Folk metal is a fusion of extreme heavy metal with the use of folk instruments and singing styles. Folk instruments consist of tin whistles, violins, flute,the accordion, and other regional instruments from where each individual band hails from. Band lineups tend to be large because of the use of so many different instruments. Lyrical themes deal with fantasy, mythology, paganism, and history. Clothing styles and overall band image tend to represent the old world styles of each region a band is from. Common styles include viking garb, Inca and Aztec Indian outfits, buckskin boots, cod pieces, kilts, and medieval armor and clothing.
Folk metal is not defined by any one form of heavy metal. The styles are diverse and include folk elements being mixed with black metal, gothic metal, power metal, thrash, progressive metal, death metal and doom metal. Because of these varying styles, vocals range from high register NWOBHM and power metal vocals to black metal shrieks and growls. Many bands also make use of clean vocals, chanting, and traditional minstrel vocal styles. Folk metal does not only differ between metal styles, but it also has different regional variations. In other words folk metal from Ireland will have different sounds, local instruments, and subject matter than folk metal from Finland.
Folk metal was created in 1990 by the English thrash band Skyclad with the release of their debut album, The Wayward Sons of Mother Earth. This album featured their traditional thrash sound mixed with violins. They would follow up with their second release, A Burnt Offering for the Bone Idol in 1992. The album would feature a full time violinist with many lead parts now being played by the violin instead of the guitar. Most of their lyrics dealt with their religious leanings toward wiccanism. To this day Skyclad remains one of the most popular and influential acts in folk metal.
Essential Folk Metal Albums:
- Ensiferum (Ensiferum, 2001)
- The Varangian Way (Turisas, 2007)
- Burnt Offering for the Bone Idol (Skyclad, 1992)
- The Shadow Cabinet (Wuthering Heights, 2006)
- Verehrt Und Angespien (In Extremo, 1999)
- Jaktens Tid (Finntroll, 2001)
- Battle Metal (Turisas, 2004)
- Voice of Wilderness (Korpiklaani, 2005)
- Irrational Anthems (Skyclad, 1996)
- Nattfodd (Finntroll, 2004)
- Eric the Red (Tyr, 2003)
- The Never Ending Way of OrwarriOr (Orphaned Land, 2010)
- Tales from the Ten Thousand Lakes (Amorphis, 1994)
- The Middle Kingdom (Cruachan, 2000)
Death/Doom metal pioneers, Amorphis, would follow with their first foray into folk metal on their album Tales From the Thousand Lakes in 1994. On this album, they mixed their death/doom style with traditional Finnish folk music and themes. It was a concept album based on Finnish epic themes and was the first time the band made use of clean vocals. The album was a critical success and influenced other extreme metal bands to begin experimenting with folk sounds and themes.
From here, folk metal would begin to increase in popularity and begin to take on different regional variations in the mid to late 1990’s. The Israeli group Orphaned Land mixed progressive death metal with traditional middle eastern folk music and Jewish poetry in 1994. After this folk metal groups would begin to pop up in places like Ireland, the United States, Spain, Portugal, Norway, Mexico, South America, Germany, Sweden, the Czech Republic, and the Russian region.
At the turn of the century, the popularity of folk metal would explode into a worldwide phenomenon spearheaded by Finland’s Finntroll, arguably the most well known folk metal band of all time. Finntroll was one of the loudest bands to ever come out of this particular metal subgenre, as they mixed black metal with traditional Finnish polka. Their lyrical themes tend to be mostly about trolls and troll mythology. Despite being Finnish, all of their songs are sung in Swedish as this is the language that used in much of troll lore. Finntroll was also one of the first bands to create all of their folk metal sounds with keyboards instead on traditional folk instruments. Since then, many contemporary folk metal bands have followed suit which has helped the bands perform with far less band members than their predecessors.
Finland would continue turning out other popular acts like the folk band Korpiklaani who began to infuse heavy metal into their folk sound in 2001. Just like Sweden and Norway were the epicenters of Melodic Death Metal and Black metal respectively, Finland was becoming the home of folk metal music. Other majorly popular bands would emerge from Finland in the early 2000’s including Cadacross, Turisas, and Ensiferum. Other Finnish metal bands, like Wintersun, would jump on the train and add folk metal elements to their music helping them to find much success. The popularity of Finnish folk metal became contagious and would spread to other Scandinavian countries giving the world other popular folk metal acts such as Thyrfing, Kampfar, Trollfest, and Wuthering Heights.
Folk metal influence began to spread through the Balkans and Russia and would soon expand to much of the rest of Europe and America by the mid 2000’s. This slow expansion in popularity from 1990 to the beginning of the 21st century lead to the diversification of folk metal and the creation of popular regional sounds. Folk metal continues to be a worldwide phenomenon with more metal bands experimenting with regional folk sounds each year.
Celtic metal is one of the most popular regional forms of folk metal, as it combines one of the most popular forms of metal, extreme metal, with the most well liked form of folk music in the world, Irish folk music. Celtic metal makes heavy use of fiddles, tin whistles, and flutes and lyrics usually deal with Celtic mythology. Celtic metal was created by Irish black metal band Cruachan in 1995. Other Irish bands such as Primordial and Waylander would follow suit. Because of the worldwide popularity of Irish folk music, the Celtic metal style would begin to expand into other countries and actually became more popular in other regions than it was in Ireland. Celtic metal has found its biggest fan base to be in the United States, as the U.S. has one of the biggest populations of second and third generation Irish descendants in the world.
Medieval metal combines heavy metal with medieval folk music, much like what you would see played by minstrels in a Robin Hood movie. Common instruments include the mandolin, bagpipes, fiddles, harps, flutes, and kettle drums. It sounds as though this particular subgenre would have been created in England, but it is pretty much exclusive to Germany with most bands singing in the German language. There are a few non German bands, such as Thyrfing, that have taken on medieval metal elements. German band Subway to Sally created this regional variation in 1995. Other bands would follow including In Extremo, Corvus Corax, and Morgenstern.
Viking metal is a form of black metal mixed with Nordic folk music and Norse themes. The music is often even nosier and more chaotic than typical extreme metal and has a heavy use of keyboards to create ambient and atmospheric tones. Bathory is credited as being the creators of viking metal with their 1988 album, Blood Fire Death. The album contained some lengthy epic songs and chorused vocals based off of old Nordic sea shanties. Bands such as Enslaved, Thyrfing, and Mortiis would follow creating perhaps the most popular category of folk metal.
Prelatin American Metal
Prelatin American metal mixes extreme metal with Inca, Mayan, and Aztec themes and music. Bands are mainly based out of Brazil, Mexico, Peru, Equador, Argentina, and Colombia. Common instruments include rain sticks, flutes, and native drums. Kranium from Peru is mainly credited with the creation of Prelatin American metal with their debut release in 1991. Other bands include Arraigo, Ch’aska, and Kukulcan. The most mainstream example of Prelatin American metal is the song Ratamahatta by Sepultura featuring the heavy use of native drums and tribal language.