This was written back in 2003, since when the folk metal thing seems to have come and gone. But I just got the new Glittertind album Landkjenning recently and it’s excellent which is why I dug this out.
Although it sounds like something from The Fast Show, folk metal is deadly serious and it is undergoing something of a creative explosion at the moment. OK, none of the band names probably mean a great deal to many of us – Glittertind, Cruachan, Korpiklaani anyone?- but all of a sudden, from Scandinavia, from Ireland, from Eastern Europe and Germany, there seems to be a whole generation of bands who were spawned by black metal and Viking metal, who have incorporated elements of their local traditional music into their sound. Some, like Finland’s Korpiklaani, play folk songs in a metal style while others like Glittertind play punk rock with folkish inflections.
It would be a bit of an oversimplification to say that folk metal was all descended from the sort of Viking metal created by Bathory and their ilk – though there is such a crossover between folk metal and Viking metal that it’s an easy mistake to make. Also, although there are similarities to so-called battle metal, there is very little crossover between folk metal and power metal.
It all gets a bit confusing because the definition of what constitutes ‘folk’ music is itself pretty nebulous. Webster’s dictionary defines folk music as the “traditional and typically anonymous music that is an expression of the life of the people in a community.” Folk music is also a current genre of music that includes not only traditional tunes whose origins are lost in the mists of time and which have been handed down from one singer to another, but newly composed tunes in a folk style. Also “modern” folk song is a “song with a soft melodic sound and acoustic guitar accompaniment.”
If you think that black metal purists are elitist snobs you really want to be in the room when two folkies are having an argument: one school of thought holds that if you know who wrote a song then it isn’t proper folk music. Another holds that if it sounds like folk music then it is folk music. It’s like Israelis and Palestinians, Rangers and Celtic, people who like Marmite and people who don’t: they aren’t gonna agree to differ in a convivial fashion. Nope, they are going to put the sandal in, grab each other by the beard and tear those Fair Isles sweaters off in a big bloody brawl.
Me, I like something that’s attributed to the great Pete Seeger: Folk music is music that folk like.
Folk rock has a long history: in the mid 60s bands like The Byrds incorporated traditional American folk music into their sound. In Britain the English folk song revival in the early 60s fed into the burgeoning post-psychedelic rock bands like Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span and the Strawbs. Progressive bands like Jethro Tull, Traffic and Gryphon incorporated folk and medieval music into their high prog style.
Historically, though, metal and folk have rarely found much common ground, though on early Black Sabbath tracks like Spiral Architect you can hear some folky inflections creeping in.
Until the 80s and 90s there are scant examples of folk metal: there was the novelty 1970 hit Jig A Jig by East Of Eden, there’s Thin Lizzy’s Whiskey in The Jar, and there’s the work of a relatively obscure but brilliant Irish heavy rock band called Horslips, particularly their 1973 concept album The Tain (based upon Táin Bo Cuailgne or The Cattle Raid of Cooley, a heroic tale of ancient Ulster).
The first important folk metal works came from another unfairly neglected band, Britain’s own pagan thrashers Skyclad and of course Sweden’s Bathory. Skyclad’s Wayward Sons of Mother Earth and Bathory’s Blood Fire Death pretty much wrote the book in terms of the musical blueprint and the lyrical themes that folk metal adopted. Later bands, inspired by the Viking metal of Bathory, discovered a purer folk sound and bands outside of Scandinavia incorporated their own folk culture into the lyrics and imagery that they employ.
In an increasingly homogenised and globalised world, nationalism is on the rise. Sometimes that takes the form of a backward looking romanticised view of the past that sometimes spills over into xenophobia, and outright fascism and racism. Sometimes, as in Scotland for example, it’s an inclusive nationalism that celebrates the things that make each nation and people unique. But for good or ill, everyone is seeking a sense of identity and folk metal, both in its positive and negative manifestations, is a symptom of this.
THE FOLKS THAT WE KNOW
FORMED 10 years ago, ostensibly as a side project by Pantheon members Patrik Lindgren (guitar) and Jocke Kristensson, Thyrfing began as a rather terrible synth-led pomp band, with pseudo-mediaeval keyboard flourishes supposedly creating a dark age atmosphere. It wasn’t until their 2002 album Vansinnesvisor (which translates as “tales of madness”) with its songs – sung in Swedish – and using odd instruments like the keyed fiddle and home-made percussion, that they succeeded in creating something that genuinely sounded like the sort of metal that actual Vikings might have played. Steeped in the lore and imagery of the ancient Norse culture, Thyrfing were erroneously accused in the Swedish media of having connections with the country’s small but growing neo-Nazi movement.
“There was a witch-hunt in the media to this topic,” says Patrik. “We have absolutely nothing to do with the Nazi scene or their ideology. Some idiots will ask you whether you are a racist if they see the hammer hanging on your neck. Such pathetic questions are a pain in the ass.”
Fiercely nationalistic, they resent the fact that the neo-Nazi appropriation of symbols like the sub-cross and the runes have tainted on the whole legacy of the ancient Norse culture.
Having just signed to Regain records, there will be a new album from Thyrfing later this year.
Glittertind – named after Norway’s second highest mountain – is essentially a one man band, consisting of 20 year old Torbjørn Sandvik. It’s a one man show because as he says. “It was difficult to find others who would be dedicated to a type of music which mixes metal, punk and Nordic folk-music.” Inspired by Finntroll on one hand and the Dropkick Murphys and Flogging Molly on the other, Torbjørn set about recording an album that wasn’t so much Viking metal as Viking punk. Evige Asatro, released last year, is an amazing blend of high energy punk and metal with of folkish melodies. Sung entirely in Norwegian, it celebrates the old pagan culture that was destroyed by Christianity. Like Thyrfing, Torbjørn is at pains to distance his brand of viking-centric Norwegian nationalism/anti-globalism from the bonehead fascists. “This question comes up from time to time, so let’s set the record straight: even though Glittertind holds Nordic heritage high, this does not mean other cultures or histories are inferior, this behaviour often linked to racism is not Glittertind’s point of view.”
Currently working on the follow up to Evige Asatro (which was actually recorded in 2002, he expects it to be released later this year.
FORMED in 1995 by the Sorvali cousins Henri (aka Trollhorn of Finntroll) and Ville to create their own folkish pagan themed metal, Moonsorrow are sometimes lumped in with the sub-sub-genre of Forest Metal which is like folk metal except all the songs are about forests and nature. Certainly on their new album Verisäkeet it is forest sounds that provided the ambient background to their grim, mournful Viking folk ballads. Mysterious, moody and doom laden, they are the opposite end of folk metal to the more frenetic Finntroll.
“We’re influenced by lots of things,” says Ville. ”We listen to a lot of progressive rock, but also film soundtracks, films influence us and of course Finnish history, mythology, nature have a large influence. Our roots have their very specific influence on us, both in music and otherwise. We are Finns and we are proud of our origin.”
Unlike many bands who sing in English to gain acceptance abroad, they remain true to their roots by singing in Swedish (which is spoken by most Finns) which gives the songs a really alien quality because it is such an unfamiliar language.
“KORPIKLAANI’s music is very Finnish and the band does not fear to be labelled ‘yokels’, living as they do in the middle of the forest,” their biography says. Like fellow Finns Moonsorrow, they are sometimes tagged as Forest Metal (Hell, the name translates into English as Forest Family or Clan). Finntroll take traditional Finnish songs and play them with a metal “twist” though employing a full array of distinctly non-metal instruments such as accordions, fiddles and penny whistles. More than any band here they evoke a Heathen pathos on one hand and a joyous sense of celebration with their ‘humppa’ derived dance tunes. They are brilliant but quite mad.
Crazy name, crazy guys, you know the score: ancient weapons, oddball instruments, songs about Trolls and battles. They sing in Swedish – despite being Finnish – and they sound like nothing on Earth. A polka-band at a Polish wedding playing Darkthrone tunes? Nutters.
Irish band who straddle the world of Celtic music and mythology with black metal also incorporating complex quasi-classical/prog pieces, and medieval music. Their recent is the more satisfactory than their earlier stuff, moving away from black metal to a more mainstream sound.
Another Irish band, though despite having some surface folkish elements – their trademark is a penny-whistle intro – they are much more of a straight ahead metal band.
Italian power metallers who incorporate folkish/Celtic music into their bombastic power metal. They also plunder pagan iconography such as the green man on the sleeve of their 2004 album Wyrd.
German band Suidakra would dearly love to be Irish as you can hear on any of their three excellent melodic black metal albums. They play Irish folk music as only Germans can. It may be easily mocked but it works.
TUATHA DE DANANN
Despite the name that evokes the land o’ the wee folk and the fair Coleens, this lot are actually a Brazilian power metal combo who seem to have overdosed on Enya records.
Danish band named after the Germanic god Tyr (known in Norse mythology as Thor and in Finnish as Turisas). Formed in 1997, they are probably the only band ever to incorporate the traditional music of the Faroe Islands into metal.