Medieval Horsemen: Ensiferum
The late nineties and early 21st century saw a number of Metal bands emerge who were clad in armour, sang of beer, trolls and the gallows and stamped on the floor in time with their bagpipes’ rhythms. Their exceptional musical combinations were (and often are still) greeted with scepticism and treated as Metal only more or less. The Metal world’s uneasiness appears to be one reason for that hardly any reference work or Heavy Metal encyclopedia enlightens the curious Metalhead with regard to fiddle-driven Humppa music. By the way, Humppa is a jazz-related, rather fast foxtrot and originates in Finland. Treatises on “Folkish“ Metal are frequently littered with the term. Up to the present day, the respective bands are hard to categorise. Since the 1990s, several subgenres have been coined. I want to bring some light into the tangled matter, attempting to distinguish Folk Metal, Viking Metal and Pagan Metal.
Not too fond of trousers: Finntroll at Monsters of Rock, 2007
Among the first to arise was Folk Metal. The fusion of traditional Folk music and Heavy Metal includes the use of equally traditional instruments and, at times, vocal styles. Skyclad, an English band, are often mentioned as the pioneers of Folk Metal, having released their famous “The Wayward Sons of Mother Earth” in 1990. Only in the mid-nineties did the ranks of Folk Metal swell. Subway to Sally was founded in 1992 and has created 12 albums since. The German band became the pioneers of what is nowaday termed Medieval Metal and employs a violin, acoustic guitars, bagpipes and poetic lyrics which are always sung clearly. Clean vocals and, in many cases, a positive atmosphere characterise this style of Metal. Folk Metal is not exclusively branded by a special type of lyrics, although Medieval Metal bands frequently broach issues of (surprise, surprise!) the Middle Ages. In the early 2000s, the genre exploded –particularly in Scandinavia: Finntroll, Ensiferum, Korpiklaani and Turisas are only four of the many great Folk Metal bands born in the northern part of Europe.
Whyever there is a car involved instead of the obligatory troll king, I don’t know… Enjoy Finntroll’s “Häxbrygd” (from “Blodsvept”, 2013):
Very Folkish: “Herbstzeit” from Subway to Sally’s 1996 record “Foppt den Dämon” (sorry for the simple lyrics video, nothing else available):
Viking Metal, as the name indicates, focuses on Norse mythology, paganism and Vikings. Similar to Folk Metal, the Viking style weaves traditional instruments into its Metal. Pioneering musicians were the Swedes of Bathory. Musically, Viking Metal dashes past, supported by dynamic keyboarding and a certain tendency for the dramatic.
Nowadays, experts (if these exist within my field of studies) and laymen alike agree on the integrating term Pagan Metal. “Pagan” means heathen, but also rural. It designates a powerful Metallic style founded on cultural heritage, and embraces Medieval, Folk and Viking Metal – perhaps even more substyles. Folk Metal bands compose songs about their culture and history B.C., while their Viking or Celtic Metal counterparts do exactly the same, albeit focusing legends, myths, gods and heroes of their personal cultural past. Flutes, trumpets, fiddles and bagpipes feature most of these styles, but Pagan Metal is influenced by Black Metal as well. Clean vocals as employed by Eluveitie, the famous Primordial or Falkenbach, are sometimes complemented by Black Metal caws. While Pagan Metal is way more epic than Black Metal in its constuction and performance, Viking Metal’s speciality is a dirty sound and a Viking storyline. Folk Metal differs by the exclusion of any vocals but clean singing.
Fast and fantastic Metal from Switzerland? Enjoy Eluveitie’s record with (perhaps?) the longest song title in the Metal world, “Everything remains as it never was” (from the 2012 album of the same title):
All of these styles, however, are more or less united by a particular idea of nationality and culture. There is a distinct practice of honouring one’s cultural background that borders on worship with some musicians. Their creation of euphemisms for war and violence, celebration of victory and of sword-brandishing heroes appears to find the approval of right-winged minds much too often. This is why Pagan Metal is frequently associated with rightist ideology. However, we might do well to keep in mind that creativity is no crime: not necessarily every Pagan Metal band secretly craves for racial discrimination. Pagan styles are further united by a trait much more positive: they carry unceasing energy and can make the crowd dance. If in a bad mood or tired, give it a try…