In this article, I explore the history of folk metal, looking at the beginning of heavy metal, its successive sub-genres and the influences from traditional and folk music and how it seduced the heavy metal genre.
From the beginning, heavy metal was destined to be the controversial element of the music industry, a misunderstood collective of humanity on the margins of mass-culture, a living breathing entity, a reflection of its own views and a microcosm of apolitical debate.
Ideas of the “other”, which I will identify here as simply, the marginalised, or, that which is not part of popular culture, were central to this new movement in music and so, the distorted guitar was immediately and almost exclusively utilised.
In a symbolic fashion, the loud, distorted, or, heavy sounding guitar represents a contrast to the clean, safe sounding guitars used in pop music.
Religious imagery and lyrics sent a shock-wave through offendable critics, and heavy metal scored high in its bid to celebrate the “other”, later on, bands would eventually use ideas and imagery of Satanism to repel the masses of popular culture further, whether it was actual Satanism or not.
Images of violence and gore went well with the scene, as a component of the overall movement, that which shocked, offended or offered alternative views to question the status quo, was used with aplomb and used to symbolise the movement’s anger, dissatisfaction and frustration with the traps of living in a capitalist, consumer culture.
For some bands, predominantly of the black metal scene, the “moral panic”, (Hjelm, Kahn-Harris, LeVine, 2011, p 5), of acts of violence associated with some extreme metal bands blended well with their ideologies and created a small but relevant sub-section to the realisation of what “moral panic” actually was.
Although it can be said that no one band defines a genre, or is responsible for its creation, Black Sabbath, one of the main culprits for helping create the music we know as heavy metal in 1968, went against the song-writing traditions of the time and helped encourage new bands to engage in celebrating the “other”.
As such, it would take the collective effort of a few bands and a few albums to solidify the moods and emotions being brought forward by the ideas of heavy metal, to create a new genre in music.
They possessed both the heritage and the political motivation, to embark on their voyage into the darker side of rock music. “Birmingham was in a good position to receive influences”, in the 1960s.
“The bleak working-class realities, industrial landscapes and the anxieties of the poor youths living in the area arguably mixed well to produce hard-hitting and distorted music”, (Karki, 2012, p 184).
Concerns from religiously minded people endowed Black Sabbath with much publicity and earned them a following; fans of the music and the reputation as religiously questionable band paved the way for the introduction of black metal.
This European movement of black metal centred around all things evil, would exploit what Black Sabbath was being portrayed as, but incidentally, wanted not a whole lot to do with. “In the infamous title track ‘Black Sabbath’, singer Ozzy Osborne cries to God to help him and there is a warning to ‘turn round quick and start to run’ after coming face to face with an infernal figure’”, (Karki, 2012, p 184).
The bands that took influences from other sources were bands like Skyclad, Bathory and Celtic Frost.
Later, when heavy metal had developed into a major force on the music scene and had split into sub-genres like death metal, thrash metal, stoner metal etc. in the eighties, English band Skyclad, as the name suggests, dealt with a pagan, “mother-Earth” approach, (Skyclad, 2009).
After signing with German record label Noise International, they released their first album (‘The Wayward Sons of Mother Earth’) in 1991. Twenty-eight years later, Skyclad had amassed twelve albums to their name, beginning with a pagan-metal ideology and evolving into a folk metal band by the year 2000’s album ‘Folkemon’. (Skyclad, 2009).
Firmly separated from Satanism and the social red tape around black metal, the music still retained the intensity and rebellious streak found in it. It could be argued, however, that the ideologies of Skyclad were still anti-religion, promoting a more ancient theme of paganism. Referring more and more to their heritage for influence, tonalities and sounds resembling their ancestors’ music was beginning to creep into Skyclad’s music.
When Sweden’s Bathory first began in 1983, the band played in the black metal style with a raspiness and low production values, representative of the style, with lyrics centred on Satanism and that which would offend the Catholic Church.
“It was quite simply a way to get at Christianity, to provoke, to irritate and to annoy those above-all know-all Christians, the church itself and the dictatorial Christian faith on a whole”. (Bathory, 2008)
This acceptance that if the band were to be truly against Christianity, they would have to be against Satanism also, for it too was a product of the Catholic Church. Turning to their heritage, Sweden’s Bathory, began writing and recording albums based on the imagined histories of their homeland, still in a position to attack the Christian idiom and creating the first Viking-metal album in 1990, ‘Hammerheart’. (Bathory, 2008)
Taking influences from the black metal scene in Sweden from Bathory and Switzerland’s Celtic Frost, Ireland’s Primordial set about cultivating their own version of folk-metal, as Horslips and Thin Lizzy had done in rock, so they too would do in metal.
So too would Cruachan, the band more likely deserved of the title of the “Fathers of Irish Folk Metal”. It could be argued that the reason for the founding member of Cruachan (Keith Fay) decided to go this way, was a patriotic thing to do, after listening to Skyclad’s debut album and realising there was a chance to utilise his own heritage to further expand the heavy metal scene. (Cruachan, 2014)
While the chain of influence for Irish folk metal can be traced back to Black Sabbath, through Venom, Bathory, Celtic Frost and the folk heritage of the country, examining folk metal scenes around the world will uncover a more unconventional chain of influence.