Some styles of metal would probably not work well with folk music. Heavy metal and black metal seem like the best candidates to me. I think that an attempt to musically speak about the things that metal and folk music can have in common would result in the metallic parts resembling either heavy metal or black metal.
I agree that heavy metal and black metal are the best templates for folk metal, though I cannot elaborate why. Perhaps because the former is the most "righteous" and provides the most room to accommodate folk melody, while the latter is the proudest and fiercest.
Are there any folk metal bands that you think are good? Let me know why you like a band that you like. And if no band appeals to you, dissect a shitty one and explain why it's bad.
I would point to Bathory - Hammerheart
, Enslaved - Vikingligr Veldi
, and Graveland - Thousand Swords
as early successes of metal with a folkish spirit. Bathory is more anthemic, Enslaved more introspective and mystical, and Graveland more martial and hateful, but the three have a common "folk-like" feeling that I have trouble describing in words at the moment. Maybe it's the sense of prideful righteousness and triumph in the music. Maybe it's the larger-than-life feeling that they convey, suggesting that oft-overused word "epic." Maybe it's that certain bounciness or even danceable quality in some of the rhythms. Hammerheart
is worth special mention because I think that it had a lot of influence on many bands that followed.
Storm and Otyg had a style that appeals to me on paper, and it sounds nice, but it doesn't actually hold my interest for some reason. On the other hand, I find Isengard - Høstmørke
very captivating (particularly the first half of the album). It is so...righteous, for lack of a better word, and almost danceable, and I really enjoy Fenriz's prideful singing (Wongraven - Fjelltronen
has that singing style too, but that is pure folk music).
The Baltic countries spawned a couple of excellent albums from musicians who felt the metal spirit kindled in their breast, namely Skyforger - Zobena Dziesma
and Zpoan Vtenz - Gimę Nugalėt
, but these albums are more or less pure folk music. Traditional folk music has a strong presence in Baltic cultures, so it is not surprising that these musicians, who probably grew up reciting old folk tunes, excelled in this area. The Skyforger album is incredibly inspiring and uplifting with its sense of nobility, honour, loyalty, courage, and general manliness, and for me it has a timeless quality. The Zpoan Vtenz album is very emotionally deep, and as a result it can be too gloomy for me, but maybe I am misinterpreting the tone of the music. For metal compositions by these musicians, I would suggest investigating Skyforger - Kauja Pie Saules
, which though secondary to Zobena Dziesma
is still of high quality, and maybe Ha Lela - Pabudimas
and early Obtest (I am not very familiar with these last two).
Some resources for exploring traditional Baltic folk music:
Latvian folk music radio station: www.radiooira.lv
Baltic folk YouTube channel: www.youtube.com/user/KaukusPameskiet
In Flames - Lunar Strain
is quite folky sounding, and I find it somewhat endearing, but I am a younger fellow who came to metal through melodeath, so I am pretty forgiving with this kind of stuff. I can understand if this music makes more veteran Hessians want to vomit. Admittedly, the songs don't go anywhere and the music is definitely too sweet sometimes, and those qualities are problematic in a metal context, so I think that this album should have been written as folk music instead. The choice seems logical, given that acoustic guitars and violins are already present.
Concerning the more mainstream variety of modern folk metal, I find most of it to be formulaic, rock-based, excessively saccharine, and shallow in content (as opposed to deep / heavy), with the folk elements feeling like insincere appendages that provide little more than novelty. For how "epic" the artists try to sound, the music is compositionally unadventurous and awfully cheesy. Regarding cheesiness, personally I do not have a problem with jolly or jubilant music, but it has its place. Upbeat or "happy" sections must be employed tactfully, especially in metal music. Furthermore, the music loses its credibility as soon as it loses its seriousness (music can be jolly without being a joke).
One modern band that stands above most folk metal groups is Moonsorrow. My opinion of them has waned, but some of their qualities that appealed and still appeal to me are: Their music has a large presence both in the moment and in terms of the scope / breadth of compositions; the songs are focused (they hold together as single visions); the songs flow smoothly; the music sounds wintry and possesses a certain elegance; and the tone is triumphant / victorious / euphoric / celebratory (though some of their music is dark). There are some legitimate criticisms of their music:
1. The music is too upbeat and cheesy. This is a common complaint about the genre, and if most folk metal bothers you for that reason, then the first three Moonsorrow albums will probably bother you too (though personally I do not find their music offensive, unlike that of many of their peers).
2. The music resembles rock in a bad way sometimes, in the sense that the "big" sound can end up resembling stadium rock.
3. The songs develop too slowly and never go anywhere in particular / never reach proper climaxes. Some people have described Moonsorrow as boring because of this. As trystero commented in another thread, "They drag on for far too long about not much at all. The aesthetic is very pleasant, some of the riffs are nice. It makes good background music."
4. The lyrics are too vague to be evocative, but this could be an issue of translation into English.
Notwithstanding these criticisms, I think that Moonsorrow is compositionally far superior and heavier in content than most of today's "folk metal." Grouping them with Ensiferum, Korpiklaani, etc. is a mistake, because they are in a different league. Sure, Moonsorrow is on tour with Korpiklaani right now, but as stated in this interview
, "As far as the bands we like to tour with, the actual music doesn’t matter as much as the people. Because, we have to be on the same bus for a month so we really have to get along (laughs). [Korpiklaani] are an ideal partner because they are different music from us, but we feel it is the other side of the same coin. We do have some of the audience in common. I like their live shows; I’m not saying I like their music on the album, but we like their live shows."
Moonsorrow's formula is a heavy metal one, though their personal taste for black metal is occasionally evident. Their first album, Suden Uni
, suffered from some goofiness and inconsistencies in tone and lacked a strong sense of individuality, but I would argue that they probably mastered the modern folk metal style on their second album Voimasta ja kunniasta
, meaning that that is the most that can be accomplished with the style. After that, Moonsorrow made their most overtly rock album with Kivenkantaja
. They then returned to more of a heavy metal style, but they explored territory that ostensibly separated them from their peers; their music became darker and very compositionally ambitious. Some Moonsorrow songs to try are "Sankarihauta" or "Kylän päässä" from Voimasta ja kunniasta
(though if you are wont to think that folk metal is cheesy, these songs will not change your mind), "Raunioilla" or "Unohduksen Lapsi" from Kivenkantaja
, and "Karhunkynsi" and "Muinaiset" from their newer style. Moonsorrow
, and Fenriz
have all expressed, or at least implied, dissatisfaction with the state of folk metal today and that folk metal was better before it actually existed / solidified as a genre, back when only a few bands were attempting such a style.
One tangential style of music worth mentioning is the "dark folk" employed on albums like Empyrium - Where at Night the Wood Grouse Plays
, Tenhi - Kauan
, and Vàli - Forlatt
. This is a nocturnal, pensive, slightly sorrowful, mostly instrumental type of acoustic music that is likely to appeal to metal fans with its romantic spirit and evocations of the natural world. It provides an outlet for some emotions that would be inappropriate in a metal context, its subtle catharsis and soothing effect working beneath the soft sounds.
Is folk metal as a style capable of producing great music, or is it a flawed genre?
In general, folk music and metal exist for different reasons, express different truths (or different aspects of the truth), and serve different purposes, so they are best kept separate. Folk metal is a hybrid creation that can never fill both roles. That being said, great folk metal is possible (see examples above), but it is a flawed genre as long as metal musicians relegate themselves to darkness and evil and alienate themselves from the notion of goodness in humanity. This is why folk metal tends to proliferate in regions where senses of traditional culture, national pride, and loyalty to one's family and one's people are strong (e.g., the Baltic countries, Northern Europe, Eastern Europe, etc.): Traditional folk music is an expression of jollity and purity of spirit, and of beauty of culture, and therefore it is an expression of light. Therefore, metal has to move beyond the darkness in order to incorporate that light. Yet this is not really moving "beyond" so much as moving "back," or rediscovering an ancient expression of truth. Or maybe it's both at once.
Note: Edited Moonsorrow section on 22/04/16.