Folk to rock to psych to thrash – a journey of experience

(July 14, 2008)

 Over the years, folk artists have added many flavours to folk music and each addition of essence has gained as many fans as haters. The folk tradition is regularly welded to an ever-widening raft of styles and genres to continually create new folk ‘shoots’ from traditional ‘roots’.

Fusing rock and folk (no longer new and almost mainstream) created various styles under the encompassing title of folk rock. Bands such as Fairport Convention, Pentangle, and Steeleye Span are always cited among the first to electrify traditional musical instruments and incorporate rock rhythms within folk styles and lyrics to form folk rock. Folk rock also includes The Strawbs, who although they are accused of gravitating towards stadium rock, continue close links with their folk roots.

These and similar folk rock genre bands are now part of the established and accepted (at times grudgingly) modern folk tradition. This grudging acceptance allows many so-called folk purists to accept folk rock although some still do not like it, or consider it to be real folk music. The rise of folk punk produced bands like The Pogues, Flogging Molly and Leatherat fusing traditional tunes with punk to create rapid-fire folk that thrashes along at breakneck speed. Then there are folk pop bands like The Corrs who place folk-influenced music back in the everyday pop music world. Other bands, such as Runrig, take a more power folk approach with sweeping guitars and pounding drums bringing Scottish music and the Gaelic language into the rockier edges of folk. In the process becoming popular with audiences who have no idea what the lyrics mean.

A similar stylistic situation exists with the rise of Celtic music – defined as folk or not.

Often, music defined as Celtic stems from a blend of Irish and Scottish traditional music. Sometimes, such music is played too fast and with little regard to the traditional heritage, often different styles are mashed together, sometimes it’s left broadly untouched. The interest in Celtic music has also expanded the style to include other traditional music associated with lands where Celtic languages are spoken. So Breton and Galician music is often included in Celtic definitions. An overriding influence today stems from Eastern European music. Increasingly, western folk bands are exploring the wild swirling music of the Balkans and fusing it with their interpretation of the tradition.

There are of course other folk couplets, psych folk, grew out of the fusing of folk and psychedelia; sometimes also called acid folk for the same reason. Arguably, this originated somewhere in the musical fog of 60s, blending of folk and psychedelic rock or pop to create psych folk (yet another style of folk music that has grown beyond its first definition.) The style leans toward acoustic instrumentation, although pretty much anything goes, with programming and synthesisers now common. The psych folk mix is eclectic; even early and medieval music influences are found in psych folk.

As a general summary, psych folk creates trance-like, atmospheric sounds – ambient music is another psych folk term. Psych folk lyrics often include such subjects as folklore, the natural world, love and beauty and mysticism. Early exponents such as The Incredible String Band, Tyrannosaurus Rex and Syd Barrett are fine examples of psych folk artist, although they could be hard pressed to follow the latest generation. The modern exponents of psych folk and acid folk include Tuung, Circulus, Spirogyra, Mellow Candle, Telling the Bees and Magicfolk.

Today, another joining of words and styles to a folk root has added yet more flavour. This includes entering the far reaches of rock such as heavy rock, metal and thrash. Bands such as Skyclad and Waylander apply wide and varied elements of folk styles from different nations, folklore, mythologies and traditions to create folk metal. Unlike other folk-related genres, folk metal appears to apply more pagan-inspired themes. Within this heavy rock sound bands claim to integrate folk instruments such as fiddles, accordions and pipes to build their sound. Although folk inspirations and instruments do filter into this genre a folk fan moving into the realms of metal folk or thrash folk may find it hard to locate anything that they could identify as folk.

Another folk term expressing itself freely in the modern world is ‘neofolk’. Neofolk is an even more eclectic mix. It fuses traditional European folk music with post-industrial music, historical topics, philosophical and political commentary with traditional songs. An important point of the spirit of neofolk is its repeated stand and principles against commercialism, and the popular disposable and fashionista dominated modern culture. Although it is usual for neofolk artists to be broadly acoustic, playing with traditional instruments, many exponents use electronic instruments. The term neofolk, a late 20th century invention, describes music influenced by bands such as Death in June and Sol Invictus. However, the definition has expanded beyond those artists. To prove that little is new, consider a folk band such as Comus (a progressive folk band with a brief career in the early 70’s). They created music with similar sounds and themes to neofolk.

So there we sit today with probably the broadest, widest, most malleable and ductile definitions of folk music that have ever existed. Folk today has a larger and more varied audience than ever before, and although still a minority when compared with popular music, it shows no sign of fading into obscurity. Many leading folk festivals now employ a wide definition to folk. Some continually push the boundaries of who can be invited to play under the description of folk musicians. The point being the wider the range of music that appears under the folk banner the more the chance the audience has to expand its horizons and listen to different music.

Linking folk to rock, pop, jazz, blues, country, psychedelia, acid, world, thrash, metal – the list is endless - continues to give an ever widening circle of definition and increasing acceptance of folk flavours.

That early blending continues of course. Now there are just more ingredients too add. It is an unending journey of experience and that can only be good.


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