When many think of the genre “heavy metal” they may picture the classic guitar, bass, and drums setup with the lead vocalist wearing all black screaming lyrics that sound as if they had come from the devil himself. However, metal has numerous sub genres, which has a much different sound and style than black metals’ thrashing “blast beats” on drums, or its emphasis on treble with little to no bass at all. With regard to outward appearance and clothes, “common styles include viking garb, Inca and Aztec Indian outfits, buckskin boots, cod pieces, kilts, and medieval armor and clothing” (metaldecent.com) depending on the region or nationality. The incorporation of traditional folk instruments like the Irish kettle drum, bagpipe, torupill (Estonian bagpipe), tin whistle, hurdy-gurdy, mandolin, harp accordion and kantele (similar to a dulcimer), also symphonic instruments like the violin and flute are what makes folk metal unique. Sometimes bands play the folk instrument parts on electronic keyboards instead of having live performers. In folk metal groups there are all kinds of vocal styles being employed. Some groups incorporate “harsh” vocals like howls, shrieks, “pig squeals” and screams. These can be heard in both the high and low register, these can be created while the vocalist is actually reciting words, or by just screaming or shrieking. Harsh vocals differ from clean vocals in the fact that to do them correctly you must use your “false” vocal chords (the ones not used for speech or singing) with the correct amount of air and diaphragmatic pressure, like singing. Certain screams, especially the very coarse low kind, are created by breathing in while vibrating the false vocal chords. On the other hand, there is a lot of clean singing in folk metal as well, for example some groups incorporate medieval singing practices like chant or certain minstrel styles. And what makes the singing interesting is the fact that it is particular to that band’s region, as some bands sing in their own language and indigenous style, taking some of their heritage and mixing it with metal. The result can be often times shockingly beautiful. With regard to song lyrics, most in the folk metal genre stem off of region, nationality, religion, mythology, folklore, paganism, nature, history, and fantasy.
Regarding the history of folk metal, metal-heads have widely agreed upon that the earliest work in the genre is the album Wayward Sons of Mother Earth, which was released in 1990 by the English band Skyclad. Although one could say the album is essentially thrash metal with influences of folk, as all music tends to be a fusion of more than one of our labels that we put on it. Nevertheless, a truly definitive style began to develop within the band with the addition of folk instruments like the keyboard, the violin as well as others. Another thing to point out would be that they set the scene as far as lyrics when they started to use wordplay and puns to cast imagery on topics of paganism, modern living, racial issues, politics, social norms, war and religion. While Skyclad had started a new trend, things really started to catch on in 1994 with Ireland’s Cruachan, Germany’s Subway to Sally, and Orphaned Land, a band as far away as Israel that mixed Middle Eastern folk music, progressive death metal, and Jewish poetry. While all these bands paved the way for the new genre it is important to note, “Subway to Sally’s unique blend of hard rock, traditional folk melodies, and ‘romantic-symbolic German speaking poetry’ in their lyrics, set off the sub-sub-genre known as Medieval Rock – which has exploded across Europe alongside the folk metal genre in recent years thanks to the resurgence of interest in European folk history.” (steffmetal.com) Folk metal grew in popularity from here on in the 90’s but with few new bands. Some worth mentioning are Storm from Norway, with their 1995 release Nordavind, which featured the folk instruments being played on keyboards, a trait still continued by bands today, most notably Finntroll, and Equilibrium. Another was Amorphis from Finland who released Tales from a Thousand Lakes in 1994 and Elegy in 1996 incorporated Finnish poetry with melodic death metal playing and traditional folk instruments and melodies.
A breakthrough in folk metal came from Finland’s band Finntroll in the year 2000. As the latter part of the band’s name suggests, most of their lyrics stem from troll mythology and folklore tales, and although they are Finnish, all of their lyrics are in Swedish, which is the language of the troll mythos. Finntroll was one of the first successful folk metal bands to play all of their folk instruments via keyboards, which allowed them to form a smaller band. Their 1999 album Midnattens Widunder mixed Finnish polka music called “humppa” with Scandinavian black metal. The result was an overwhelming success. Finland sprouted three more major folk metal bands: Korpiklaani, Turisas and Ensiferum. The genre started going from underground to eventually being played on mainstream radios. In 2009, “Subway to Sally won a major mainstream music competition in Germany.” (steffmetal.com) Subway to Sally is also accredited to launching the popular regional subgenre of folk metal known as medieval metal in1995. The style fuses minstrel-type instruments like the harp, mandolin, fiddle, bagpipe, and kettle drum with heavy metal music. Although it may seem of English origin or tradition, many of the bands are from Germany with the lyrics in German. Amoung them are Extremo, Corvus Corax, and Morgenstern, also there are some non-German bands like Thyrfing.
Although less common outside of Europe, folk metal spread from the Balkans to Russia and eventually came to the United States. In fact, the subgenre Celtic metal is most popular in the United States, where there is a large population of second and third generation Irish descendants. Folk metal exists throughout the globe with a strong following. One good example of a world-renowned group is the nine-person folk metal band Mago de Oz, (English: The Wizard of Oz) who formed in 1989 and debuted in 1994. They top the charts in Mexico, South America and Spain. A popular subgenre called Viking metal combines Nordic folk music, Norse folk lore and black metal. This music is often quite heavy and chaotic and keyboards are used for ambiance and atmosphere. The band Bathory is credited as the creators of this exiting genre with their 1988 album Blood Fire Death (metaldecent.com). The lengthy, epic songs on the album were based on Norse sea shanties. One final subgenre of folk metal is Prelatin American. Peru’s band Kranium is recognized as the creator of this subgenre with their debut in 1991. The bands are from Mexico, Ecuador, Argentina, Brazil, Peru and Colombia. The music is influenced by their Aztec, Incan, and Mayan heritage. They use traditional flutes, drums, rainsticks, singing, and their native languages.