Saturday, 7 May 2011

Of folk/viking/pagan metal

I shall start my blog with an entry concerning my favourite branch in the world-tree of metal. During the last ten years or so, folk/viking/pagan metal has gradually gained a somewhat important role amongst the metal-scene worldwide. The steep growth in the birth of new f/v/p-bands has brought new winds and streaks to the subgenre,  naturally making it more difficult to define what bands belong under the tag of folk metal, what bands under the tag of viking metal and what bands under the tag of pagan metal. At this point I can imagine some of you saying: “hold on, is there really any difference between those definitions?” I’m not some ancient god who states how things are or how they should be but I try to do my best in explaining my thoughts regarding this issue.

First I take the term folk metal under examination. At least from my point of view, there are two main aspects one must take notice of when defining what is folk metal and what is not: the music itself and lyrics. Naturally the easiest way to define folk metal is to describe it as a combination of metal and folk music traditional to a certain culture. The use of accordion, fiddle, flute, mouth harp, bagpipe, bodhran, hurdy-gurdy etc. with the instrumentation commonly prevalent in metal yields this result. Also, folk-melodies drawing their inspiration from traditional folk-tunes but played with guitar, bass or keyboard are, according to some, enough to tag the music as folk metal. Many are happy with those attributes but is it really credible to call something folk metal if you only blend, for example, accordion-melodies into some style of metal? Some certainly think that way and some, in turn, would call it pretentious and fake if there’s no substance formed of certain themes. The richest and deepest form of folk metal is indeed the one that brings forth the essence of a certain culture, its mythology and people’s traditional ways of thinking in general, their history et cetera.

However, problems occur, as usual. Imagine a straightforward black metal-band with such strong themes regarding their heritage but without any trace of folk music, including folky guitar-riffs whatsoever. Would you call that folk metal and recommend it to someone even as a folk/black metal-band? I hardly think so. Calling a band that is musically pure black metal as folk metal would obviously confuse people. We are really talking about music here so isn’t it crystal clear that the main definition should be based on the musical aspects, not the lyrical ones? Pretty much but, like I asked earlier, does an addition of some accordion-melodies change a band from, for instance, a black metal-band to a folk metal-band? What I think is that when the overall atmosphere and nature of the music changes notably because of the folk-elements, it has become folk metal. With this I mean the musical elements, nothing else. If the accordion only gives the music a small, spicey touch or sounds too out of place, I probably wouldn’t call the music folk metal. But here’s the point where the themes step into the spotlight. Let’s think about a band explained above, using an accordion a bit here and there and without significant folkish melodies, time signatures or the like in the metal instrument-department. I would re-consider calling it folk metal if the band included strong folkloric lyrics or other features such as a traditional singing-style. In turn, if a band musically full of folk-instruments sang about Star Wars and dressed on stage like wookies, I’d say it’s still folk metal but of course not a band to be suggested to a person who’s trying to find serious dedication towards folklore (unless they are interested in fictional wookie-culture). It’s of course impossible, and meaningless, to come up with an exact borderline but the aforementioned example should enlighten my views on this question.

What about viking metal then, is it a real subgenre of metal or just an aesthetic genre like, let’s say, pirate metal? In my opinion, good representatives of “pure” viking metal include Bathory’s viking-era, most of Thyrfing’s works, Einherjer, Menhir (excluding Hildebrandslied which is more folk-oriented) and Nomans Land. There are numerous bands that could be described as folk/viking metal, black/viking metal etc. but I’m here to define viking metal so let’s stick with the bands that could be qualified as pure.

What do the bands mentioned above have in common with each other? One thing is a vast, epic soundscape. Each band has built their music in order to achieve a feeling of something arcane and ancient, not unlike the general style that epic folk metal-bands use. The most notable difference here is that the aforementioned viking metal bands basically don’t use folk-instruments nor folky guitar/bass-structures to reach their goal. Keyboard is often a very prominent way to raise the atmosphere in addition to epic guitar-leads and a powerful, soaring vocal performance utilizing both clean (often as choirs) and harsh vocals. Even with these admittedly vague characteristics we can instantly rule out the eyebrow-raising claim I’ve heard that all viking metal is similar enough to black metal to be called that. This applies to melodic- and atmospheric-varieties of black metal as well. But viking metal isn’t folk metal either because it (in most cases, one can find exceptions in any subject) doesn’t have folk-elements, except lyrical content.

So I see viking metal as a legitimate subgenre, more or less. But as do many others, I also think that the name of the subgenre is misleading and restricting since it narrows the bands that can be included within its boundaries to those with themes from Scandinavian lore. How about bands that can be musically classified as viking metal but have no connections to Vikings thematically? It’s obviously weird to call them viking metal so I shall use the last of the three terms I threw on the table at the beginning: pagan metal. However, following the standard I set earlier, it makes no sense cutting the same subgenre in half because of the lyrics. Therefore I think it should all be called pagan metal. This change gives us wider possibilities to analyse what bands belong under this subgenre. I immediately think of Forefather, Primordial, Riger and Andras, among others. It’s not hard to hear a major enough similarity between these bands and the stuff I listed above as pure viking metal. The nature of lyrics and themes help in the more accurate defining process in the same way than with folk metal.

In conclusion, of the three subgenres given at the beginning of this entry, folk metal and pagan metal are legitimate in my opinion. I'm probably still going to use the term viking metal too in order to be more exact about the thematic content of some bands whenever I feel it's necessary. After all, categories and genre-names are namely tools with which humans organize the chaotic world. People often declare that talking about genres takes the focus away from the most essential thing: the quality of art. I do agree with them to an extent but I still sometimes find it funny when people claim that they don't categorize music. Everyone categorizes things, it is natural and unavoidable to a human being. Otherwise we wouldn't be able to navigate through the bottomless depths of information and make some sense out of it. Dividing music into different genres is therefore understandable and practical and not a sign of ignorance or intolerance, although categorizing can, of course, be used intentionally for mentioned purposes which is a whole different matter altogether. Besides, I like an interesting genre-debate in good spirit every now and then as a source of fresh, new ideas. So bring them up, if you have any!

Np: Sodom - Baptism of Fire


  1. Quite the dicey topic you've delved in to for your first real discussion. Yeah, putting metal bands into a specific category can be tricky indeed. When I first started listening to metal, I didn't know such sub-genres existed. It was all metal to me. Now, of course, I tag everything like crazy. haha. So great you started your blog, my friend!

  2. Putting any bands into specific categories is tricky and certainly a subject that tends to raise a lot of controversy. F/v/p is the only area within metal of which I think I'm competent enough to write an entry like this.

    Interesting! I knew some of the subgenres beforehand but only a few and naturally the images I had about them were quite incorrect. Also, thank you for reading, buddy!

  3. Very interesting your article!