An introduction to folk metal

Joseph O'Gorman

Many people are probably unaware, but Scandinavia is a hotbed for metal bands. Norway is famous for its black metal, notably Mayhem, and the murder case surrounding its infamous church burning member Varg Vikernes. Sweden love their power metal bands; lightning fast guitar riffs, and wonderfully high belted vocals. Finland however, is where things get really interesting; the Finns’ claim to fame is their folk metal bands.

The most famous of these is probably Turisas. A fascinating blend of traditional Finnish folk, symphony orchestra, and metal. Named after a malevolent sea monster from Finnish mythology, lyricist and singer Mathias Nygård draws heavily on history for his lyrics. The Varangian Way, the band’s second album, is where they really come into their own. It is a concept album, detailing the journey of Haakon, a bastard who has left his homeland to travel to Constantinople to serve the Byzantine Emperor, in the Varangian Guard. The Varangian Guard were a military unit made up of Norsemen, who effectively served as the Emperor’s bodyguards. The album takes you on a journey. You are transported to a longboat traversing the river system of the Kievan Rus, you feel the hangover after the wild party with Prince Jarisleif in Novgorod, and you are utterly transfixed, rendered speechless by the beauty and sheer majesty of the great city of Constantinople.

There is incredible depth to this album, and the themes of which are continued into the follow-up album Stand Up and Fight. A more orchestral and polished work, Stand Up and Fight finishes the story of Haakon the bastard and the Varangian Guard, with the final track appropriately titled End of an Empire.

Korpiklaani are probably the metal band with the strongest folk influence. Their sound is reminiscent of arriving down to a trad session in a pub in Hämeenlinna with two electric guitars and a big Marshall stack. While most bands of the genre started off as a metal band, and then began to add folk music, According to Jonne Järvelä, the band’s lead vocalist, Korpiklaani’s music would be seen as “old people’s music with heavy metal guitars” in Finland. Not as in depth as Turisas, they’re a more ‘fun’ outfit, with a lot of their lyrics about alcohol and partying. Lately they have gravitated more towards writing their lyrics in their native Finnish, after sticking to English with their earlier releases. Their first three releases are the best place to start with Korpiklaani, getting accustomed to the dulcet tones of Jonne Jarvela in English before moving onto the Finnish.

Moving further south into mainland Europe, we find Eluveitie. A fascinating Swiss outfit, they incorporate Celtic folk music into their brand of melodic death metal. Eluveitie use traditional Celtic instruments, such as bagpipes, hurdy-gurdy, mandola, and violin. Much of their lyrics reference Celtic mythology, particularly that of Celtic Gaul, with many of the lyrics written in a reconstructed form of the extinct ancient language Gaulish. They draw on texts such as prayers, and invocations of gods and other spirits The name of the band comes from graffiti on a vessel from Italy 300BC, which can be interpreted as the Etruscan version of ‘the Helvetian’, which of course refers to a man of Swiss descent. Eluveitie use multiple vocalists, both clean and harsh, which adds a real variety to their work. Slania is Eluveitie’s seminal piece, and serves as a great introduction to the band

Love it or hate it, folk metal has a huge amount of depth to it, and great variety with in the folk metal bracket.

Joseph O’Gorman
Image Credit: Orflaith Carragner