The bluffer’s guide to Folk Metal
There’s more to folk metal than bagpipes, flagons of ale and hey-nonny-nos.
Just because you love a bit of lute and hurdy gurdy doesn't mean you can't embrace the world of heavy metal, in fact, the realm of folk metal is alive kicking serious arse across the world. But if you're unsure of where to start, let us help you...
Skyclad – The Widdershins Jig (1991)
Given that “folk metal” is a much broader, less specific definition than most heavy metal sub-genres, it’s almost impossible to clearly dictate where it started (some draw the line right back to Fairport Convention), but it’s a safe bet it would be a radically different beast today without Skyclad. Formed by Martin Walkyier (after he left Sabbat) and Steve Ramsey, the British band – whose name is a ritual form of nudity in Paganism – arguably started the genre proper with their 1991 debut album.
Amorphis – Black Winter Day (1994)
While they are now far more proggy, bright and melodic than this – and while 2009’s Skyforger is the Amorphis album every metalhead should own – back in the ’90s, Amorphis were a heavy-as-balls, dark-as-night band. And when they were, they helped invent folk metal, forging a path that would later be followed by most of their folk metal countrymen. In fact, the popularity, longevity and sheer level of influence of their 1994 sophomore album is such that this track is essentially an ever-present in their live shows. Amorphis also hold the distinction of having the index number #1 on Metal Archives, if inane trivia is your thing.
Moonsorrow – Pakanajuhla (2001)
One of the early landmarks on modern folk metal, Moonsorrow’s debut was one of the first times the Finnish folk sounds was heard. And while they have grown more atmospheric in recent years, utilising more ambient sounds and with dramatically longer songs, this remains one of the blueprints for a scene that would explode onto the European metal circuit a few years later – even if Moonsorrow would never quite gain the popularity of some of their peers.
Turisas – Battle Metal (2004)
Superficially they might appear to be a power metal band with compound time signatures and warpaint, but the red-and-black horde are a far more subtle beast than they get credit for, and there is much more authentic folk in their music than a casual toe-dip would suggest. The fact they come out with catchy anthems like this (and the odd cover, of course) might explain why they are quite as popular as they are, but there’s more depth than that implies.
Finntroll – Trollhammaren (2004)
Only in Finland could a band mix humppa (a Finnish form of polka) with black metal while dressing up as trolls and singing in Swedish, and it be a success. The deliciously sinister fun of Finntroll is one of the definitive sounds of folk metal nowadays, and was a significant reason it spread so successfully across Europe in the mid-'00s. They’re not done with pioneering either, it seems, as their style now appears to be evolving into something new – and leaving the “folk” tag behind.
Korpiklaani – Happy Little Boozer (2006)
Arguably the most credibly “folk” of all the Finnish bands, Korpiklaani actually started out as a pure folk band (Shamaani Duo), before shifting to a different style of folk metal (as Shaman) then shifting into what is now Korpiklaani. Fun as hell and booze obsessed, Jonne Järvelä and co. may be most famous for their drinking songs (Vodka, Bring Us Pints Of Beer and Beer Beer as well as this song) but the music itself is both serious and expertly crafted – the fact the band know how to have fun doesn’t mean they aren’t proper musicians of genuine skill. Maybe that’s why their fans are so insanely enthusiastic.
Ensiferum – Victory Song (2007)
The most epic of the Finnish folk metal bands, the kilted, sword-wielding, woad-painted troupe took a while to get underway but kicked into gear just as the scene they were part of began to take off. Probably the most frequently emulated of their immediate peers, their fusion of numerous melodic variants of extreme metal and a saga-telling atmosphere quickly won hearts and minds and forged them a niche of their own in a patch of metal that was fast becoming crowded.
Eluveitie – Inis Mona (2008)
Naturally, the biggest thing in Celtic folk metal is a band from Switzerland that includes a tin whistle and hurdy gurdy playing songs about Anglesey. While it might not seem like the most obvious thing in the world, the mournfully catchy music of Eluveitie, led by multi-instrumentalist Chrigel Glanzmann, jumped enormously in popularity when this song hit YouTube. The strength of their three subsequent albums kept the attention on them.
Týr – Hold The Heathen Hammer High (2009)
The biggest metal band ever to come from the Faroe Islands, Týr are not quite what their Norse imagery would make you imagine. While they share Ensiferum’s epic quality and Turisas’ fondness for a depth of folk music that’s rather more deep than is initially apparent, there’s a progressive quality to the rhythms and structures that has long made them stand out. That, and the bloody fantastic songs.
Wintersun – Sons Of Winter And Stars (2012)
Strictly speaking, Wintersun are no longer a folk metal band – but they haven’t quite left it behind either. Jari Mäenpää quit Ensiferum (amicably) in 2004 to focus on what was then his side-project. And they may only have made two albums in that time, but they won a terrifyingly passionate fanbase thanks to their heroic fusion of folk melody, black metal aggression and majesty, power metal epicness and catchy vocal hooks, and a mournful yet joyous vibe that only Finnish bands seem to manage. Plus, Time I advanced the technical standard expect of multi-layered metal records to an all new height – and included the best chorus of that year on this masterpiece of a song.
Bonus entry: Agalloch – To Drown (2010)
Very much the odd one out in this list, Agalloch are not what you expect the “folk metal” tag to entail. Part pagan earthiness, part wistful Americana, part post-metal crush, sometimes warm and comforting and sometimes cold and bleak, the Portland band are about as far away from being funtime drinking metal as it is possible to be. And they are completely, utterly brilliant, with their five albums since 1999 (Agalloch do things slow!) ranging from the very good to the outstanding and essential. Surprisingly, they’ve also managed to garner a fair degree of popularity in the process – and well deserved it is too.