Amon Amarth at House of Blues, 1/23/2014

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Amon Amarth, Enslaved, Skeletonwitch House of Blues January 22, 2014

As Houstonians prepared for another blast of icy weather on Wednesday night, who better to usher in the cold than a bearded Viking horde led by Amon Amarth? Like a gang of beer-swilling Leif Erikssons, the Swedish death-metallers have spent the past 15 years sailing on countless expeditions to the New World, and judging from the size of the crowd that greeted them Wednesday, Houston is on its way to becoming one of the group's favorite North American outposts.

Weeknight be damned, House of Blues was crowded and damp from almost the minute the doors opened on Wednesday. While it certainly didn't hurt that Amon Amarth is touring practically unopposed by big-name metal acts this winter, a lot of the credit for the turnout has to go to the stacked bill somebody put together. The opening act, Ohio's Skeletonwitch, has built a nice local following playing virtually every stage in town over the last three years or so, and fans turned up early so as not to miss them last night.

The moshing began early on in the evening as Skeletonwitch stabbed viciously at the crowd with slick, blackened thrash blasting out of guitar cabinets emblazoned with inverted crosses. I was expecting a set heavy on material from last year's critically acclaimed Serpents Unleashed album, but true to form, the band unchained tracks from throughout its decade-long career. New cuts like "Thunder From a Cloudless Sky" stood shoulder-to-shoulder with older chestnuts like "Beyond the Permafrost," whipping the floor into a cyclone of stomping and shoving.

Would've been nice to hear Skeletonwitch with the full power of the HOB sound system at their disposal rather than the lamer volume and mixing afforded openers. But singer Chance Garnette promised they'd be back soon, and having now seen them four times in two years here, it seems pretty likely that's a promise he'll keep.

Up next was Enslaved, the moody, mildly progressive black-metal troupe from Bergen, Norway. Like Skeletonwitch, Enslaved didn't shy away from older cuts, dusting off 1992's "Allfather Odin" on their way to the title track from their latest album, RIITIIR. I happened to prefer the older, crueler snatches of blood-curdling black metal that the band trotted out, but the more mature, tasteful bits employed in the band's newer music were certainly dynamic, if lacking a bit in brutality.

On newer songs like "Ethica Odini," the talented, counterpoint vocals of bassist Grutle Kjellson and keyboardist Herbrand Larsen helped to establish a melancholy, downbeat atmosphere onstage that was received by a more subdued audience than their tourmates. Such is black metal. While their Scandinavian brethren in Amon Amarth gleefully plunder the same Viking mythology as Enslaved for inspiration, the Swedes take a rather more rollicking, heroic view of their cultural heritage than their Norwegian buds.

Review continues on the next page.

The headliners' spirit of epic adventure was illustrated perfectly by their massive stage backdrop, which featured an over-the-top painting of the mighty Thor riding into battle on a goat-drawn chariot, thundering toward a crusty frost giant. Now that is some heavy-metal album art, folks. It wasn't quite as awe-worthy as the band's Viking-ship drum riser from last summer's Mayhem Festival, but it set the scene nicely, to say the least.

Amon Amarth was greeted lustily by fans crowding the floor and balcony alike, and hirsute front man Johan Hegg wasted no time letting them know he expected hard partying on the night.

"I know it's Wednesday, but in Sweden, Wednesday is 'Little Saturday,'" Hegg said.

That led straight into "Death in Fire," which had heads banging from the waist almost immediately. Hegg was guzzling from a drinking horn filled with some local beer or another from Southern Star Brewing Co., and the audience seemed in a mood to get loose, as well.

They sang along to the epic death of "Cry of the Blackbird" and banged along to the ripping guitar solo on "Destroyer of the Universe." Near the stage, the middle of the floor churned into a miniature Ragnarok as Hegg egged the berserkers on.

"C'mon Houston, let's see some violence!" he commanded.

There was violence, but it was accompanied by a lot of smiles and backslapping in the crowd. By the time Amon Amarth encored with "Twilight of the Thunder God," the metal fans in attendance had become one, pumping their devil horns in the air and howling for Loki. Grinning, Hegg thanked the crowd for its weeknight insanity, offering us this benediction:

"You are true fucking Vikings!"

I'll raise a horn to that.

Personal Bias: I watched that Secrets of the Viking Sword show on Netflix.

The Crowd: Hairy.

Overheard in the Crowd: "When does the metal start?"

Random Notebook Dump: We are true Vikings.


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