Monday, October 13, 2008

Concert Review: Amon Amarth w/ The Absence, Belphegor & Ensiferum - Garrick Centre, Winnipeg, MB, 10/11/2008

Sub-genres of metal were presented in the form of melodic death metal upstarts The Absence, from Tampa, Florida; black metallers Belphegor from Austria, Finland's self-described "heroic folk metal" in the form of Ensiferum and the headliners, Sweden's Amon Amarth, a melodic death metal band, heavily focused on Vikings and Norse mythology.

Fans lined up for over an hour outside the Garrick Centre, Winnipeg's favorite venue for "underground" metal bands. When the doors opened at 7 pm, we were greeted by signs indicating that Amon Amarth would be in the merchandise area of the lobby hosting an autograph session with free posters. I quickly made my way over to the line up, met each band member, bought their concert DVD and a t-shirt, as well as shirts at the Ensiferum and The Absence tables.

Less than five minutes after the doors were opened to the seating area of the venue, Tampa's The Absence took to the stage for an inspired but brief set of less than 30 minutes. Having listened to their current album Riders Of The Plague, a few times, I was familiar with both some of the songs as well as their overall sound, which has an emphasis on melodic guitar playing. There's a ton of similar bands out there and I would hope that The Absence will continue to focus more on melody and music that people can remember over speed and perceived heaviness. For the final song, they played Testament's "Into The Pit" from the 1988 album The New Order, as well as from Riders Of The Plague. It may take a while before they headline a show but I hope to see these guys again.

Austria's Belphegor are one of those bands who could easily get lumped in as inspiration for a new Spinal Tap film. Lead singer Helmuth growled and screamed his way through the set, careful to mention the prince of darkness' name several times, both in song and while speaking to the audience, lest anyone forget that they were flying the flag for black metal. They were fast but not as heavy due to their thin sound and tinny drumming style, so prevalent in European black metal. Not given a decent sound check likely contributed to the poor guitar sound, as well. They may have been exceptional guitarists, but you couldn't tell.

For the last song, Helmuth put on a black leather mask, complete with metal spiked mohawk, for a particularly grizzly look. For these guys, being over-the-top in sound and lyrics means something but they didn't resonate with me. Their current album is entitled Bondage Goat Zombie, I kid you not and it a far better representation of the band's sound than what I experienced. The import version also ships with a bonus 6-track DVD of live performances. If you like epic extreme black metal, you should check them out.

Ensiferum which means "sword bearer," are a bit of an oddity. I suppose if the film Braveheart influenced just one band, these would be the guys. They wore some face paint and were bare chested, save for the drummer and female keyboardist. Their songs have screaming vocals with catchy, anthemic themes.

They didn't seem like headlining material to me, and for some reason, they garnered laughter from the people sitting behind me, who were possibly conjuring up Spinal Tap moments in their heads. It almost seems odd to have these guys and Belphegor at the same show, since they have such different sounds. Nonetheless, the fans on the floor were eating it all up, and clearly enjoying themselves.

The band's new lead singer is Peter Lindross who used to be in the Finnish band Norther. He replaced Jari Mäenpää who went on to found Wintersun. Ensiferum's rich sound, with folk elements and instrumentation, keyboards and backing vocals, actually comes across better on CD than live, based on listening to their latest recording, Victory Songs.

Sweden's Amon Amarth prefer to be known as a death metal band who sing about Vikings, rather than as a Viking metal band. They had a fuller sound, as you would expect, and seemed more like a power metal band with death metal vocals. After several songs, I wondered just how limiting Johan Hegg's vocal style was to their potential success. He doesn't scream so much that you can't make out some of they lyrics, but you can't understand everything he's singing. I say you can't have it both ways. Sing clearly and they would have a chance to reach a wider audience. Just look at US veterans Manowar. They sing about similar things, death, honour, warriors, glory, etc., but you can always hear vocalist Eric Adams.

Amon Amarth are almost like the European version of Manowar, lyrically, except they sing about Norse gods, sailing and related Norse mythology. They have competent musicians but I fear their songs, by and large, just don't sound competitive with the cream of the crop songs from the metal cannon. Some bands just hit the spot and connect with you, and some bands don't. Unfortunately for me, Amon Amarth didn't do much for me, despite their strong musicianship and stage presence. Right now, I'm watching a DVD of one of their concerts from 2005 and my impression of the band hasn't changed one bit. The guitar playing was all right but there is no way anyone would say they compare to the guys from Arch Enemy. For me, the songwriting both in the DVD and from the songs they played at the Winnipeg concert, struck me as being bland. Their name means "mountain of fate."

After the concert, I popped their latest CD, Twilight Of The Thunder God, in my car stereo and listened to a few songs while driving home from the gig. I just couldn't help but wish that they had thrown in a well-known cover tune into the set to provide with at least one truly excellent song. They have most of the components to make for an excellent band, but they need better songwriting and improved vocals. Just writing about Norse mythology and all that it entails, isn't enough. Anyone who enjoys the band should check out the triple disc DVD, Wrath of the Norsemen, for over 7 hours of entertainment.

I wouldn't go out of my way to see them again.

My rating for this concert is 3/5.


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