I used to love Amon Amarth. I became a fan in 2003, when I saw them live on the short-lived Metal Gods tour, which also featured Halford, Testament, Immortal, Carnal Forge, Primal Fear, and Painmuseum. I remember Amon Amarth being about midway up that bill, after Primal Fear and before Immortal, and they were great: catchy songs with fist-pumping choruses, and a genially aggro stage presence. I saw them again three years later, opening for Children Of Bodom along with Gojira and Sanctity; again in 2014, with Enslaved and Skeletonwitch; and most recently in 2019, on an incredible tour with Arch Enemy, At the Gates, and Grand Magus. There might have been one more show between 2006 and 2014 — my memory is blurry, but Amon Amarth tour a lot.
Over the last quarter century (their first EP, Sorrow Throughout the Nine Worlds, was released in 1996, and their first full-length, Once Sent From the Golden Hall, in 1998), Amon Amarth have put out a dozen studio albums. They weren’t great in the beginning; frontman Johan Hegg had more of a black metal rasp to his voice, and their riffs were sort of bland. But their fourth album, 2002’s Versus the World, sent them on a roughly decade-long hot streak, starting with its opening track, the classic “Death in Fire,” which they still play live today. They made five more albums (Fate of Norns, With Oden on Our Side, Twilight of the Thunder God, Surtur Rising, and Deceiver of the Gods), each one a slight improvement on its predecessor without ever changing what people loved about them: big riffs, fist-pumping shout-along choruses, and lyrics about Norse mythology and being a Viking. Twilight, Surtur and Deceiver each contain some of my favorite metal songs of the 21st century.
They’ve only made three albums in the last decade, though — Jomsviking in 2016, Berserker in 2019, and The Great Heathen Army this year — and each one has been in one way or another a disappointment. The first was a narrative concept album, and the latter two just feel like they’re out of ideas. They’ve reached the latter-day AC/DC era of their career, where every song is a direct rewrite of an earlier song or just a riff so generic that it might as well have been stamped out on an assembly line. And they’re really scraping the bottom of the lyrical barrel at this point. There’s a song about a mythological goat on this record. Honestly, it took me three tries to even make it all the way through The Great Heathen Army. It’s uninspired and dull, and it makes me think it might be time for Amon Amarth to hang it up.
Another band that I used to like a lot has an equally not-great record on the way. Machine Head are about to release their tenth studio album, Of Kingdom and Crown. (They stylize it ØF KINGDØM AND CRØWN, but it gets even dumber. For the song titles, they don’t just render the “o”s as “Ø”s, they also capitalize the next letter, turning a song called “Choke On the Ashes of Your Hate” into “ChØKe ØN the Ashes ØF YØUr Hate.” Needless to say, I will not be doing that here.)
They’ve been around even longer than Amon Amarth; I used to hear songs from their debut, 1994’s Burn My Eyes, on WSOU when I was working in an auto parts warehouse. The first time I saw them live was in 1999, on an all-Roadrunner Records bill at Roseland; Coal Chamber headlined, and the opening band was Slipknot. I didn’t see Machine Head live again until 2008, when they were opening for Metallica. I started working for Roadrunner in 2011 and saw them a few more times, on the Mayhem Festival and the like. Eventually, they got big enough to tour without an opening act, doing “An Evening With Machine Head” shows that ran more than two hours. I saw one of those shows in 2015; it was a blast.
Unlike Amon Amarth, Machine Head have gone through a lot of stylistic changes over the years. They (and when I say “they,” I’m referring to frontman Robb Flynn and whoever’s backing him at the time) were an extremely heavy groove metal band on their first two albums, embraced nü-metal in a big and somewhat embarrassing way on their third and fourth, and ever since 2003’s Through the Ashes of Empires have mostly been putting out extremely heavy post-thrash. The Blackening, Unto the Locust, and Bloodstone & Diamonds all have some genuinely great songs on them. Flynn has a way with a riff, and while he might not be a great singer, he’s as committed to his persona as a top-tier pro wrestler.
Unfortunately, their last album, 2018’s Catharsis, was a messy pile of ideas that didn’t fit together at all, from a return to nü-metal to an attempt to write Dropkick Murphys-esque pop-punk. And now comes Of Kingdom and Crown, which features an almost entirely new lineup: bassist Jared McEachern joined for B&D, but longtime guitarist and drummer Phil Demmel and Dave McClain quit after the Catharsis tour, replaced by Decapitated’s Wacław “Vogg” Kieltyka and some drummer named Matt Alston I’ve never heard of.
Most of the songs here demonstrate the limitations of style. They all sound like Machine Head songs. Which is fine. But they sound so much like Machine Head songs, so much like Flynn playing to expectations, that I started making mental lists of which older songs they reminded me of. The opening “Slaughter the Martyr,” nearly 11 minutes long, could have been an outtake from The Blackening or Unto the Locust, or leftover ideas from both those albums Gorilla-glued together. And basically every track here is like that, a rehash of better old work. Kieltyka is a terrific guitarist (Decapitated’s Nihility and The Negation are incredible mid-2000s death metal albums), and I’d bet that some of the shredtastic solos here belong to him. And these songs will probably go over well live. But I can’t imagine listening to this album again. Like The Great Heathen Army, it sits inert in the shadow of their back catalog.
Fortunately, not every metal veteran has lost it. Max Cavalera has been on a fairly stunning hot streak in the last decade. After leaving Sepultura, he formed Soulfly, a band I didn’t like at first; their mix of nü-metal and world music (mostly South American, but some reggae and other sounds) always felt awkward and confused to me. But beginning with 2012’s Enslaved, they shifted to a grinding thrash sound that has only gotten better over the course of five albums. At more or less the same time (between 2008 and 2017), he made four even more stripped-down and brutal albums with Cavalera Conspiracy, a group that allowed him to reunite with his brother Igor and bring in guests including Joseph Duplantier of Gojira, Nate Newton of Converge, Justin Broadrick of Godflesh and Dominick Fernow, aka Prurient. (I interviewed Cavalera in 2015, when the third Cavalera Conspiracy album, Pandemonium, was new and Soulfly’s Archangel was on the way.) He’s also made two albums with Killer Be Killed (a supergroup featuring members of Mastodon, Converge, and the Dillinger Escape Plan) and one with Go Ahead And Die, a band that includes his son Igor and Khemmis drummer Zach Coleman.
The current lineup of Soulfly includes Cavalera, his son Zyon on drums, and Mike Leon, formerly of Havok and The Absence (a very underrated melodic death metal band from Florida) on bass. Guests on their new album, Totem, include Obituary vocalist John Tardy, guitarists John Powers and Arthur Rizk of Eternal Champion and Sumerlands, and Chris Ulsh (who plays drums in Power Trip and guitar in Mammoth Grinder). The songs are typical Max Cavalera material — intense, primitive thrash, shifting between low and high gears with occasional interludes of tribal-ish percussion. But because he’s had extra time to write, what with the pandemic keeping him off the road, they’re really good songs, absolutely bludgeoning and performed with relentless fury. The guitar solos, mostly performed by Rizk and Powers, are squiggly but concise, and there are cool little sonic tricks dribbled throughout the album — bursts of electronic noise, echo and reverb applied to the vocals in interesting ways, phased drums.
Unlike the acts above, whose style is based on rehashing their past work with diminishing returns, Max Cavalera is a musical omnivore. He pulls from every type of aggressive music: thrash, death metal, grindcore, industrial, punk, hardcore, noise…whatever makes the listener pump their fist and bang their head. And while all his bands — Cavalera Conspiracy, Soulfly, Go Ahead And Die, Killer Be Killed — sound like the product of a single musical mind, there’s a shocking amount of variety and creativity spread across their catalog(s). I wouldn’t mind if Machine Head and Amon Amarth retired, but I want Max Cavalera to keep going as long as he wants to.