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Folk metal – a genre, a fashion or an anachronism?

(February 20, 2009)

So then tell me more about folk metal – is it heavy-metal-with-folk or heavy-folk-with-metal? And does it follow on from or precede medieval folk, doom metal, Viking metal or Celtic folk-metal – and has the word ‘folk’ vanished along the way?

Whatever the sequence of words, metal folk or folk metal - the result is the same. As the name suggests, the genre is a fusion of heavy metal and folk music – now that’s a serious oxymoron. Basically, it’s a blend of folk instruments and rock instruments, with folk-based lyrics - although not always.

One of the vanguards of folk metal was Skyclad. The band used folk jigs with a fiddle playing lead lines and melodies usually associated with lead guitars. Among the leading lights in folk metal are Cruachan, an Irish band formed in the mid-nineties by guitarist Keith Fay to combine metal music with Irish folk. They continue to expand the genre of folk metal, combining Celtic music and heavy metal to create Celtic metal – yet another defining moment in the assessment and classification of all things folk.

Among other bands are the German band Subway to Sally (incorporating both Irish and Scottish influences in their music) a band called Storm from Norway and the Portuguese band Moonspell (combining folk and Middle Eastern influences). Also there is the Spanish band Mägo de Oz (Wizard of Oz). This band has a strong Celtic feel to their music. They use a violinist and flautist to create their own brand of Celtic folk metal.

As with all musical types and styles, as every new band joins the folk metal fold they add personal and cultural influences. This in turn created yet more ‘folk-metal-variations’ from Celtic folk metal to medieval folk metal. Despite these contributors, folk metal remained little known until the late-ish nineties when Finland produced bands such as Finntroll and Korpiklaani.

Within folk metal there is a wide diversity of bands performing different styles. There is also a large variety of folk instruments used in the genre – to a greater or lesser extent these instruments are lead or support. Often, they are there to justify the addition of the ‘folk’ word to the ‘metal’ word and are little more than musical decoration - although some bands use them effectively. The instruments include bagpipes, hurdy-gurdy, lute, mandolin, fiddle and flute. Now that combination sounds pretty damn ‘folky’ on paper but perhaps not quite so ‘folky’ when you listen.

 The range of styles and instruments in folk metal is matched by the variety and sometimes bizarre extremes of vocals, from Finntroll’s scarifying shrieks to Skyforger’s rasping vocals. Lyrics commonly deal with paganism, nature, fantasy, mythology and history, and specifically lyrics based on Celtic mythology and the history of the Celts. Traditional folk singing can also be heard. For example, Scandinavian ‘yoik’ vocals are used by Finntroll and Korpiklaani. Such traditional folk-inspired singing is also used by Skyforger from time to time. Despite their national origins many folk metal bands sing in English, although most use their native language as well.

So where does that leave folk metal? Well according to its fans very much alive and well although it can be hard to hear any ‘folk’ music going on in the great proportion of folk metal bands. Too often the volume, the ‘mystery’ and the marketing get in the way.

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