The Difficulties of Folk Metal


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.

Folk Metal

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

Väsen Essence

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.


Tags: , , , , , , ,

34 thoughts on “The Difficulties of Folk Metal”

  1. Ludvig B.B. (vOddy) says:

    Daniel, did you butcher this article, too?
    Keep your paws off. They result in grammatical and spelling errors.

  2. Ludvig B.B. (vOddy) says:

    Anyway, great article.

    But in this sentence: “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.”

    the word “scale” should be replaced with the word “key”.

    1. C.M. says:

      Actually, the scale would be a series of intervals like whole, half-, and quarter-tones. The key just indicates which notes are included in the scale, specifically the note you would begin with (the root) and proceeding upward in a pattern of intervals defined by the scale.

    2. Sunshine the Jolly Negro says:

      nigga have a look at dis:

      those be all tha keyz in western muzic… but there sure as hell more scales den dat!

      i pity da foo who say he play in da key of c pentatonic major, cuz dey aint no such fucken thang!


      1. Ludvig B.B. (vOddy) says:

        But you can’t play in a scale, you can only play a scale.
        So what do we call it when you’re playing in C pentatonic major?
        ‘Cause you’re not playing in a scale.

        A definition of a musical scale: “a group of notes taken in ascending or descending order, esp within the compass of one octave”

        1. Wrawn Shite says:

          Now we see why ‘Daniel Marrat’ called you an autistic motherfucker.

          1. Ludvig B.B. (vOddy) says:

            I’m uneducated in music, that’s all.
            Now I know that I was wrong, and the other people, including the author, are right.

  3. Anthony says:

    Isengard isn’t even really that much of a folk metal band. It’s more like the run-off valve for the ideas Fenriz had that were too wacky for Dorkthrone. There’s just as much death metal, dungeon synth, black/thrash, and Burzum knock-offs as there is folk metal.

    Moonsorrow and Nokturnal Mortum do the folky thing pretty well, as did Enslaved and Bathory way back when. Pretty much everything else can fuck off.

  4. Johan P says:

    There will be additional parts of this article following subsequently.

  5. John D. says:

    Organically at core, metal and folk simply can’t fuse in a consistent blend for long. Call it an unholy alliance. Extend the duration and soon one is at the other’s throat. Metal, of course, has the drive and will to conquer. Folk would take off running into the forest. To work with the folk element, metal must take off its armor and lay down its weapons. To a metal purist this is probably offensive or a fatal error of exposure to the enemy.

    At best the internal opposition might be exploited, one aspect playing off the other, metal embodying war and folk embodying peace, one being the verse expressing action and the other the answering chorus which interprets or reflects that action as in a magic mirror, or one placed completely in service of the other as dominant. In other words, folk touches added with tasteful restraint, just like use of keyboards in metal. Overuse makes one cringe.

    The only other way I see it possibly succeeding in a blend is if overall there’s some tongue-in-cheek or ironic humor employed. But that also pushed too far undermines any grounding in the kind of seriousness which carries lasting meaning. I’m not saying with skill and craft and deadpan restraint this couldn’t succeed, but the risk is ever present of falling foul and betraying the joke. The best comedians have a profound serious side and in the conversion to humor employ great skill in rhythm and timing, and I figure a band who tried to maintain a blend of metal and folk would have to perform similarly, pulling it off like a joke without a punchline.

    The fact is that folk music is already its own entity with its own native roots and heritage, and any attempt to assimilate it into another genre turns it from authenticity into an imitation. When it has been smuggled into metal, the discussion probably should be about good and bad imitations, and better and worse uses of it.

    I’m just thinking out loud here, maybe a failed attempt to put it in a nutshell. Admittedly I’m no expert and I’m not a musician.

    1. Johan P says:

      I can’t agree with the dichotomy metal=war /folk music=peace. First, folk music is a wide, wide, WIDE field. Unfortunately, and this may be the reason you reasoned the way you did – what has been produced in the folk metal genre so far is done so badly that the folk element in most cases comes of as silly, happy or plain fucking stupid. There is more than one reason for this enormous failure. It doesn’t have to be this way though (well, that is my hope, for what it’s worth). That is what I will atleast try to elaborate on in the next article.

      Furthermore, folk music is not an isolated, static entity – it has always metamorphosed with contemporary music. Even folk music purists would probably agree with this.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

      1. John D. says:

        I gave it the ole’ college try, abstracting too far in static space. I had a knack this was so. I gladly stand corrected, Johan. I revealed the ultimate emptiness of the categories metal and folk if pushed beyond what makes them generally recognizable. Of course flipped around, taken from the point of view of music itself, anything is possible. Possibility is as wide as the horizon. There comes a point when categories themselves break down, and subgenres are created. It’s fascinating how terminology tries to keep up with developments, especially when something really new comes along, or something odd – an anomaly – and no one knows quite where to place it. There will always be the purists standing with arms folded and a mean squint, scrutinizing and testing the goods with lasers shooting out of their eyes. One should be grateful for the purists. They keep things honest.

        Enjoyable analysis so far. I hope in your continued writing in exploration of the topic Pan himself appears at the fringe of your imagination and blows mightily and marvelously on his pipe.

        1. Ludvig B.B. (vOddy) says:

          There is wisdom in your words, and in your previous post that you more or less redacted, too.

          I, for one, genuinely believe in folk metal. I think that it can be done.

  6. Can you survive the blitzkrieg says:

    Folk metal is fucking terrible all the way round, however I imagine if I went to some assholes house and they were blaring that fucking Swedish folk music while smoking a pipe and eyeing to see if you’re as intelligent as they are I’d feel a strange compulsion to kick their ass.

    1. Johan P says:

      Wow, I didn’t know this music carried connotations of hipsterdom and/or taste-elitism. I’ve heard this type of music since childhood, so I have a hard time recognizing it as such. But I guess every kind of music can be exploited for such purposes.

      1. Ludvig B.B. (vOddy) says:

        Scandinavian folk music seems simple on the surface. It’s repetitive and doesn’t have a lot of polyphony. Kind of like primitive black metal, It’s not the music to use if you want to look smart.

      2. C.M. says:

        Folk music acts, and basically anything else that hearkens back to strong ethnic-cultural roots, are very popular among hipsters, who listen joylessly from their detached perch of ironic discontentment. Anything connected to tradition is considered a novelty.

        1. AK-47 says:

          Hipsters in Sweden wouldn’t touch Swedish folk with a ten foot pole though. It’s actually too genuine for them to endorse and is considered lame, moldy and closet racist. Instead foreign folk music like American country is popular because it allows them to remain detached and still claim to some sort of authenticity because the foreign music is still authentic in the place where it comes from. The main audience for Swedish folk consists of Swedes in their 60s and up, who are a superior generation in every way.

          More on the general topic – maybe the biggest “problem” with folk music itself is that it works almost as a language specific to its native environment. As a Scandinavian I get nothing out of foreign folk music, but I enjoy Swedish folk because it feels like a ritual that encodes and celebrates everything about my home, ranging from the mood and behavior of the people to the nature and climate of the land. Metal deals with life in a big universal sense and has never had the same function as a music experience, so it doesn’t make sense to mesh it with folk.

          1. Ludvig B.B. (vOddy) says:

            When I went to a folk gig a month or so ago, there were only around five old people. The rest of the audience was completely mixed in gender and age.

          2. Johan P says:

            That’s pretty much what I thought as well – a hipsterus suecius would consider svensk folkmusik as devastatingly un-cool. Besides, one must necessarily be a racist to enjoy traditional shit like that!

            I feel ambivalent towards the idea of bringing metal and folk together, and that’s why I wanted to look into it in the first place.

            1. John D. says:

              I share the ambivalence. At least it’s an interesting problem. You should be commended for exploring it, Johan. How I was generally thinking of folk before is near to the very good point AK-47 has raised, as being specific to its native environment. Lifted out of that I can only see it turning into an imitation. If folk has any power, the roots must remain planted. It’s not unaligned with the oral tradition of poetry, where there’s a passing down from one generation to another. Language in that case is by no means perfect, shaped and honed in ivory towers, but is alive and down more among the common people, being passed by word-of-mouth, each live “performance” adding some of the local character and coloring of the individuals who deliver it.

              The Hessian position and ideas around elitism and warrior-mentality individuality cut against the grain of anything having to do with the common people (and I say common people not with contempt, but state it as a fact of loose social ordering). My own general thinking about metal is in agreement with AK-47. It’s up in metaphysics and not really down in folk wisdom.

              I should add, I have respect for both forms separately and the capacity to enjoy both. To be virulently narrow-minded wasn’t what I had in mind when I mentioned purist before. Blending brings me back to the ambivalence we appear to share. Fascinating topic. I look forward to reading where you take it.

              1. Johan P says:

                John, you’ve raised some thoughtful points that I haven’t even considered. I’ve approached the subject from a primarily aestethic/technical angle, but I will have to re-consider and/or expand my “treatise”. Thanks again for your interest and contribution!

  7. Does it matter tho? says:

    Folk music is gay – listen to slayer or get back to work.

    1. C.M. says:

      Yep, that’s where the term comes from, “queer as folk”.

  8. C.M. says:

    Anyone else think it’s weird how hardcore and, later, metal lifted the polka beat (“d-beat”) straight out of folk music? That always struck me as a weirdly direct influence since all the other techniques in early punk and metal were filtered through decades of rock and roll refinement.

    1. Johan P says:

      The polka beat can sound quite martial/march-like, if used in the right context. It can also be used to attain an ambient, but still propulsive sense of forward motion. I love it.

  9. pelagius says:

    This article deserves a standing ovation.
    Share it, it’s one of the best on this website this year.

    1. JizzSurge says:

      Agree. Some good stuff coming through this site again lately. Looks I might have to eat my words.

    2. Johan P says:

      Thanks Herr Pelayo! Nice to see you around.

  10. Rainer Weikusat says:

    As it was even mentioned in the article (and supplies another missing piece of my past as I remembered the music but not the band). Released in 1991 to great fanfare as it was considered a novelty back then: [Skyclad, The Wayward Sons of Mother Earth]

    A short description could be: Heavy metal with English folk influences but unusual vocals (due to Martin Walkyier, ex-Sabbat). I’m not going to offer an opinion on this beyond that

    You say that I’m an animal
    Well, this at least is true
    I’m a living, breathing human being
    What the hell are you?

    is a verse which has been close to me ever since I heard it for the first time.

    1. Johan P says:

      Damn, I totally forgot about Skyclad. They are definitely better than the majority of later folk metal bands/dorks.
      If you or anyone else know about any other (good) metal inspired by folk music, please share.

      1. oppositorum says:

        Ulver – Bergtatt
        Nokturnal Mortum – Lunar Poetry
        Dub Buk – Русь понад усе!

        Viking metal =/= Folk metal?

        Falkenbach – Magni Blandinn… / Ok Nefna…
        Windir – Arntor

        1. Johan P says:

          Suggestions are always appreciated, thanks. I will have to re-listen to some of these though to see if I have changed my view on them since I last heard them 10 -15 years ago or so!

          About the so-called viking metal genre… that will be dealt with in another article, so stay tuned!

Comments are closed.

Classic reviews: