You know that bands like Amon Amarth have made it in the U.S. when the venues and stage shows get dramatically larger. I had the honor and privilege to see Amon Amarth grow in popularity here, with the biggest stage set up being the dragonhead drakkar longboat, which appeared at a special show at the PlayStation Theater in New York City. When the announcement came a long while back about a U.S. tour that not only featured Amon Amarth, but Arch Enemy, At the Gates and the most surprising act of all, Grand Magus, you better believe that C.R.O.M. would be there. It was as if all of Swedish metal was invading the U.S. (Sabaton and HammerFall are also touring the U.S. at press time)!
Held at the historic Hammerstein Ballroom, which is situated across the street from the famed Madison Square Garden, the venue was nearly "too posh" for a metal show. Gorgeously decorated, the venue sees a few metal shows each year, sort of the middle ground between places like Irving Plaza (1200) and the next size up like Radio City Music Hall (6800), with a capacity for 2,200 fans. With similar capacity to the soon to be closed PlayStation Theater (2,100), the difference is that the Hammerstein Ballroom can accommodate bands that have pyrotechnics, something I wasn't aware of until Amon Amarth literally exploded on stage.
With such a large stage show (the viking horn helmet drum riser was cloaked in black), Arch Enemy, At the Gates and Grand Magus were all similarly jammed up to the front of the stage, making the event even more intimate for 3/4 of the show. Grand Magus drummer Ludwig Witt's kit was a 1/2 from hanging over the stage, making the decision to bring the fisheye lens so key.
Grand Magus is a band that has been in your author's top 5 bucket list bands to see for 20+ years, so in as much as I adore every band in this lineup, the band of the day will be the opener! Not often one would ever say this, but Grand Magus is the very definition of bad ass metal, as if "catchy" was a noun. One thing definitely was a noun and that is RIFFS, and Grand Magus brings that and more.
No need to mince words here...that 21 minute, 30 second five song set was the best in the history of opening sets. Grand Magus is no frills, no bullshit, total power. There were no dramatic intros, just get on stage and lay down the doom laden heavy metal for the masses. It was everything I hoped for, with the only complaint being the extremely short set (though understandable given many factors).
The set list featured three mainstay tracks - "Like the Oar Strikes the Water," "Iron Will" (both from the band's classic fourth studio release, 2008's "Iron Will") and "Hammer of the North" (the title track from the 2010 album) along with the opener "I, the Jury" (also from "Hammer of the North") and the lone new track "Untamed" (from 2019's "Wolf God").
It was an absolute honor to finally witness vocalist/guitarist J.B. Christoffersson's smooth gritty vocals playing some of the songs I've been blasting in my car for years. Grand Magus throwback to times when metal was only one subgenre and it was all about riffs, clean vocals and bad ass songwriting - the very things that attracted me to metal 33 years ago.
I chuckled when JB said that he had to pinch himself because playing in New York City was a highlight for him, because I was pinching myself in the pit (and wiping away some tears) because I couldn't believe I was actually seeing Grand Magus live. The highlight of the set was bassist Fox Skinner leading the New York City crowd in the melodious "Whoa....whoa, whoa....whoa, whoa..." of "Hammer of the North."
My only hope is that this tour will open the door to larger and more steady touring for the band with the ultimate goal a headline run! This set may have been way too short, but it was glorious and worth the wait.
Up next was At the Gates, which has been on a tear since releasing the instant classic "At War With Reality" in 2014, seven years after reforming with the idea that there would not be a new release. In 2018, the band released it's current full length album "To Drink From the Night Itself." Both album received critical acclaim, sparking the "With the Pantheons Blind" EP release early in 2019.
With pure melodic death metal energy, At the Gates whipped the New York City crowd into a frenzy with a great mix of old and new classics, starting with the title track off the latest full length "To Drink From the Night Itself." Mosh pits and crowdsurfing commenced for the evening and gradually picked up in intensity until reaching its apogee when Amon Amarth hit the stage.
With serrated riffs belted forth by both long time member Martin Larsson and relative newcomer (2017) Jonas Stålhammar, the crowd was ripe for the taking as vocalist Tomas Lindberg belted out the familiar " There won't be another dawn....We will reap as we have sown" of the belligerent classic "Slaughter of the Soul" and shrieked "I feel my soul go cold...Only the dead are smiling" of its all too well known album follow up "Cold." Clearly, At the Gates owned this crowd!
The band went through newer classics like "At War With Reality," "Heroes and Tombs," "Death and the Labyrinth" and "The Night Eternal" (all from 2014's "At War With Reality" along with "A Stare Bound in Stone" (from 2018's "To Drink From the Night Itself." Nothing previous to 1995 appeared on the setlist, but the band was short on time and have been rightfully supporting newer material live since releasing "At War With Reality." All in all, a great set that certainly went over well with the NYC crowd.
As soon as the sounds of the intro to "Will to Power" - "Set Flame to the Night" - filled the hall, the crowd literally went ballistic from the front to the third floor balcony. Arch Enemy is one of the premiere live acts, bringing boatloads of energy from all the members, especially vocalist Alyssa White-Gluz, who is shot out a cannon every night I see her live (even way back when she was fronting The Agonist). If I had to pick the best front woman in metal today, it would be Alyssa. From the look, to the costumes, to the voice, to the energy...she is unmatched. Now I hadn't had the privilege of seeing the band back when Angela Gossow fronted the band, but I know she had a hand in picking Alyssa. It was the perfect choice.
Going on my sixth time seeing Arch Enemy, they are a favorite act to see live. The only disappointment in this lineup, where everyone can easily be a headliner, is shorter sets. Arch Enemy never just comes to play for the crowd, Arch Enemy slays the crowd. The material the band has pumped in the two albums since Alyssa has been incredible, especially in a live environment. They are every bit as melodic as they are ferocious, which is one of the reasons the band is so potent.
Choices for the set list ranged from 2001's "Wages of Sin" through the latest release "Will to Power." Certainly not shocking, though I would absolutely love to hear reworked versions of Johan Liiva era material (first three albums) with Alyssa's much more ferocious death growls.
The band started with "The World is Yours" from the latest release "Will to Power." Following that was the title track to Alyssa's first album with the band, the 2014 release "War Eternal." The band then unleashed the classics "My Apocalypse" (from the 2005 classic "Doomsday Machine") and "Ravenous" (from the 2001 album "Wages of Sin"). The "slow down" of the night was in the form of a newer "power ballad" - "The Eagle Flies Alone" - which has instantly become your author's theme song (with its highly relatable "I – I go my own way, I – swim against the stream...").
The rest of the band's set consisted of the blistering "First Day in Hell" (from 2017's "Will to Power"), the classic "As the Pages Burn" (from 2014's "War Eternal") and the closer classic "Nemesis" (from 2005's "Doomsday Machine"). As always, Arch Enemy brings the intensity level to a peak...which was the perfect appetizer to the night's headline act.
As previously stated, its been a sheer pleasure watching Amon Amarth's rise to fame in the United States. I remember being a young journalist in C.R.O.M.'s original "hey day" and having received a slipcase promo from Metal Blade for the "Once Sent From the Golden Hall" from the then dubbed "new death metal sensation Amon Amarth" in 1998. The album had an immediate impact as the then 25 year old Johan Hegg let out the opening scream on "Ride for Vengeance." The band was so reminiscent of one of my favorite death metal acts at the time, the other Swedish Viking warriors of Unleashed.
Flash forward to 2019, and the two bands are very distinctly different. While Unleashed has stayed the course in its direction, Amon Amarth has become increasingly more melodic over the years, but no less bludgeoning. Also, Johan's vocals have become much deeper than on that first release. Still, Amon Amarth has left a trail of destruction since then and are reaping rewards that few metal bands have achieved in North America.
Nothing shows this rise better than with the stage decorum, which this time out features a giant viking helmet with eyes that feature screens that present varying colors and flames. Speaking of flames, after Iron Maiden's "Run to the Hills" completed and the intro to the set commenced, the giant "Berserker" curtain that shrouded the stage dropped, the pyro and explosions were an unexpected pleasure! The band blasted in to "Raven's Flight" from 2019's "Berserker" and never looked back.
New York City exploded on queue and lavished chants of praise on the viking descendants. The band rifled through "Runes to My Memory" (from the 2006 album "With Oden On Our Side") and literally brought out the "Deceiver of the Gods" (title track from the 2013 release) when Loki entered the stage, as if he was lifted right off Tom Thiel's cover artwork.
"Berserker" was well represented throughout the setlist, with the band performing "First Kill," "Fafnir's Gold," "Crack the Sky" and the latest single "Shield Wall," which prompted a large section of the floor crowd to row on the floor in unison. Other notable tracks in the set were "Raise Your Horns" (from 2016's "Jomsviking"), "The Pursuit of Vikings" (from 2004's "Fate of Norns") and "Guardians of Asgard" (from 2013's "Deceiver of the Gods").
The stage show was incredible, with viking warriors fighting on stage during "The Way of the Vikings" (from the 2016 release "Jomsviking") and the giant dragon serpent rose from the back for the closer "Twilight of the Thunder God" (title track of the 2008 release). This was a stage show worthy of Iron Maiden...and this totally blew me away.
It was one of the most memorable nights of the year, and seeing where Amon Amarth has taken its stage show. Each time it gets bigger and bigger resulting in what we witnessed at the Hammerstein Ballroom on October 12, 2019. What am amazing night of Swedish metal, where a traveling festival of headline acts just killed it!