Album Review – North Hammer / Stormcaller (2018)

Armed with his debut album and a strong passion for all things Viking and Folk Metal, here comes a dauntless one-warrior metal machine from the winterly lands of Canada.

“Thou camest near the next, O warrior Thor!
Shouldering thy hammer, in thy chariot drawn,
Swaying the long-hair’d goats with silver’d rein.” – from ‘Balder Dead’

Inspired by the Viking and folk music played by renowned acts such as Wintersun, Ensiferum, Amon Amarth and Blind Guardian, and in special by Swedish multi-instrumentalist Tomas Börje Forsberg, the iconic Quorthon (1966 – 2004) from Black Metal institution Bathory, who’s also credited with creating the Viking Metal style, here comes Folk/Viking Metal one-man army (or one-warrior metal machine, as he prefers) North Hammer armed with his debut full-length album, Stormcaller, a 21st century continuation of the work of Norse bards who inspired the ancient poem above.

Formed in 2017 in the northern lands of Edmonton, in the province of Alberta, Canada by multi-instrumentalist Andrew James (Eye of Horus, Shotgunner), North Hammer is the representation of the common theme winter that comes up in metal music and a reference to Canada (the “north”), and Andrew’s personal tribute to Mjolnir, or Thor’s Hammer. Andrew wrote and recorded the vocals, guitars, bass and orchestration in Stormcaller, along with drums done by Doug Helcaraxë Nunez and a classic artwork by Mark Erskine (Erskine Designs), and his goal with North Hammer and his new album is simple but powerful. “The experience I’m trying to give the listeners is that of a fellow fan. I want people to be euphoric for other bands that mean something to them like Ensiferum, Wintersun and Amon Amarth. To connect personally with my music and realize that I love and worship these bands.”

Epicness takes over the atmosphere in the opening track Avatar, filling every empty space before Andrew begins his growling attack, also bringing heavy and traditional riffs while Doug keeps the music at a vibrant pace. In other words, this is a beyond solid “welcome card” by North Hammer, setting the tone for Wanderer, and let me tell you it can’t get any more Folk Metal than this, as our minds and souls are treated to a strong and vibrant tune where Doug takes care of the song’s inspiring pace while Andrew continues to impress with all instruments and his harsh vocals. And presenting an introspective, catchy intro, Written in the Stars evolves into modern-day Folk Metal with Melodic Death Metal nuances, with Andrew’s vocals getting more intense and enraged, effectively accompanying the heaviness and melody of the guitars.

Magic Mead is one of those songs tailored for fans of the dancing heavy music by Ensiferum, showcasing more rhythmic, epic moments intertwined with sheer speed and progressiveness while its lyrics exhale Folk and Viking Metal (“Soilent earth sewn with blood / The enemy lays in the mud / A victory not to forget / And celebrate the worthy dead / In his eyes unrest subsides / For dreams of destiny he strides / Through the day and through the night / To behold this astral sight”); followed by an inspiring speech that ignites a feast of heavy and fast sounds titled Tip of the Spear, presenting the duo Andrew and Doug in perfect sync while they head together into the battlefield, with its classic guitar riffs and solos helping enhance its overall impact. Then it’s time to bang your head and raise your horns to all soldiers in the world to the flammable Folk Metal hymn A Soldier’s Song, led by the aggressive and potent growls by Andrew, keeping the album at a truly epic level.

Black Forest Rain is a serene, introspective instrumental bridge, with the sound of the acoustic guitars guiding us to the world of Spellbinder, where a soulful guitar solo by Andrew kicks things off before all hell breaks loose in another blast of classic Viking Metal perfect for singing along with Andrew and for slamming into the pit. Then we have the song that carries the name of the band, North Hammer, an Epic Metal extravaganza with all elements we love in the genre such as powerful vocal lines, gripping guitars, pounding drums and poetic lyrics (“Crack through the ice / Swim through the depths / Pulsing through your veins / Forget all the rest / High into the Skies / Relic of Old / North Hammer”), resulting into one of the best moments of the album without a shadow of a doubt; and North Hammer’s final breath of fire and thunder comes in the form of a song named Lion’s Winter, a demolishing Folk Metal chant where Doug is bestial on drums while Andrew takes his growling to a deeper and more violent level, flowing smoothly until its melodic finale.

One thing I’m only going to mention now about Stormcaller (which is available for a full listen HERE) is that this is a concept album describing the trials of a hero in a Nordic fantasy setting. The album has been rearranged in order to place appeal to the broader audience, but the actual progression of the story line is Written in the Stars, A Soldier’s Song, Magic Mead, Black Forest Rain, Wanderer, North Hammer, Tip of the Spear, Avatar, Spellbinder, and Lion’s Winter, which means if you buy the album from the band’s own BandCamp page, from Amazon or from CD Baby, you’ll be able to rearrange the tracks yourself and follow the story as it’s supposed to be. In addition, while North Hammer is a studio project at the moment, Andrew plans to put together a band of top-notch like-minded musicians in a not-so-distant future, and if you want to show your support for such brave metal warrior go check what he’s up to on Facebook, on SoundCloud and on ReverbNation. And of course, don’t forget to praise the Norse Gods whenever you’re about to enter the battlefield, inspired by the music by North Hammer and by all renowned Viking and folk bands Andrew loves so much.

Best moments of the album: Wanderer, Magic Mead and North Hammer.

Worst moments of the album: None.

Released in 2018 Independent

Track listing
1. Avatar 4:46
2. Wanderer 3:42
3. Written in the Stars 3:27
4. Magic Mead 4:11
5. Tip of the Spear 3:49
6. A Soldier’s Song 4:34
7. Black Forest Rain (Instrumental) 2:10
8. Spellbinder 3:36
9. North Hammer 3:26
10. Lion’s Winter 3:34

Band members
Andrew James – vocals, guitars, bass, orchestration

Guest musician
Doug Helcaraxë Nunez – drums

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Album Review – Amon Amarth / Jomsviking (2016)

Despite its interesting concept and excellent production, Jomsviking never truly takes off, offering the same old, same old fighting chants we’ve seen countless times before.

Rating6

amon amarth_jomsviking“The Jomsvikings and their world is the background for the story of a young man that is in love with a girl but unfortunately she’s being married off. He accidentally kills a man when this happens and he has to flee — but he swears to have revenge and win her back. He can’t let go of the past. He feels that he’s been wronged and his life has been destroyed. The way the story evolves is not a happy story.”, said frontman Johan Hegg in an interview to Blabbermouth about Jomsviking, the tenth studio album by Swedish Melodic Death Metal band Amon Amarth, and also the first concept album in their solid career. However, despite being quite an innovative idea, it didn’t thrill me at any single moment during the entire album, a huge letdown taken into account the high expectations I had when I first heard our talented Viking warriors were recording a concept album.

The Jomsvikings might have been a semi-legendary order of Viking brigands of the 10th and 11th centuries, but all we get in the album is the same old Amon Amarth with some slight changes in their musicality and nothing truly remarkable about those infamous mercenaries. For instance, their excellent 2011 release Surtur Rising tells a lot more about the mythical giant Surtr than Jomsviking tells about the Jomsvikings, and it’s not even close to being a concept album. At least the artwork, once again designed by Tom Thiel, keeps up with their previous releases, but musically speaking Jomsviking doesn’t bring anything fresh to the listener. It doesn’t harm the band’s career either, but it leaves that annoying sensation you feel when it’s more than obvious that a band like Amon Amarth can do a lot better than that.

Johan’s voice sounds really odd in the first few lines in First Kill, but fortunately that doesn’t last long and he gets back to his regular “Viking mode” after a few seconds. Although the song itself sounds traditional Amon Amarth at first, you can feel it’s a bit more melodic than usual, mainly due to the great job done by guitarists Olavi Mikkonen and Johan Söderberg. And can the intro in the exciting Wanderer be considered “Viking Heavy Metal/Hard Rock”? Anyway, I like what I hear even the song not being played at full speed like many of their classics. It’s groovy and dark Melodic Death Metal made in Scandinavia with a beautiful melody in the background, a powerful chorus and tons of melancholy, turning it into one of the best songs of the album. On a Sea of Blood, which brings forward some welcome elements of Power and Heavy Metal, was born to be an Amon Amarth classic, with session drummer Tobias Gustafsson doing an excellent job in keeping the energy flowing smoothly during the entire song. While listening to this tune, all you’ll think of is grabbing your sword and shield and heading to the battlefield, no doubt about that.

One Against All keeps the violence at a high level, being extremely melodic at all times thanks to the guitar lines by both Olavi and Johan Söderberg, and despite offering nothing new musically speaking I guess not a single fan of the band will complain about it. And who doesn’t enjoy a song about drinking beer? That’s what you get in Raise Your Horns and its cliché but fun lyrics (“So pour the beer for thirsty men / A drink that they have earned / And pour a beer for those who fell / For those who did not return”). The music itself is quite lame, but again this is Amon Amarth, not a Progressive Metal band, which means fans will enjoy singing it along with Johan during the band’s live concerts. One might ask why I said bad things about the album in the beginning of this review, but so far I’ve made many positive comments about the songs presented until this part of the album. Well, that’s the main issue with Jomsviking: I’m not really sure how all songs are connected to the album concept, as they all sound regular songs to me with the word “Jomsviking” randomly added here and there. This is also the case in The Way of Vikings, sounding the same song Amon Amarth have recorded a billion times already, a below average chant with a strong “been there, done that” feeling.

amon amarthAfter a boring intro, At Dawn’s First Light gets to a decent melodic ambience that albeit generic ends up working well with the lyrics, but again don’t expect to find anything fresh in its musicality (except for the blood of your enemies, of course); followed by One Thousand Burning Arrows, by far the most boring track of all. I’m not kidding, after less than two minutes my attention turned to something else deu to the lack of anything interesting in it, a song filled with uninspired beats, riffs and vocals with absolutely nothing special, failing miserably in the end. At least Vengeance Is My Name puts the band back on track, translating the bloodshed of a battle into words (“The next man over reaches / And so he winds up dead / One cut is all that’s needed / I removed his head”), with the music also following the same level of violence.

Then we have the good A Dream That Cannot Be, featuring one of the greatest metal divas of all time, the unstoppable German amazon Doro Pesch. She kicks some serious ass together with Amon Amarth, bringing a breath of fresh air to their sometimes tiring music. Maybe they should have more female guests in their future releases, who knows? Anyhow, closing Jomsviking we have Back on Northern Shores, and I honestly don’t understand why Amon Amarth insist with long “epic” songs to conclude their albums as it never works as expected. Its riffs and rhythm are somewhat decent but way too repetitive for seven minutes, and again I turned my thoughts to something else after a short while. Next time they craft a lengthy chant, I hope they at least add some breaks, variations and additional layers to the sounding, otherwise I won’t even bother listening to it until the end.

To sum up, I’m sure a considerable part of the longtime fans of Amon Amarth all around the world will enjoy Jomsviking, saying it’s a great album and many other positive things about it, but as I said before it lacks a lot of power if compared to its predecessors and, a lot worse than that, it doesn’t say anything truly remarkable or worth about the Jomsvikings. Although the album has its moments and can entertain you for a few spins, I’m more than sure you’ll get really tired of it after a few weeks even with the new elements added to the music. And if they ever decide to write a concept album again in their career, may that be a true concept album and not just a bunch of same old, same old generic fighting chants they have done so many times before.

Best moments of the album: Wanderer, On a Sea of Blood and A Dream That Cannot Be.

Worst moments of the album: The Way of Vikings, One Thousand Burning Arrows and Back on Northern Shores.

Released in 2016 Metal Blade

Track listing
1. First Kill 4:21
2. Wanderer 4:42
3. On a Sea of Blood 4:04
4. One Against All 3:37
5. Raise Your Horns 4:23
6. The Way of Vikings 5:11
7. At Dawn’s First Light 3:50
8. One Thousand Burning Arrows 5:49
9. Vengeance Is My Name 4:41
10. A Dream That Cannot Be (feat. Doro Pesch) 4:22
11. Back on Northern Shores 7:08

Band members
Johan Hegg – vocals
Olavi Mikkonen – guitar
Johan Söderberg – guitar
Ted Lundström – bass guitar
Jocke Wallgren – drums (live)

Guest musicians
Tobias Gustafsson – drums (studo recording)
Doro Pesch – guest vocals on “A Dream That Cannot Be”