Steff Metal Presents: FOLK METAL WEEK
This week, Steff Metal is hosting a special series of posts on one of my favorite musical sub-genres: Folk Metal. Now, since some of you rock-dwellers might not even know what folk metal is, I present you a brief and inconsistent history of the genre, its major players, its strengths and its criticisms.
Metal experts mostly agree (I say mostly, because Gene Simmons probably thinks he invented folk metal, just like he invented toothpaste and breathing) that the first folk metal band was England’s Skyclad, who released their first album Wayward Sons of Mother Earth in 1990.
Wayward Sons is essentially a thrash album (owing much to vocalist Martin Walkyier’s time in Sabbat) with folk influences, but after Skyclad added violin, keyboard and started experimenting with traditional folk instruments, their sound really came together. Skyclad became particularly well-known for their lyrical content – they make frequent use of puns, wordplay and clever imagery to explore themes of religion, war, paganism, social norms, politics, racial issues and issues of identity and modern living.
Despite Skyclad earning critical acclaim for their innovative use of folk instruments, melodies and themes, it wasn’t until 1994 that folk metal started gaining a following in other European countries, with Cruachan in Ireland, Orphaned Land in Israel and Subway to Sally in Germany developing and cementing their own unique sounds. Subway to Sally’s unique blend of hard rock, traditional folk melodies, and “romantic-symbolic German speaking poetry” in their lyrics, set off the sub-sub-genre known as Medieval Rock – which has exploded across Europe alongside the folk metal genre in recent years thanks to the resurgance of interest in European folk history.
Meanwhile, in Scandinavia, black metal descended in its cloud of satanic, dischordant mayhem. As we know, the early black metal served as an antithesis to all that was good in the world – focusing on being as unmusical as possible and spouting anti-christian lyrics. Gradually, the first and second wave bands got a bit bored of the whole satanic shindig (after awhile, you run out of rhymes for “Christian Scum”) and started exploring traditional Scandinavian myths and religions. A unique style of folk-inspired black metal emerged, typified by Bathory’s forth release, 1988’s Blood, Fire, Death. Many consider this album to be a competitor for Skyclad as the first folk release.
The Norwegian superground Storm – made up of Fenriz (Darkthrone), Satyr (Satyricon) and Karl Ruselatten (The 3rd and the Mortel) released Nordavind in 1995, using keyboards to simulate folk instruments.
So, we’ve got a few random folk metal bands doing their thing in the nineties. While these bands grew in popularity, not many new folk metal bands emerged. The genre remained dominated by ten or so bands, and record companies weren’t exactly clamoring to sign new folk groups. One newcomer of note during this time was Finland’s Amorphis, who’s 1994 release Tales from the Thousand Lakes, and 1996 follow-up Elegy incorporate distinctive traditional instruments and melodies, and lyrics from traditional Finnish poetry with their melodic death style.
In 2000, folk metal exploded. In the best possible way, of course. Blame Finland. Blame the trolls.
Finntroll’s 1999 debut Midnattens Widunder fused Scandinavian black metal with a traditional style of Finnish polka music called “Humppa”. Well, that was it. Everyone wanted on the folk bandwagon. Finland produced a vitual army of “Humppa” metal bands – Korpiklaani and Turisas and Ensiferum. These three bands grew so popular the genre started getting active radio play. Last year, Subway to Sally won a major mainstream music competition in Germany.
Although it’s relatively unknown outside of Europe, folk metal isn’t exclusive to Vikings and trolls;. Mago de Oz (Spanish for Wizard of Oz) formed in 1989 and released their debut in 1994. The nine members of Mago de Oz play a variety of instruments, including my favorite whistle. They are chart-toppers in Spain, Mexio and South America. One day, I’m certain New Zealand will produce a Maori-inspired folk metal band. Somebody do it! I can’t, cuz I’m white.
Nowadays, every major European festival’s lineup is probably half folk metal. More and more bands are being signed and radio play of folk metal and medieval rock is increasingly common. As always, this adoption into the mainstream of a metal genre brings with it mixed opinions.
Critics condemn the genre as unimaginative, boring and goofy. And yes, some of it is. I am a general believer that 80% of all metal sucks. And the people waving giant plastic swords around at festivals is goofy. I don’t have a problem with goof, though. Labels have rushed to sign bands to cash in on the trend, and there is a glut of mediocre folk on the market. Much of the radio-friendly stuff is just that … radio-friendly. Watered down metal.
Still other critics believe the music actively promotes alcoholism in a positive light, with songs like Korpiklaani’s “Beer, Beer” and Alestorm’s “Wenches and Mead”. But I’m not seeing how that’s any different to certain other metal genres (cough death metal cough) or, say, hip hop music. But now that folk metal has entered the mainstream, it will come under fire for being socially responsible.
However, some truly innovative music is being made. Never before has metal seen the incorporation of so many varied instruments, or bands thinking outside of the box of “a vocalist, a guitarist a bassist and a knob behind the drums”. It’s folk music for the 21st century. And while a lot of it is quite silly – drinking and fighting and whoring and drinking some more – a lot of it is actually rather serious: dealing with social and political issues that are just as pertinent today as they were in centuries past.
You also have to remember that most “mainstream” music is crap. I’d rather hear a mediocre folk metal song than a good rap song, if I’m honest. The folk metal they don’t play on the radio – you’ll find good stuff there.
Metal Sucks happily declared the genre dead in 2009. Having visited Europe after this article was written, I can unequivocally state folk metal is definitely not dead. Although I know America experienced an influx of touring bands in 2007-2008 and maybe you’re all sick of it over there.
So why is folk metal so popular? Why now?
I do believe part of the reason for Europe’s embrace of folk metal comes from the September 11 attacks, Global Warming and the economic crisis. Yes, I really do. The world over, people are becoming more aware of what modern, “Western” living is doing to our planet, our resources, and our lives. Buying more stuff isn’t making us happy. So people are seeking – more than ever before – a way out of the rat race; a simpler way of life. This manifests itself in several ways: giant supermarkets struggle, while local seed-growers report record returns as more and more people grow food from home. Movie theatres lie empty, while children wait in line to get on the swings at the local park. More and more people start their own business in an attempt to halt their daily grind.
And when people want to live a simpler life, they look back … to their ancestors. A romanticised view of history shows us ancient people who loved to dance, who cared not for iPhones and wide-screen TVs, as long as they have cows and bread and a warm women in their bed. It sure doesn’t sound like a bad life.
So people embrace their history in a modern way – by taking up swordfighting, by joining their local medieval society, learning to churn their own butter, and listening to folk-inspired music. For years now, Europeans have been taught to be ashamed of their history – penitant for the various atrocities they visited upon the world – but now, they are finding something to be proud of.
When I visited Hamburg’s Medieval Market – the largest of its kind in Europe – everyone who wasn’t dressed in medieval garb wore a metal shirt. We were constantly stopped by people throwing the goat and yelling “Wacken!” We listened to several local up-and-coming folk metal bands. A fact often ignored by folk metal critics is that folk metal’s popularity stems from it’s merging of two seemingly disparate scenes – it’s bringing a whole new section of society over to metal. And I don’t think that’s a bad thing.
Skyclad – Silent Whales of Lunar Sea, The Vintage Whine
Amorphis – Elegy
Orphaned Land – Mabool: The Story of the Three Sons of Seven
Korpikaani – Voice of Wilderness
Cruachan – The Morrigan’s Call
Turisas – Battle Metal
Ensiferum – Iron, From Afar
Bathory – Blood, Fire, Death, Hammerheart
Subway to Sally – Nord, Nord, Ost
The Lord Weird Slough Feg – Down Among the Deadmen
Agalloch – The Mantle
Eluveitie – Spirit, Slania, Evocation I: The Arcane Dominion
Equilibrium – Sagas
– a folk metal online community
Folk Metal on Metal Archives.
So folk metal – your thoughts and opinions. Share them below.
Raise Your Horns! \m/