyro in the bigger venues that can allow it. We bring as much as we can, and we have a really important job trying to tell this story visually along the tour.”
Arcangel notes the detail and quality of inflatable stage props, which, working with Dutch manufacturer Airworks, he said is similar to how he played with Legos as a kid pretending to build Iron Maiden stage setups.
“It’s incredible technology because you can create basically any structure you can really think of, as basically giant balloons that fill up and expand on stage in less than 30 seconds,” says Arcangel. “When you pull the air out they’re also down in like 20 seconds and they fit in a hamper. So when you’re touring the world, they fit in even just a few feet of truck space and you could have this amazing effect. A lot of the show is based on that old classic theater technology. It still works and, to me, visually it looks the best.”
Hegg agreed the old-school production mindset adds to the audience participation.
“Something we’ve done well is to invite the audience to create the show together,” says Hegg. “We might be the people on stage, but the interaction is really important. And if the audience interacts with us and we interact with them, the energy becomes so different in the room rather than if you don’t have that connection. You can tell immediately. It’s something we work on really consciously, to create that connection.”
Hegg is quick to note Iron Maiden, still at the top of its game and headlining arenas worldwide, as an inspiration sonically and visually.
“For me, they’re one of the biggest, best live acts of all time,” Hegg says. “But there are several others. I remember seeing AC/DC in Sweden in ’91 on the Thunderstruck Tour, which was amazing. But if you look at bands doing some cool stuff now, I mean, obviously you have also classic bands like Mercyful Fate Fate and King Diamond. The production that they put into their shows is insanely cool. Modern bands today, I think they draw more to LED screens for production value, and it’s not really our thing. I think it’s cool if you do it the right way.”
The long-term build of bands in the rock and metal space often means early adopters remaining on board.
“I’ve been with them almost 20 years now, and to watch them go from their first tour making $750 to where they are now has been an incredible ride,” says Artist Group International’s Nick Storch, known for representing dozens of rock and metal bands. Storch says a key for prolonged success for heavy bands is to find growth but retain core fans.
“The ones that can find the sweet spot between growing but staying true to who they
are, they build a dedicated base. The band has cultivated a very consistent catalog and a great persona,” he says. That is in contrast to genres like pop or alternative that can be dependent on hits. Storch says the challenge of touring a band from overseas means less wiggle room on the calendar to book a second leg or add dates. “You can’t turn them into a domestic artist and play a market three times on one cycle,” he said.
Kapp says part of the reason rock and metal bands may take longer to develop is that fans are so discerning, but loyal once they’re won over.
“Let’s be honest, these fans can smell BS from a mile away,” Kapp says. “I think that is one of the reasons why it can take a minute to build. Our fans are willing to open the door, but they want to know that it’s authentic. That’s what we’re really seeing from Amon Amarth. This band is completely authentic.”
Another early adopter is Metal Blade Records, which has been with the band since 1998.
Label president Tracy Vera says the success of this tour shows the power of the genre.
“It’s definitely a statement. It’s a product of the times but also the hard work that all the artists have put in,” said Vera, mentioning the other bands on the bill, longtime metal veterans Cattle Decapitation, Carcass and Obituary. “It makes a statement for the whole genre, that we have enough fans to go fill that venue.”
Growing to this point always involves some kind of crossover appeal to at least part of the mainstream, and Vera offers a prime example.
“I sent my mother to an Amon Amarth show,” said Vera. “She’ll be 80 shortly, and she fell in love with the band. She loved the show so much that she went and bought all their albums and plays them all the time and can sing all the lyrics.”
Hegg says there’s a lot of momentum in the metal space currently, but he’s not sure if it’ll be possible to influence popular culture the way his metal heroes did.
“It’s a good time to be a metal band. I just went to the Arch Enemy and Behemoth tour in Stockholm and they played a 4,000-capacity room that was packed,” Hegg said. “Whether or not we’ll get to the point where we’ll have another Metallica or Iron Maiden or something like that, I don’t know. The music scene in general is so different today. I think it’s going to be difficult to build bands the way those bands have built up their reputation and their touring.”
For a band that’s been around a while, even by metal standards, the important thing is to always grow, deliberately persistently, Arcangel says.
“With Amon Amarth, the discovery never stops,” he says. “We just did a big headline tour in Europe with Machine Head, exposing ourselves to Machine Head fans, which is probably a little bit more of a mainstream metal band that we we haven’t played with before.
“This tour in North America is a little bit more of a direct hit because the bill has some classic death metal on it, which is more straight down the line, but next year we might do some surprises where we’re playing with bands that you would never guess us to play with. We also love to play festivals that are not solely heavy metal festivals.”