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May 2, 2010

Folk Metal: Origins, Theory and Discussion

Brutal Tunes

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.

skyclad-silent-whales-lunar-sea

Skyclad - the Silent Whales of Lunar Sea

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.

Horpiklaani-metal-band

Korpiklaani

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.

Eluveitie-metal-band

Eluveitie

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.

Listen:

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

Resources:

Metal Folk – a folk metal online community
Folk Metal on Metal Archives.

So folk metal – your thoughts and opinions. Share them below.

Raise Your Horns! \m/
Steff

18 Comments on “Folk Metal: Origins, Theory and Discussion

Lina
November 24, 2014 at 5:25 am

Hey! Great information! I stumbled upon this site while doing research for a paper for my Popular Music (not to be confused with the pop genre) and Society class. I haven’t delved much into folk metal until now, with the majority of my folk metal knowledge being about Korpiklaani and (mostly) Eluveitie. So far, from what I’ve discovered over the past few days, I’m enjoying it! I’ve got your site bookmarked and I hope to remember (I get distracted very easily) to check back every now and again. I have to say, I’m more drawn to the Celtic side of folk metal, but I attribute that to my high school years when I was part of the Irish Dance club. Early exposure! Haha!
If you (or anyone else) can recommend any other Celtic Folk Metal bands, I’d be much obliged. I’m using both Eluveitie and Cruachan (who I discovered yesterday) for my paper, but I really wouldn’t mind more suggestions for my personal listening.

Also, Islander, to answer your question, at one point the Celts (Greeks called them Keltoi, Romans called them the Gauls/Galli) ruled most of Europe, and their decline began slowly before they were conquered out by the Romans (that’s the short version, anyway). So really, anyone in Europe could potentially have Celtic ancestry, at varying degrees of distance. At least, that’s what I’ve pieced together so far from the reading I’ve done.

Cheers! :)

MATIAS REYES GUILMANT
November 12, 2012 at 11:25 am

Hi there mate!! Im Mexican and I lived in NZ for 7 years, in Wellington, Lower Hut. Ive been a metal fan since about 3 years ago, and ive listned to TONS of metal. Tons. I especially LOVE folk metal and black metal. Im also into traditional folk, nu metal, hardcore, mathcore, math rock, ambient, drone and others, but metal is my steering wheel. I wrote an article in spanish about folk metal and its origins, where it comes from, its relationship to folk, and important people, as well as details on instruments. Its in spanish so i dont post it here, but if somebody wants, i might.

Im a fan of Mago de Oz, but not as much as I am of Eluveitie, Korpiklaani, Kalevala HMS, Arkona, Fintroll and others. A great Sami Joik group from Norway called Adjagas is very underrated. Its folk. Its beautiful. I love them. I love you.

steff
November 12, 2012 at 1:02 pm

Hi Matias – great to hear from you, and glad you loved this country. Wellington is one of my favourite cities to visit. I’m off to look up Adjagas now. O hope you stick around and read more on my site :)

MATIAS REYES GUILMANT
November 12, 2012 at 5:00 pm

Will do Steff! Its amazing! Im having so much fun :)

Black Sunrise street team
March 7, 2012 at 1:31 am

share this “Black Sunrise – The Shadowelf’s Poem” [ MP3 High Quality ]
I think that it’s a nice work of this legendary Italian band

http://www.mediafire.com/?8e0u09iwbx7hknm

real traffic
January 18, 2012 at 5:06 pm

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Metallia
January 29, 2011 at 11:27 pm

Finally I FOUND you!.. a home for fans of Viking Metal ;) I LOVE IT .. I will come back often to read more.. Fantastic article .. Cheers

Waneta Geissler
January 29, 2011 at 5:33 pm

Today, I went to the beach front with my children. I found a sea shell and gave it to my 4 year old daughter and said “You can hear the ocean if you put this to your ear.” She placed the shell to her ear and screamed. There was a hermit crab inside and it pinched her ear. She never wants to go back! LoL I know this is entirely off topic but I had to tell someone!

skvlt
November 4, 2010 at 10:48 am

I love the post! and 90% of the bands mentioned are my fave :]

steff
November 4, 2010 at 9:43 pm

@skvlt – thanks! These are some of my favourite bands at the moment also. I hope you stick around and enjoy the rest of the site :)

groverXIII
May 3, 2010 at 3:50 pm

I love me some folk metal… the new Finntroll album is my album of the year so far. It does feel like the genre is starting to get flooded, resulting in some subpar bands, but there are still some great ones out there.

One band that no one mentioned that deserve some attention: Dalriada, formerly known as Echo Of Dalriada. They’re Hungarian and under-appreciated.

steff
May 3, 2010 at 2:00 pm

@MrPolek: As usual, you raise some very excellent points. The connection between German folk history and national-socialism hadn’t occurred to me, but upon reflection makes total sense. It felt to me when I visited (especially in Berlin) there was a lot of residual guilt on behalf of the German people. That made me rather sad.

Blind Guardian are one of my favorite bands (alongside Manowar and Bathory) and we were lucky enough to see them at Bloodstock this year. Amazing. At Wacken we were waiting around for Amon Amarth to start (at 2am) and a video of “The Bard Song” came on the big screen and EVERYONE stopped talking and started singing. It was so cool.

I missed Suidakra, because I was sleeping. What a crazy time to put them on!

I was definitely not in Germany long enough to see how to goth and metal scenes crossed over. I am reading a very interesting book at the moment about gothic and metal in England, which I will be reviewing in-depth next week.

No, most people don’t know the difference between medieval or Baroque!

I can’t wait to party hard with you Germans again. \m/

~Lily
May 3, 2010 at 12:25 pm

this is just was i was itching for. I was about to make a facebook post calling for new folk metal suggestions.

my parents were into classical and folk respectively, so i find myself drawn to symphonic and folk metal the most.

Haggard is another great folk metal band – and Faun is a nice medieval folk band.

as well, i am a live fusion bellydancer for the only local folk metal band in my city, called Emblem. see my name/website link for our myspace page.

Altáriel
May 3, 2010 at 6:09 am

Folk metal has a small-yet-growing audience in Argentina as well. Amon Amarth and Korpiklaani played recently here and we have our own awesome folk metal bands, the most popular being Skiltron (you can get their music for free, legally from here if you’re curious http://www.dontpaymusic.com/skiltron/ ). We have some medieval fairs here and you see a lot of people in metal t-shirts too. We have some awesome festivals, some of them in a public, open space, which include both traditional Celtic or Scandinavian folk and some of our local folk metal bands.

MrPolek
May 3, 2010 at 3:38 am

I have one point on the question why viking and celtic music is popular and made in Germany.

One point, a s silly as it might sound, is that if you draw your inspiration in ancient themes of middle europe (like germanic tribes or northern mythologie), you are easily accused of being some nazi type of band. So people turn to other mythologies like viking or celtic.

Another point is, like for Eluveitie, that celtic roots are outside of the UK. But i think that’s a minor point.

Another interesting fact is that folk influences are a phenomen not only known to metal. There are a lot of folk/punk bands. The Dropkick Murphys along Floggin Molly are probably the best known. Also a lot of “normal” musicians turn to folk. Check out Blackmores Night. You should know Mr. Blackmore.

Also the Band Suidakra was mentioned by Islander. Thats pretty interesting because the band of founded in 1994 (!) and now have released 11 recordings but NOBODY KNOWS THEM! Last Wacken they were playing at 11am at the partystage and it was f*ing empty.

I think a great influence to folk metal was the coincide of metal and gothic. I only know a few Metalheads listening to Subway to Sally. It’s more a Goth-Thing here in Germany. But medival (or Baroque [actually most people dont know the difference]) themes are common to what I know of the gothic culture.

And i also think that another Band from Germany was pretty underrated here. Blind Guardian! They have all like Fantasy and medival themes. Their first album was released in 1988 I think.

Finnaly I want to say that I love folk metal. I also like the middle ages, but I do not go to medival markets etc.. I mostly learn about them at Univeristy. I am a “normal” type of metalhead. I am not drinking Met from horns (But i like it ^^) or dress up in as a Viking – But if Korpiklaani is played in our local Metal-Pub everybody raises their pintes and mostly it a time when we all party hard.

Yumi
May 3, 2010 at 12:39 am

It’s interesting to read your article about folk metal, especially the part about German folk-rock^^ (as I doesn’t consider it as that metal…)
I came to metal over folk-rock or -metal and so I love the scene…
I think, especially the atmosphere on summer fairs makes this genre so popular. Furthermore folk-emtal leeds to a general acceptance of metal throughout society, at least in Germany… nobody can accuse these dark and wild-looking men of any evil if they sing “Minne” (medieval love songs) in a language everybody understands.
In the past years I experienced more and more understanding and even interest from all sides about “my” music and the further interests (as there is LARP and medieval fairs)
It really connects through all ages… and that’s why it is so popular…

To sum it up, folk metal is the form of metal with the highest potential to connect and open the scene to non-metalheads.
And it is probably a good thing to have the scene accepted (although not understood) by others as it leads to more acceptance and less prejudices.

(But Germany is generally quite open… the last month we had a quite goth-inspired band at the tops of our charts, Unheilig… even if the song was really soft and quite mainstream… it’s a sing of acceptance^^)

steff
May 2, 2010 at 5:04 pm

A bit of both. I wonder if it’s just a fascination with the roots of another culture, like how so many non-scandinavians are so drawn to viking metal? And I think there’s the mentality of “hey, I know of the crazy band from Moldovia, or the Ukraine, or Easter Island,” or whatever. Makes you more Kvlt.

Islander
May 2, 2010 at 4:27 pm

Very cool post about a very cool subject, and some interesting speculation about the reasons for its resurgence. Whatever the reasons, it’s a good thing. Within the last month, I’ve seen Eluveitie, Finntroll, and Moonsorrow, and saw Ensiferum last year, and I’m now completely sold on folk metal. Heavy but happy!

There is one thing that puzzles me: What’s the explanation for the popularity of Celtic-inspired folk metal in places you wouldn’t expect to find it (like Germany, eg, SuidAkrA)? Is it because that music really has some ancient roots in countries outside the UK, or is it like Jerry Lewis being big in Japan?

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