Much head banging and screaming was done by all and many a jig was danced by beer wielding fans of Korpiklaani. This is folk metal. Popular in Europe for the last decade, it has finally hit America’s shores and its fan base is growing.

Kilter Summer 7 May 2009

A brutal northern wind blew across the land as the North American leg of Paganfest came through Chicago on May 7th. Five folk metal bands stormed the stage of the Pearl Room to an audience that had been eagerly awaiting years to hear these groups play live. CDs, t-shirts and leather armor were sold by vendors, and bonny lasses walked around in chain mail garments (Don’t get too excited. They had clothes on underneath).

As the show got underway, the jovial, yet very metal, audience’s excitement grew with each anticipated band’s performance. The two newer bands to the scene, Swashbuckle and Blackguard, played first and got the crowd pumped. But when three of folk metal’s premier bands took the stage, the wave of anticipation finally broke. Moonsorrow, Primordial and Korpiklaani blew everyone away.

Much head banging and screaming was done by all and many a jig was danced by beer wielding fans of Korpiklaani. This is folk metal. Popular in Europe for the last decade, it has finally hit America’s shores and its fan base is growing.

What the hell is folk metal?

That’s the general response I get from anyone I tell that I listen to the genre. The simplest definition is that it is music that combines metal and folk music, but those two ingredients can be taken into so many different directions musically. It actually goes into quite a few with the diversity of bands in folk metal. Folk metal originated in the 1990s with the English band Skyclad and their album ‘The Wayward Sons of Mother Earth’. For a few years, no other bands showed up on the scene. In the mid-90s a couple new groups took up the folk metal sound, such as the Israeli band Orphaned Land and the German band Subway to Sally. It wasn’t until the late 90s and early 2000s that the genre exploded in Europe. The surge in popularity especially centered in Finland. Finntroll, one of the most well known folk metal acts in Finland and the rest of the world, released their first album in 1999 called ‘Midnattens Widunder’. Several other Finnish bands came out during this time as well, like Korpiklaani, Moonsorrow, Ensiferum and Turisas.

Today, roughly a decade later, there are many different groups coming from a range of countries around Europe, bringing with them their own unique sounds based on the folk music of their respective countries. Tyr, who stopped in Chicago on the Pagan Knights tour in April with Alestrom and Suidakra, are from the Faroe Islands. Their music primarily focuses on their Viking roots. They are also performing at Wave Gothic Treffen this year. Primordial is from Ireland combining black metal with Celtic music. Lumsk hails from Norway mixing metal and the folk music of their land.

An assorted mix of genres make up the metal sound of this combo, such as progressive, power metal, black metal and traditional heavy metal. In many Finnish bands there is a strong black metal influence, mostly due to the strong black metal scene in Norway. Finntroll combines their black Metal with humppa music, the polka music of Finland. Skyclad has a predominantly thrash metal sound, while Ensiferum takes on a more traditional metal style and Tuatha de Danaan has power metal stylings.

The common themes that make up folk metal are fantasy, folklore, history, nature and paganism, the last of which is very obvious in the names of the tours that have been mentioned previously. One of Paganfest’s tour shirts featured a Viking on the front and the words “I AM PAGAN” boldly displayed on the back of it and Thor’s Hammer can be seen gracing the chests of many musicians and concertgoers. There is a strong emphasis on the ancient and pre-Christian roots of the members of these bands. This being the case, the ethnic roots of each group often plays a large roll in each particular band’s music and lyrics. Vikings often pop up in the genre due to the large Scandinavian influence.This has lead some to label certain groups as Viking metal. Some bands sing about the journeys of trolls and pirates and others sing about the fading sun, the forest and the joys of the hunt.

And alas, a false stigma that has been attributed to other musical genres, such as punk and industrial, has also attached itself to folk metal, like a cancer that just won’t go away: the old bane of neo-Nazism and fascism. Bands like Moonsorrow, Tyr, Skyforger have all been mistakenly associated with fascism and the National Socialist Black Metal (NSBM) mainly do to the misappropriation of pagan symbols, such as the runes used in Tyr’s and Moonsorrow’s logos. Folk metal has NOTHING to do with Neo-Nazism or fascism.

Along with the standard metal instruments, traditional and acoustic instruments are also used throughout the music. Flutes, bagpipes, violins and hurdy-gurdies can be heard from group to group.Some bands use keyboards to simulate folk instruments as well. Often bands have six or more musicians in a lineup to encompass all of the sounds found in the music. The band Eluveitie has eight members in their lineup and frequently use an assortment of traditional instruments. In the last couple of years, folk metal’s popularity in the American market has grown greatly. Its gateway into the consciousness of many Americans seems to have been helped by its musical cousins, symphonic metal and gothic metal. The rise of such bands like Nightwish and Lacuna Coil has heralded the coming of folk metal to the states. Before a couple years ago, most of the bands mentioned had never toured in the US. Around 2007, the bands of European metal finally bridged the waters of the Atlantic and began touring here in mass and on a regular basis, and their fans here are very glad that they did.

Folk metal has a very strong following and it is increasing rapidly. It has a very “soulful” metal sound with excellent musicianship and a strong history behind it. Its fans are fierce and loyal and the bands put on a damn good show. Keep a look out for more folk metal shows playing here in the future. All the bands mentioned have a presence on the internet with samples of their music. Check them out for music that will make your heart pound with the beat of the Nordic spirit.