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Folk Metal: It’s Not Just a Bunch of Barbarians

Updated on January 27, 2016
Eluveitie - folk metal band from Switzerland
Eluveitie - folk metal band from Switzerland | Source

While researching the mythologies and folklore of folk metal (hopefully to be finished soon!), I came upon some breaking news in the metal world. A few months ago, a study out of the UK stated that folk metal had some very negative aspects. From the Leeds Beckett (the university where the study was written up) website, the headline and byline are worded heavy (get it?) towards folk metal being a refuge for white European men that exemplifies racism and sexism.

In all fairness, I have only read a dozen or so articles from various sources (which all seem to have only read the university’s release and not the study itself), and to say the media’s grasp of science rivals that of my grandma’s ability to grasp and hold a hundred pound weight would be a kindness (and she passed away several years ago). I was hoping to get the original article, but the journal it comes from is not accessible from my university, so I will not speak out directly against the authors or their findings. Doing so would be unfair and the move of a complete and utter wanker. The article may very well show a more positive side of the culture.

And that’s what I would like to do. Show that the genre does not simply exemplify any such negative concepts. This is not necessarily to refute what the authors have written (since I don’t know), but to at least offset what the sensationalist media headlines are proclaiming. After all, folk metal is not just full of Conan wannabes who want to hear the lamentations of women and children.

And suddenly I hear the sound of a thousand voices crying out. “What’s folk metal?” Very simply, it’s a style of heavy metal that utilizes folk music. Slightly more in-depth, that means it can use indigenous instruments, such as bagpipes, violins, and tin whistles. It also takes cultural aspects into consideration when writing lyrics. That can run the gamut of historical events, pagan religions, or general cultural landscapes of how ancestors lived. The genre is considered to have started with English band Skyclad, who formed in 1990, and their 1991 release “The Wayward Sons of Mother Earth.” Folk metal can be combined with other sub-genres of metal, such as power (Skiltron) and black (Finntroll), and has its own styles that include Celtic (Cruachan), Viking (Tyr), and pirate metal (Alestorm) – and of course I’m using some of my personal favorites as examples.

The Ride of the Valkyrs (1909) by John Charles Dollman
The Ride of the Valkyrs (1909) by John Charles Dollman | Source

So let’s start with the misogyny! First, to think that folk metal itself is some kind of magical magnet to the misogynistic, is disingenuous at best. The same could be said about EVERYTHING! Take a listen to rap music or the lounge singers of the ‘50s. In the realm of metal, death metal has many songs lyricizing the rape and dismemberment of women, and glam metal glorified the overt sexualization of women to an extreme. It’s not just music, either. Have you ever seen a beer commercial?

In fact, if one were to take the folk metal mindset to its core, with the veneration of how ancestors lived, it may be one of the least sexist forms of music out there. The Celts, Norse, and pre-Christian Anglo-Saxons had much more liberal views of women than other cultures. Was it fair and equal? Absolutely not. It was better, though. Women could own and inherit property and had many legal avenues denied them in other cultures. Not just other cultures of their own times (I’m looking at you, Rome!), but even into modern times. The suffrage movements of the USA and the UK in the early 1900s are examples of that. So giving fans the wherewithal to dig into their ancestral pathways is not a bad thing. It can lead to an understanding about how women can be treated better, by taking the best of the old ways and making them better under a modern lens.

Queen Maev (Medb) by J. C. Leyendecker
Queen Maev (Medb) by J. C. Leyendecker | Source

Another aspect is that the women were expected to fight as well! As far as the warrior ethos of folk music, that cannot be denied, but men were not the only warriors in Celtic and Norse tribes. (Why am I sticking with the Celts and Norse? First, it is simply to highlight that the claim of northern white men being sexist is incorrect. Second, it’s my main research area, so I tend to emphasize those – however, nomadic cultures from around the world had the women warriors! Look up the pre-Islamic cultures of the Middle East and you’ll find women who would frighten the most hardened male warrior.)

This warrior aspect is seen in many songs of folk bands. Tyr has several, including “Lady of the Slain” and “Valkyrja.” Cruachan also has many: “Maeve’s March” from their debut album and “Cattle Raid of Cooley” on their second to “The Morrigan’s Call” and “An Bean Sidhe” on later albums. There are so many others, such as “Spinning Jenny” from Skiltron, that even to exclude the intermittent love songs, this article would become bogged down in them.

Skyclad’s Wayward Sons of Mother Earth – considered by many to be the first folk metal album
Skyclad’s Wayward Sons of Mother Earth – considered by many to be the first folk metal album

Of course the obvious positive aspect of folk metal and feminism is the obvious: look how many bands are fronted by and include women. There are dozens of them! My first experience was with the Irish Celtic/folk metal band Cruachan, who had vocalist Karen Gilligan from 1999 until 2008 (I first started listening to them around 2005). Perhaps the most notable is Eluveitie, from Switzerland, who utilizes many female musicians, both as permanent band members and studio/touring musicians. There are dozens and dozens of such bands! I started to do an extensive search, but was lucky to find a list already put together by the rateyourmusic.com contributor drowned_scars. This list contains at least 97 folk metal bands (it’s a work in progress) that are female fronted. So this list does not even include bands that have female musicians.

Now onto the racism, and here I shall make a claim that is not PC, but is fair and equitable. Pride in your ancestors is not racist! Everyone should be able to feel pride in their heritage (as well as feeling disgust at the horrendous things done in the name of race/religion/creed, which is not just the bailiwick of white Europeans). The heavy metal community is a prime example of how, in general, all are welcome, regardless of race, sex, religion, etc. That is, as long as you’re not a jerkhole. There are pagan and folk metal musical festivals that include bands from across the globe and where everyone gets along with each other as well as any other music festival.

Which brings me to the same obvious aspect of folk metal that I mentioned above with the female aspect: there are folk metal bands from all cultures! Folk metal is not exclusively white. A friend of mine just turned me on to Tengger Cavalry, a band that combines Mongolian folk music with heavy metal. Other examples are Tang Chao from China (formed in 1989, so it’s not even a new aspect of folk metal to use non-European folk). We also have Andaz Uzzal from Africa and WawoW from Iran. There are dozens of American (the continents, not the country) folk metal bands, with most being Latin American, but there are many Native American folk metal bands on the rise. One of the earliest folk metal bands is Israel’s Orphaned Land, who started just after Skyclad way back in 1991 and are still together.

On a semi-related note, there are a fair number of folk metal bands that are neo-pagans and/or pagans, which taken in the modern sense indicates a very egalitarian attitude to gender and race. Many are also known for their pro-green environmental attitudes, which also coincide with a generally liberal view point.

As in all cases, there are racists in folk metal. There are racists in heavy metal. There are racists in rap and in country and in tap dancing if you want to get picky. There are sexists in all walks of life. The underlying ideals of folk metal, though, are of pride and the underlying ideal of heavy metal in general is to give an area for all those who are under-represented to find a safe space. To indicate that folk metal is especially a negative place does a disservice to the style overall.

Further Reading:

“Heavy Metal and its Culture” Deena Weinstein

“Louder than Hell” Jon Wiederhorn & Katherine Turman

“Heavy Metal Islam” by Mark LeVine

“Sound of the Beast: the Complete Headbanging History of Heavy Metal” Ian Christe

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