Folk metal is a subgenre of heavy metal that reached peak popularity in the mid to late 2000s. Mixing old-world European folk melodies with death metal and black metal, the trend spawned popular multi-headliner tours like Pagan Fest and Heathen Fest. Fans danced jigs in the center of circle pits to a backdrop of kilts, war paint, medieval battle costumes, accordions and bagpipes galore. At the periphery of this landscape were pirate bands and Amon Amarth concerts with simulated Viking longship rowing. It was a vibe.
This amalgamation of mythical themes produced memorable music even though the genre relied heavily on a gimmick. A number of folk bands from this era are still soldiering on even though the scene looks quite different from its heyday. Ensiferum’s most recent release, Thalassic, pushes the band forward but has a satisfyingly familiar feel. Korpiklaani continues in their role as the AC/DC of folk metal by producing the same album every couple of years with admirable consistency. Still, there is noticeable evidence of a decline. Eluveitie survived a near complete lineup replacement that undoubtedly changed their direction. Some bands, like Finland’s Turisas, simply disappeared.
Is folk metal dead? Clearly, it is not. However, if we entertain this idea due to its decreased prominence, it means we subscribe to a narrow definition of folk music that centers on Western history and culture. While most White people think of an Irish fiddler when they hear the term folk, heavy metal draws upon traditional music from all over the world. Israel’s Orphaned Land integrate a variety of Middle Eastern and West Asian styles, including both Arabic and Jewish folk music. The Hu made waves in the mainstream media by incorporating the horsehead fiddle and Mongolian throat singing, a form of vocal distortion, into the heavy metal framework. Up and coming African metal bands celebrate regional heritage and tackle lyrical themes that deal with religion and post-colonialism.
Folk metal as a fad that romanticizes trolls, Nordic warriors and epic sagas, may be past its prime, but folky components from diverse cultures exist as part of the backbone of metal. From the Gaelic atmospheric elements of Saor, to the subtle Eastern influences of post 2000s Amorphis, sounds of ancient heritage occur across metal subgenres. Folk techniques and instruments often appear in music produced by bands that are not typically associated with the folk aesthetic. For example, symphonic power metal band Nightwish hired a full-time Uilleann pipe player as a permanent member. Folk metal has left its mark, and its richness and variety will continue to permeate the broader genre.
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