Folk metal is a sub-genre of Heavy metal that developed in the 1990s in Europe. As the name suggests, the genre is a fusion of heavy metal with folk music. This includes the widespread use of folk instruments and to a lesser extent traditional singing styles.
The earliest exponent of folk metal was the English band Skyclad. Their debut album The Wayward Sons of Mother Earth was released in 1990 and for a few years, they were the only known folk metal band in existence. It was not until 1994 and 1995 that other early contributors in the genre began to emerge from different regions of Europe as well as in Israel. Significant among these were the bands Cruachan, Orphaned Land and Subway to Sally, each creating a different regional variation that over time became known as Celtic metal, oriental metal and mittelalter rock respectively. Despite their contributions, folk metal remained little known with few representatives during the 1990s. It was not until the early 2000s when the genre exploded into prominence, particularly in Finland with the efforts of Finntroll, Korpiklaani and Moonsorrow.
The music of folk metal is characterised by its diversity with bands known to perform different styles of both heavy metal music and folk music. A large variety of folk instruments are used in the genre with many bands consequently featuring six or more members in their regular line ups. A few bands are also known to rely on keyboards to simulate the sound of folk instruments. Lyrics in the genre commonly deal with paganism, nature, fantasy, mythology and history.
The English band Skyclad was formed in 1990 after vocalist Martin Walkyier left his previous band, Sabbat. Skyclad began as a thrash metal band but added violins from session musician Mike Evans on several tracks from their debut album, The Wayward Sons of Mother Earth, an effort described by Ed Rivadavia of Allmusic as "ambitious" and "groundbreaking." The song "The Widdershins Jig" from the debut album has been acclaimed as "particularly significant" and "a certain first in the realms of Metal". With a full time fiddle player in their lineup, the band's second album feature a "now legendary folky jig style" and "more prominent inclusion of the fiddle playing lead lines and melodies normally associated with the lead guitar parts of most other rock bands." Skyclad has since been credited as the originators and pioneers of the genre with Keith Fay of the band Cruachan recognising Skyclad as "the creators of folk metal."
Even with the departure of Martin Walkyier in 2001, Skyclad remains an active folk metal group today after nearly two decades since their formation. In contrast, the Portuguese band Moonspell had a brief tenure in the genre. Their first release was the 1994 Under the Moonspell EP with music that featured folk and Middle Eastern influences. With the release of their debut album Wolfheart in the following year, the band made a transition into gothic metal and within a matter of years "quickly evolved into one of the major players of the European goth-metal scene."
Another early contributor to folk metal is the Finnish group Amorphis. They formed in 1990 with their debut album, The Karelian Isthmus, following two years later. Their sophomore effort Tales from the Thousand Lakes was released in 1994 with "plenty of fascinating melodies and song structures that drew heavily from the traditional folk music of their native country." The album received a favorable reception from fans with "its content quickly being exalted across the Metal underground as perhaps the very pinnacle of atmospheric Death Metal achievement."
Regional variations Edit
In the years 1994 and 1995, three distinct variations on folk metal emerged from different regions.
Oriental metal Edit
The progressive metal outfit Orphaned Land was formed in 1991 in Israel with their first and only demo The Beloved's Cry released in 1993, "immediately creating a media stir" that "quickly drew attention to their unorthodox style." Members of the group were still teenagers when they released their debut album Sahara in 1994. The music of Orphaned Land "borrow heavily from Middle Eastern music styles" with traditional elements coming from both Jewish and Arabic folk music. Acclaimed as "one of the world's most unique and trailblazing heavy metal bands," Orphaned Land's style of music has since been dubbed Oriental metal.
The year 1993 saw the formation of Melechesh in Jerusalem, "undoubtedly the first overtly anti-Christian band to exist in one of the holiest cities in the world." Melechesh began as a straightforward black metal act with their first foray into folk metal occuring on the title track of their 1996 EP The Siege of Lachish. Their subsequent albums saw the group straddling the boundaries between black, death, and thrash metal, with "impressive, tastefully rendered epics chock-full of superb riffs, Middle Eastern melodies, and vocal exchanges varying from a throaty midrange screech to chanting." Other oriental metal acts emerged thereafter with the band Distorted notably forming in 1996 as the first female-fronted metal act from Israel.
Mittelalter rock Edit
The East German band Subway to Sally was formed in 1992 as a folk rock band, singing in English and incorporating Irish and Scottish influences in their music. With their second album MCMXCV released in 1995, the band adopted a "more traditional approach" and started singing in German. Taking Skyclad as an influence, Subway to Sally performs a blend of hard rock and heavy metal "enriched with medieval melodies enmeshed in the songs via bagpipes, hurdy-gurdy, lute, mandoline, shalm, fiddle and flute" and combined with "romantic-symbolic German-speaking poetry" in their lyrics. With chart success in their native Germany, they have since been credited as the band "that set off the wave of what is known as medieval rock."
This distinctly German phenomenon has been continued and expanded further by subsequent bands. Formed in 1996, the Berlin based In Extremo has also found chart success with their "medieval style stage garb and unashamed usage of such bizarre, sometimes hand made, instruments as the Scottish bagpipes." Another band that has experienced commercial success in Germany is the Bavarian outfit Schandmaul. Describing themselves as the "minstrels of today," the band employs a musical arsenal that includes the bagpipes, barrel-organ, shawm, violin and mandolin.
Celtic metal Edit
The Irish band Cruachan was formed in 1992 by guitarist Keith Fay with their first demo recording distributed in 1993. Drawing inspiration from Skyclad's first album, Fay set out to combine black metal with the folk music of Ireland. Their debut album Tuatha Na Gael was released in 1995 and the band has since been acclaimed as having "gone the greatest lengths of anyone in their attempts to expand" the genre of folk metal. Cruachan combination of Celtic music and heavy metal is known today as Celtic metal.
Parallel to Cruachan, the black metal act Primordial also released a demo recording in 1993 and "found themselves heralded as frontrunners in the burgeoning second-wave black metal movement." Irish music plays "a very big role" in Primordial but in "a dark and subtle way" through the chords and timings. The band has since "established themselves as one of the most unique sounding bands in the folk-meets-black metal field." Other early representatives of Celtic metal include the bands Geasa and Waylander with both groups releasing a demo recording in 1995.
From the middle of the 1990s, other bands gradually emerged to combine heavy metal with folk music. Storm was a short lived Norwegian supergroup with Fenriz, Sigurd Wongraven and Kari Rueslåtten from the black metal groups Darkthrone, Satyricon and the doom metal band The 3rd and the Mortal respectively. Their only album Nordavind was released in 1995 with the use of keyboards to imitate the sound of folk instruments. The Germans Empyrium also relied on synthesizers and guitars to deliver their "dark folklore" black metal music with the release of their 1996 debut album A Wintersunset.
The year 1996 also saw the debut album of the "one-man black metal project of multi-instrumentalist Vratyas Vakyas" from Germany known as Falkenbach. With epic music that was "rife with keyboards, Viking themes, and folk music tendencies," Falkenbach was effectively a merge of Viking metal with folk metal. They were joined in the next two years by other bands combining the two genres including Windir, Månegarm and Thyrfing.
Predating most folk metal groups, the Spanish band Mägo de Oz was formed as far back as 1989 with a self-titled debut album, released in 1994. With nine members in their lineup, including a violinist and flutist, the band has evolved over the years into a combination of power metal and Celtic flavored folk metal. They have experienced strong chart success in their native Spain as well as in South America. The Lord Weird Slough Feg from Pennsylvania, United States also had an early formation dating back to 1990. Their self-title debut album was released in 1996 and the band has pursued a "unique style of combining traditional/power metal with folk metal."
The Moravian band Silent Stream of Godless Elegy had formed in 1995 as a doom metal band "laced with Pagan imagery and adventurous enough to include violins and cellos alongside the expected modern day arsenal." With the release of their second album Behind the Shadows in 1998, the band began to use "folklore influences" in their music.
The folk metal genre has dramatically expanded with the turn of the new millennium. At the forefront of this explosion, with a "revolutionary clash of tradition and amplification that set them apart", is a group from Finland known as Finntroll. The band was formed in 1997 with a demo recorded the following year and a debut album Midnattens Widunder released in 1999. They have since developed a reputation for being "obsessed with all things trollish." Their lyrics are sung exclusively in Swedish instead of the Finnish language "apparently because this language was better to evoke the trollish spirit." The music of Finntroll features a "real innovation" in the marriage of black metal music with a style of Finnish polka called humppa. Specifically, the band took from humppa "the alternate picking bass lines accompanied with the drumbeat, and the use of accordion." This unlikely mix of polka and extreme metal has received a mixed reception from critics. Andy Hinds of Allmusic laments the polka influence as undermining "the intended threat of a death metal band" while his colleague Alex Henderson praises the band for their "solid, consistently likable effort," declaring that Finntroll has set themselves apart from their peers "because of their emphasis on Finnish humppa" and "the humor and irony they bring to the table."
Finntroll's second album Jaktens Tid was released in 2001 and became a chart success in their native Finland. Some of the songs on the album feature vocals performed by Jonne Järvelä of Korpiklaani, another band from Finland. While other folk metal bands began with metal before adding folk music, Korpiklaani started with folk music before turning metal. The roots of Korpiklaani can be traced back to a Sami folk music group under the name of Shamaani Duo, an "in house restaurant band" created in 1993. An album of folk music was released under this name before Jonne Järvelä relocated and formed a new band Shaman. The folk metal act Shaman was based on the folk music of Shamaani Duo. Two albums were released in 1999 and 2001 before Shaman changed their name to Korpiklaani. The change in name was accompanied by a change in the music. The traditional yoik vocals and the use of the Sámi language were dropped while the synthesizer was replaced with real folk instruments. Jonne Järvelä credits his work with Finntroll as the catalyst for the shift in emphasis from folk to metal.
While Korpiklaani used an assortment of traditional instruments to deliver their folk metal, Finntroll relies on keyboards for Finnish folk melodies played in the humppa style. The keyboards in Finntroll are performed by Henri Sorvali who also performs in Moonsorrow, another folk metal band from Finland that he formed with his cousin Ville Sorvali in 1995. They released two demos, the first in 1997 and another in 1999, before the 2001 debut album Suden Uni. Moonsorrow blends folk metal with Viking metal by incorporating "Finland's traditional folk music forms into elaborate symphonic arrangements typical of Viking metal outfits such as Bathory and Enslaved." The adoption of folk elements was "becoming all the rage" in Finland by this point and other folk metal bands from Finland that began to emerge in the early 2000s included Cadacross, Ensiferum and later on Turisas and Wintersun. Ensiferum notably found themselves at the top of the Finnish charts with their 2007 single One More Magic Potion.
Folk metal acts are not uncommon in the other Scandinavian countries. Bands from Sweden include the aforementioned Thyrfing and Månegarm along with other acts such as Otyg and Vintersorg. Norway has produced the aforementioned Storm and Windir as well as more recent groups such as Kampfar, Lumsk and Trollfest. Folk metal bands from Denmark include Wuthering Heights, Svartsot and the Faroe Islanders Týr.
Outside Scandinavia, other European nations have contributed to the growing genre. Groups from the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania includes Metsatöll, Raud-Ants, Obtest and Skyforger while representatives from Russia include Alkonost, Arkona and Butterfly Temple. More isolated examples across Europe include Balkandji from Bulgaria, Elvenking from Italy and Eluveitie from Switzerland. Folkearth is an international folk metal project with members from several different European countries. At its inception, the project consisted of 14 musicians from separate backgrounds in folk and metal music. With their second album By the Sword of My Father released in 2006, the project boasted the participation of 31 musicians.
Beyond the European continent, folk metal is relatively rare with only a few known acts including the aforementioned The Lord Weird Slough Feg and their fellow Americans Agalloch. The latter's music "made for a stark geographical anomaly, since its eclectic, avant-garde folk-metal was the sort of thing one would expect to emerge from Scandinavia -- not Portland, OR." Tuatha de Danann is another geographical anomaly with their Celtic metal from Brazil.
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