Article by Johan P.
I’ve never been overly impressed by the folk metal phenomenon, which emerged in the middle of the 1990s and began to gain popularity some years later. I do not mean to imply that there isn’t any good folk music out there. On the contrary, there’s a lot of rewarding traditional music to discover. Many musicians – metallers included – have realized that their respective countries’ folk music reservoir is a gold mine for potential ideas to integrate into more modern forms of music. It was on these premises that folk metal was born. However, if the source material is to be successfully re-animated and be brought into metal or any other genre, it requires some serious work from the composer and performer. Most folk metal bands fail at this point for a variety of reasons, with the end-result often sounding like bad heavy metal adorned with folk-melodies that have been stripped of all subtlety to fit into a rock-based harmonic and structural environment.
The aim of this article is to not only point out some of the difficulties connected with integrating folk music into metal, but also to provide alternative methods of integration. Being unaware of any good examples of this kind of metal music, I will use an example from the world of progressive rock to show how the amalgamation of modern and folk music could be undertaken more successfully than has been done by metal bands so far. Since I am most familiar with Swedish and Scandinavian traditional music, I will use it as a point of departure for discussing certain properties of folk music that need to be taken into account when uniting metal and folk.
Definitions and Distinctions
To avoid confusion, I want to make a distinction between folk metal and metal inspired by traditional culture. It may sound like an arbitrary and floating division – so I will give some examples to clear things up.
I define folk metal as bands explicitly attempting to using folk music their metal. There are a multitude of ways to incorporate folk music in this manner and many different folk traditions to choose from. The requirement for a band to be included into this definition of folk metal is that explicit influences or borrowings from folk constitutes a vital part of their sound. This influence manifests itself in differentlys with two of the most easily identifiable ones being melody and instrumentation. When it comes to the incorporation of folk-tinged melodies, some lift directly from existing traditional sources while others compose their own by using scales, phrasing, rhythm etc. that are associated with folk music. The other example, the use of folk instruments, speaks largely for itself. It is rare that folk metal bands discard all normal metal instrumentation to exclusively play with older instruments. Instead they usually integrate a couple of them. Even rarer is discarding electrical amplification like some folk rock bands do. Examples of albums by popular bands that fit into this folk metal definition include:
- Storm – Nordanvind<
- Finntroll – Jaktens Tid
- In Extremo – Weckt Die Toten!
These bands represent what contemporary folk metal sounds like. Judging from the samples below, there is definitely room for improving and developing the genre. The music is too obvious – bordering on the stupid – and sounds like the soundtrack for a group of half-wits raiding a Bavarian biergarten. It is questionable if this kind of music should even form s separate sub-genre of metal, or just be relegated to the status of third-tier heavy metal with kitschy folk-embellishments. Gylve “Fenriz” Nagell – one of the musicians behind the Storm project – seems to have come to his senses in later years. In an interview with Dayal Patterson for the book Black Metal: The Evolution of the Cult, Fenriz confesses in a honest manner his current view on Storm and the folk metal phenomenon at large:
We were idiots and didn’t understand that folk and metal should never mix. [he laughs] I thought Skyclad was amusing and my own fling with folk metal too, but after it was done… oh brother. Folk is good. Metal is good. But together? No. It sounds too merry for phat fuzz, and those who can’t hear that must be lacking a chromosome or something. Isengard had at least something else to offer than pure folk metal, but Storm?
I find Fenriz’s opinion about the futility of even trying to merge metal and folk too fatalistic. He has a point about the current lack of high-quality folk metal music but it would be unfortunate to end the journey there. Much could be done differently and better.
Metal Inspired by Traditional Culture
This second category of bands doesn’t constitute a genre in itself. They stand in contrast to the bands mentioned of the first category, who seem to have ransacked their respective countries folk music traditions in their pathetic quest for novelty. The groups of category number two are clearly inspired by traditional culture, which naturally includes folk music, but they don’t build their music upon borrowings. There might be a subtle folk influence among these bands, but they first and foremost work within established metal styles. Instead, their influence from ancient culture is presented on a symbolical rather than musical plane. In the cases where older musical styles find their way into these bands music, it is in a less pronounced way and never constitutes a vital part of the sound. They try to re-create a “feeling” of ancient times, although it is achieved through conventional metal compositional methods and instrumentation. The following examples belong to different genres of metal, but all three carry a traditional spirit:
On their debut album, Enslaved show an affluence for Viking culture and ideals. However, the music is second wave black metal with more of a Western classical influence than anything resembling folk music. The bands of the second category are clearly superior in comparison to the folk metal bands of the first. However, from now on I will focus exclusively on what I have defined as folk metal since it is here that most work needs to be done. But first, let’s take a look at the source of inspiration: folk music – and in this particular case, traditional Swedish folk.
Swedish Folk Music: A Non-Introduction
It would be a big mistake to present Swedish folk music in monolithic terms. Like other folk music traditions, it is involved in an organic process of perpetual change, which makes it hard to codify or capture in a comprehensive and satisfying manner. Likewise, it is a too extensive phenomenon to be summed up in a few paragraphs. Therefore, it lies outside the scope of this article to provide a thorough introduction that gives justice to the traditional music of Sweden. If the reader by any chance would be interested in such a thing, there are better sources available.1
Instead of digressing into a mammoth summation on the subject of folk music I will present a couple of samples below by a contemporary Swedish group, Väsen,that reproduce old Swedish songs in a singular, but still traditional fashion. Väsen performs relatively “straight” folk music with a modern touch. On their second album Essence (1994) – from which I’ve posted samples for this article – they play traditional tunes as well as their own compositions. Most Essence tracks are dominated by traditional Swedish folk instruments like the fiddle and nyckelharpa (trans. “keyed fiddle”), which are backed up by acoustic guitar. The samples provide a very small but hopefully sufficient glimpse into Sweden’s folk music reservoir.
Väsen and the Polska – A Brief Glimpse Into Swedish Folk Music
I have included three of Väsen’s renditions of traditional tunes below that represent the darker side of Swedish folk music. All three are played in a style called polska, which should not be confused with the polka. Polska is one of the most common types of folk tunes in Sweden, and is primarily associated with dancing. The polska-form – or rather forms, as there are many different variants – have changed somewhat over time, but a continual development can be traced back for several hundred years. A Polskor (polska in plural) is usually played in ¾ time – like in a waltz – although some polska-variants use different rhythms. While the waltz has a heavy downstroke on beat one, followed by two lighter ones, the rhythm of most polskor put emphasis on beats one and three.
The three Väsen-tracks presented here – “Flodens Död” (“The Death of Madame Flod”), Pennknivsmördaren (“The Pen-Knife Murderer”) and “Branten” (“The Steep”) – are relatively short but melodically dense. At a quick glance, the tunes may sound static, but closer inspection reveal works of intricate subtlety. The tunes are made up of a pair of long melodies that are involved in some sort of mutual interaction. There are no grand gestures here, instead the melodies gradually transmute with subtle grace through repeated cycles.
There are multiple ways for folk musicians to achieve melodic variety and progress through repetition. It is for example common among the folk musicians of Sweden to improvise upon the harmonic minor scale. However, Swedish folk music also feature a characteristic use of quarter-tones. The use of quarter-tones allows the folk musician a broader and more subtle tone-palette to choose from and are used as a way to add individual touches. These micro-tones are seldom used in modern Western music, but can be found in traditional music around the globe. It has been claimed that there is a special Swedish/Nordic folk scale that use quarter-tones in a special way, but I have not been able to identify the exact tonal configuration of this supposed scale. What can be said is that quarter-tonal variations in Swedish folk are most commonly found in proximity to the third, sixth and seventh tonal steps of the minor scales. In any case, many polka-tunes are made up of eighth- and sixteenth-notes, which are complemented with so-called grace notes – working as embellishment – placed in close proximity to the beat.
Väsen’s studio renditions of traditional folk music material work well as a brief glance into the world of Swedish folk music. However, some folk enthusiasts would stress that folk music doesn’t achieve its full potential until experienced in a live setting. Naturally, this was the natural context for musical performances before the advent of recording techniques, and folk musicians up to this day generally take pride in their unique ways to reproduce traditional songs through improvisation. These performances are often done in form of long (in contrast to the tracks on Essence), semi-improvised renditions of traditional songs. I could come up with a wide array of explanations to why live performances are regarded as an important characteristic of folk music, and ultimately as its natural mode of expression.
One way to explain the strong connection between folk music and live performance could be that most traditional tunes – as we know them today – were formed and refined through a long-term continuum of live performances, which in some cases span over hundreds of years, or even more. There is an uncanny sense of timelessness and expressive efficiency in these old tunes that in most cases have no known author. It is as if traditional folk music like “Flodens Död” have been formed through an enigmatic collective effort, with regional variations on the main melodic ideas. The closest analogy I can come up with would be that these songs resembles the long-term organic processes languages and their respective dialects are developed and shaped from.