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The relevant question here is, what makes this album less good than the glorious "Once Sent From The Golden Hall" and "Sorrow Throughout The Nine Worlds"? Concisely, my answer would be that the more rhythmic approach towards riffing brings about much of the change. Less concisely, it goes like this:
The album starts out with the relatively mid-paced "Bleed For Ancient Gods", which turns out to be one of its lesser ingredients. Though an absolute favourite at live shows, the studio version doesn't really work, and portrays Amon Amarth as playing generic melodic death. Is it really that bad? No; it's actually still quite above melodic death standards, but relative to the killers we knew on "Once Sent...", this is at least one and a half step down in all aspects except the vocals - Hegg is still untouchable and delivers his payload of lethal aggression like few others do in the genre. The song is probably a few BPM too slow to really give that kick you want it to give you, but apart from that, the riffs are simply substandard. Had there been another interlude or melodic riff or so, it might have been fine, but the main riffs are far too much of the same character, which is mainly rhythmic. We need more variety in here, which we only get in the riff under the chorus. No really throat-grabbing moments like on "Under The Greyclouded Wintersky", no really outstanding melodic solos like on "The Arrival of the Fimbul Winter", no effective time signature changes like on "Abandoned", no driving main melody like on "Friends of the Suncross". Of course, it's that material I'm comparing this with, and it doesn't really compare. "The Avenger" will have its moments later on, but right here, it's coming short of my expectations. I don't really have any problems with that, except for it being the opening track.
But as the wise Douglas Adams once put it very effectively: don't panic. There are many redeeming qualities on this LP, the first one (in order of appearance) being "The Last With Pagan Blood". This really crushes you with its mid-paced heaviness, from the opening riff to the hammering verse. Very driving song that returns to the musical imagery of "Once Sent...". And here we get what the previous song didn't: a climax, namely the ending, a stirring battle scene comparable to the one on "Amon Amarth" (the song).
By the beginning of "North Sea Storm", our confidence in the band is already restored, and remains largely intact throughout the naval battle. Although nicely melodic as we want it to be, this song as well displays more rhythmic riffing than what we saw on "Once Sent...".
However, during the title track of the album, our attention level drops to somewhere around minus 4, whereas it had previously been on 10. No, it's not the song's format that troubles me. Give me epic, slow, dramatic songs all you wish, but at least, make them up to the standards you usually live up to (see "Amon Amarth" for the band's standard of slow songs). I could try to concentrate really hard on it, and turn all the volume up, but this song just doesn't do it. The only noteworthy part is the solo; the rest is just, well, substandard. Even Hegg's intensity can't save it here. Riffage must be better, guys! Here, it consist of plainly open chords, and when around 6:20 we get a turn for the better, the song ends.
But ah, yes, the best is yet to come, and it's called "God, His Son, and Holy Whore". Stick that riff up yours!! This is what we want to hear. This is what should have opened the album. And it continues to speed up! Yes, this is the sort of classics "Once Sent" was filled to the brim with. First instant in which new drummer Andersson gains momentum. Really everything is in place here, from the short solos to the rhythm changes. Speak of kicking ass!!
And now that we got really in the mood, we get "Metalwrath". While not disappointing at all, it's an atypical Amarth song in most aspects except for the section from 1:00 to 1:25 which gets repeated once. On the other hand, this song is a classic during live gigs where you'll right away disregard anything that could be negative about it. Also atypical are its amusing lyrics which contain most of their own song titles up to that point. Of course there's also the notorious "Weâ€™ll make the false hammer fall" - this was also the time when Hegg claimed in an interview the guys from HammerFall were posers (Metal Observer, October 1999).
Next up is "Legend of a Banished Man", another slow, epic song, mixing the rhythmic passages with some of the more typical tremolo-picked twin guitar riffs. Okay song, but nothing brilliant.
If now the following song had given us some ass-kicking ownage, we could safely send in a review with a score around 90 or so, being ultimately happy about this album. However, there is no following song. Now I don't really feel that the album is drastically too short, but I do subtract points because you simply can't get away with 36 minutes of non-stellar music. This then gives us something of 84%, which I feel is justified.
A note on the production: "The Avenger" logically and effectively ranks in between "Once Sent..." and "The Crusher". There is more bass up front, and the drums are more clearly recorded, but both effects would be improved on by the following full-length. Unlike the more recent albums, however, this one retains the rawness of the guitars (they would become more polished on "Versus the World"). No major complaints here, a minor one being that the lead guitar is usually a bit more in the back of the mix than on the other albums.
To conclude, I'll state that if you don't know Amon Amarth, this review may sound awfully negative. But the score should be a clear token that this is far from any bad. As a matter of fact, it's an exquisitely raw, heavy, and intense album compared to all the modern wankery that generally abounds in today's metal scene. But compared to Amon Amarth's previous records and to the following "Crusher", this inconspicuously falls short, because of said rhythmic riffing that just doesn't captivate as much as the melodic lines of "Once Sent...". So, not the best to start with, but still a must-have for all ye fanatics of extreme metal.