Call for submissions to Folk-Metal: Critical Essays on Identity, Myth and Culture

September 7, 2014 –

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A forthcoming journal on folk-metal, mostly in the pagan metal and viking metal sub-genres, requests that those with essays on the topic submit them for publication next year. The journal focuses on metal bands who use traditional musical instruments, lyrical references to customs and mythology, allusions to traditional culture, or displaying of cultural imagery in performer attire and artwork.

Folk-metal refers to the style of music that arose in the 1990s in Europe which consisted of “fusing traditional or folk music with heavy metal music forms.” The journal lists a number of bands from the power metal, black metal and death metal genres who qualify under this style:

Skyclad (England), Cruachan (Ireland), Finntroll (Finland), Skyforger (Latvia), Amon Amarth (Sweden), Amorphis (Finland), Falkenbach (Germany), Waylander (Ireland), Svartsot (Denmark), Metsatöll (Estonia), Empyrium (Germany), Mägo de Oz (Spain), Silent Stream of Godless Elegy (Czech Republic), Korpiklaani (Finland), Mael Mórdha (Ireland), Alkonost (Russia), Balkandji (Bulgaria), Dalriada (Hungary), Lumsk (Norway), Týr (Faroe Islands), Ensiferum (Finland), Celtachor (Ireland), Eluveitie (Switzerland), Elvenking (Italy), Primordial (Ireland).

Interested writers must submit a 300-word abstract and short biography of 50-100 words to to the editor, Dr Jenny Butler at j.butler@ucc.ie and cc. to butler.Jennifer@gmail.com by November 10, 2014. The final essays must be 4,000-7,000 words and will be due by June 1, 2015.

The journal suggests the following themes as a topical starting point:

  • Folklore, song lyrics, and cultural identity
  • Neo-pagan worldview of the bands
  • History of the genre, participants and events
  • Indigenous religion and mythology
  • Political and/or nationalistic agendas
  • The concept of homeland
  • The representation of deities and mythological beings in songs
  • Heroic elements
  • Fantasy literature
  • Nature, landscape and sacred sites

The difference between metal and punk, rock: it’s not literal

April 10, 2014 –

woodstock

As author of The Heavy Metal FAQ, I have wrestled with the question of how to define metal over the years. Since it uses the same techniques as any other form of music, but used in different proportions and combinations, I have always focused on the idea that unites these uses which makes metal so obviously distinct from rock, punk and other forms of music.

To this I’d like to add another idea: metal is not literal. That is, metal tends to view the world through a symbolic or mythological lens. It does so to reflect our inward sensations about what is going on, plus a historical viewpoint which requires a more high-level view. The details don’t matter as much as the form, in metal, and we pay attention to the form and then put it in a folk-wisdom format.

Archetypal examples of this can be found in classic metal like “War Pigs” (Black Sabbath), “Hardening of the Arteries” (Slayer), “Painkiller” (Judas Priest) and “My Journey to the Stars” (Burzum). In these songs, mythological forces clash to reveal a truth of everyday life. They inform us about our time and put us into a symbolic and emotional framework with it in which we want to fight it out, fix it, struggle and win.

In contrast, most music is either sensuality-based or protest music. Sensuality-based music is exemplified by stuff like Shakira. Protest music really exploded in the 1960s, but reformed itself with punk, which took a more abstract and yet earthy view. Where the 60s bands sang about politics, punks sang about everyday life and the insanity of existence. This finally culminated in thrash, which used hints of metal’s mythology to make the personal into the universal, as in “Give My Taxes Back” (DRI), “M.A.D.” (Cryptic Slaughter), “Minds are Controlled” (COC) and “Man Unkind” (DRI).

Metal does go wrong sometimes and get literal. The worst of these are the ego-based songs, as in Pantera, or the songs about being metal and going to shows and the like, which are generally just dumb. It is not surprising that these are not favorites of the genre because they drop away from that 30,000-foot view and instead become more personal drama like the rest of our society, which explains why its institutions don’t function and its ideas are corrupt.

Interestingly, other genres are not literal either. Progressive rock was famous for songs about weird adventures in fantasy worlds that had striking parallels to our own (compare to JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis). Classical music tends toward fantastic descriptions from literature and history. These are genres of the weighty and impersonal, not the direct and immediate and personal. They have a different scope and internal language.

Jazz is the outlier. When sung, it tends toward protest and sensual lyrics. When instrumental, the sound of it suggests a combination of the two: a kind of secular (no meaning greater than the material and immediate) version of imagination, but applied to literal experience, such that it forms a kind of texture without a unifying core. It communicates the loneliness of modern isolation and a retreat into the personal complexity of the mind.

Where metal stands out among modern genres is that it still embraces this viewpoint, or at least did until the nu/mod-metal started appearing. Part of what makes such a viewpoint necessary is that metal, despite being about killer riffs, is not about the riff. It’s about many riffs stitched together to make an experience so that when the killer riff comes out, it has a meaning in context that makes it heavy. No song is heavy from just one riff. It’s heavy because when you get to that super-heavy riff, everything else has set it up to resonate.

This in part explains the audience of metal. Mythology, historical significance and topics of philosophy do not inspire the honor students, who are busy working on their careers (and the obedience-profitability nexus that these entail), or the average student, who is busy in a world of his/her own pleasures and delights. They do however appeal to the outliers, the dreamers and dissidents, who might find class boring because they find society boring and purposeless, and instead turn toward fantasy and a bigger, more abstract realism to express themselves.

A Legend Out of Control

December 4, 2012 –
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Bathory’s relation to the band’s fanbase is an infected story of contradictory interests concerning very human desires for truth and meaning. Oftentimes fans and creator pulled in opposite directions, fighting over whether to leave the Bathory mask on or reveal Bathory’s inner workings.

Debuting in 1984, Bathory’s cult status was rapidly acknowledged in the musical underground. But during a long time a certain air of mystery surrounded the band. It seemed beyond time, beyond space, and even out of national context (to a Swedish person this Stockholm wonder didn’t seem as typically Swedish as many of the later Death Metal bands). In general, main man Quorthon kept to himself, few pictures of the band existed, and there were hardly any live gigs at all, in particular once the music got closer to Wagner than to Motörhead. Bathory took one heavy metal tradition to extremes: it created a mythos out of nothing more than a few cover images and an interview or two. This obscure and ambiguous myth bound people together. They wanted to live out this vision as they found it more appealing than their world. When the fanbase went looking for answers, and found little else but songs of evil, darkness, destruction and conspiracies with Satan, imaginations ran wild and filled in the gaps with what they wanted to see, not what they saw.

People have a desire for continuity in an individual’s past. In this case, that desire was expressed among metal fans by trying to explain Bathory’s music through references to a heavy influence from a band which prior to Bathory was seen as the most extreme: Venom. In several interviews Quorthon himself has denied any Venom influence, but in many biographies the memory of early Bathory as a Venom clone is nevertheless quite persistent. (According to Quorthon, his main influences were Black Sabbath, Motörhead, The Exploited, and GBH, and later on Wagner, Beethoven, and Haydn among others.)

The will to interpret Bathory’s music as a logical continuation of Venom, and accordingly seek out a sense of “eternity” in the genre which these two bands (among others) officially created in the earliest of times, is hardly surprising. A consistent pattern which suggests some sort of intention is simply more attractive than a chaotic mess of a genesis produced by two groups entirely unknown to each other.

It is, however, easy to recognize among the authors of reviews of early Bathory albums an aspiration towards and an acknowledgement of a distinct identity of the band and its founder. Regarding Bathory’s self-titled debut album and its follow-up, a mantra is repeated: these records are the starting point for a whole genre and Quorthon is its first hero. This is, so to speak, the creation myth associated with Bathory.

Repetition of this myth is presumably what makes it go beyond historicity and is what makes it timeless. It’s a way for a metal fan to not only “create” Bathory, but also be a part of the phenomenon. Even repeated listens to Blood Fire Death is a repetition of a mythical Now, which gives us a sort of “vertical anchoring.” If myth is a celebration of life, a summary of the Past in the Now, then this is certainly what Bathory is to the band’s followers.

Quorthon himself seems to have had an enormous respect for the mythical power of Bathory. Referring to his fanbase as “The Bathory Hordes”, he tried to reach out to it in order to receive answers on how to deal with this beast:

[…] send me a letter of what you think, what you would want us to do in the future […] Remember, it is you the fans out there on whom we depend on. […] Stay united and may the northstar shine on you all, keep metal at heart!!

This kind of democratization most likely rendered him unable to control the myth of the band. As Quorthon “grew out” of Satanism, and myths surrounding his persona still insisted on his being a demonic devil worshipper, he wanted to set the record straight. And this is where things get interesting.

In 1996, Bathory released Blood On Ice, a retro album with liner notes containing a lengthy exposition on the band’s early history. Presumably, Quorthon had wished to update his biography and rid it of the misconceptions that according to him were abundant in the metal world, but it was probably also a way to pay tribute to the legend by contributing to it with a few “behind the scenes” stories.

This, however, proved to be a serious miscalculation of what the fans wanted. The unmasking threatened the consistent cultural memory of Bathory. And reactions weren’t long in coming: fans spoke of sacrilege and treachery in the many letters that were sent to Quorthon as a direct reaction to the liner notes. The memory of Bathory was now to a great extent a social concern and no longer only the creation of one man. Quorthon writes:

I realized then more than ever before that BATHORY was surrounded by the same sort of stuff only legends are made from. The element of mystery and suspense was still very important to a lot of die-hard BATHORY fans. [The truth] didn’t suit the image that a lot people had of BATHORY or myself.

Quorthon died in June 2004, but shortly before his death he founded an official Bathory website in which he denies the old image of himself as someone who eats children, drinks blood, and lives in a cage, an image that apparently still needed to be denied. Quorthon tells of an interview many years after he abandoned his satanic image: despite the time that had passed, he was still expected to pose for a photo session with pentagrams, skulls and cobweb.

Ironically, many fans have as of recently noted that Quorthon himself tampered with the truth quite deliberately. The iconic Bathory goat – which has become a sort of identity marker among fans – is, according to Quorthon, a collage created out of bits and pieces “from several horror comic magazines”. In fact, the goat is taken from a finished illustration in a book on witches from 1981. It wasn’t until 2007 that the originator, Joseph A. Smith, got to know that his drawings had been used as subject matter for tattoos and the like all around the world for decades. It also turns out that the lyrics and title to Bathory’s “For All Those Who Died” is more or less stolen from a feminist poem by Erica Jong.

The legacy of Bathory will nevertheless die hard. Quorthon created a legend so powerful neither he nor its fans could control it, an art that hovers above independently of its creator and its receivers. Yet we shouldn’t forget the core quality of its longevity: Quorthon’s compositions. These are what will always create very much alive “elements of mystery and suspense” in the mind of the listener. That’s where the magic happens. Hence the art of Bathory is stronger than both the fans’ myth-making and Quorthon’s myth-busting.

Going through Bathory’s albums again, experiencing the passionate evil melody of “The Return of the Darkness and Evil” or the haunting existential angst of “Twilight of the Gods,” they contain the same everlasting power they ever did and is what makes Bathory eternal. The mask is put back on. Continuity reappears and everything returns.

Rites of oblivion bathe in execrable light

August 21, 2011 –
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Gontyna Kry – Welowie

One of the best works of Polish black metal, Welowie has the craftmanship and melodic sophistication of Sacramentum’s best work but marginalizes the death metal influences, instead filling that loophole with the post-Discharge melodic hardcore that Graveland had a niche for carving out in their earlier work. Distant screams amidst a melancholic plethora of notational sequences reveal a sense of emotionally fraught catharsis not unlike a more musically ‘learned’ take on Mutiilation’s best works. The eight tracks on here run at just over 26 minutes in total but still in such a limited constraint manages to make the most of epic scope and artful expression within a time constraint that would more traditionally fit a death metal band. In some ways calling this work merely a ‘demo’ does it little justice. -Pearson

War Master – Chapel of the Apocalypse

A young Texan war squad shows you don’t need advanced technique or labyrinthine compositions in order to succeed at pulverizing death metal hostility, as the palm muted chainsaw grind slugs onwards with the determination of a German panzer advancing towards certain death upon the Stalingrad plains. As with most young death metal bands, their earnestness sets them apart from most of the older colleagues and the primitive, architectural weight of “Awaken in Darkness” convinces one of morbid intentions unlike a thousand Necrophagists. Dark atmospherics abound in these documents of fear and rage in chthonic shade, bringing reminders of Amorphis’ and Incantation’s early Relapse days , the five musicians being able to build a solid tribute to their influences on this demo and generate a fiendish excitement for a capable followup. The success of the band in creating an esoteric sensation out of their simple source material is worthy of praise. -Devamitra

Witchblood – Witchblood

As if possessed by the ritual thrall of Walpurgis night, this mostly solitary creation of an individual called Iron Meggido is a clash of smoothly feline aggression of Nordic Black Metal with the Romantic architectural use of Heavy Metal riffs that characterized the occult metal of Celtic Frost, Samael and Therion. Alongside the suggestive and provocative riff stand the invoking voice of an Erinys caustically timed with the bludgeoning tempi of guest drummer L’Hiver. Underlying the beauty of this demo is the illuminated fire of an artistic vision in its birth-throes, painfully struggling against the bounds of convention in order to express the ultimately inexpressible: the twilight zone of fever and mythos where the ‘supernatural’ influences the evolution of man and mind. Hopefully their talisman is effective in order for the legion of Witchblood to fly even higher on these wings of rapture.

-Devamitra