Welcome to Folking Hell, where we’ll take a brief walk through the forests of folk metal, discussing the history, origins, lyrics, musical styles bands of the movement in the early days. Now settle in, fill your horn with mead and join us…. I really wish there was some way to insert a TV sitcom harp effect right here as you read this.
The birth of a sub-genre, a brief history of how it came to be – 1990 to 1995
When we discuss the history of a sub-genre it’s hard to know where it starts. Talk to someone long enough about heavy metal and you might find them talking about The Bealtes track Helter Skelter or even further back. For the purposes of this history lesson, we’ll be beginning in the early 90s, folk and Celtic rock bands existed before this point, and though served to influence some of the artists (Irelands Celtic rock band Horslips for one), we’re really focussed on the folk metal aspect of the genre. That’s not to say we wont go back and talk about the influences in a future article. But for now we go back twenty three years…
It was 1990 and Martin Walkyier, front man of British thrash cult legends Sabbat, had enough. After arguing with the guitarist Andy Sneap, Walkyier left the group and teamed up with Steve Ramsey, guitarist for Satan. Together, they gave birth to the band some call the most important folk metal band of all; Skyclad. Ramsey also performed in another band, Pariah, who provided another ex-member in bass played Graeme English. Completing the line up for the time being was KeithBaxter on drums. With a solid line up in place they moved forward to release their first album, and one of the first folk metal albums, The Wayward Sons of Mother Earth the following year after signing a deal in Germany. The intention was to form the ultimate pagan metal band, a theme that has stuck within the folk metal world ever since. In fact, the name Skyclad itself comes from pagan ritual nudity in which people are only clothed by the sky, which pretty much means totally naked.
Despite the pagan influence the sound was still distinctly thrashy and as such they toured with Overkill. Things would change after this with the addition of a violin/keyboard player, Fritha Jenkins, and another guitarist – Dave Pugh. With this line up they went on to record their second album A Burnt Offering For The Bone Idol. The additions to the line up meant this release had a much more folky sound than before.
The year is now 1992, during Skyclads experiments and adventures with folk and metal other bands have slowly started cropping up. Though it would be some time before Skyclad were joined by more bands on their level, Amorphis were slowly developing their sound and a band called Cruachan had just formed.
Cruachan, unlike the pagan based Skyclad, are our first glimpse into the world of Celtic metal. At the time Keith Fay had just purchased the debut album by Skyclad and its influence led to him disband his newly formed black metal band to create a band that combined black metal elements with folk music. More importantly, the folk music of his home land, Ireland. This band was Cruachan who would go on to release their demo in 1993.
Running at the same time to Cruachan were the black metal Primordial, who after releasing their 1993 demo, were marked down as leaders in the second wave of black metal genre. Whilst not providing a strong influence on the folk metal scene itself yet, in the years to come Primordial would go on to shift and shape their sound to incorporate more folky elements. But more on this in a future post.
Mainland Europe weren’t exempt from the birth of the genre, with a group of German’s under the name Subway to Sally forming earlier in the ‘90s. At this time though, they played mainly folk rock but the seeds of metal were already planted.
Skipping forward again we find ourselves in 1994 and this time returning to Finland, where Amorphis have released Tales From The Thousand Lakes. Unlike their previous release, the straight up death metal with lyrics tinged by mythology, The Karelian Isthmus, the new album had many more folk elements. A more melodic death metal approach fused with doom was utilised along with more instruments and clean vocals. The addition of synthesizers allowed for a folkier melody to be infused throughout this album as they drew inspiration from the history, mythology and the music of Finland.
To the South West in Portugal, a band called Moonspell, formed in 1992, had just released their debut EP – Under The Moonspell. A dark album, it featured more middle Eastern flavours of folk compared to the other European centred folk sounds. This EP would be Moonspell’s only influence in the birthing genre, as their debut album, Wolfheart, was a much more gothic metal centred affair.
Another band to shun the European folk sound, though this seems more likely down to the location, was the Israeli band Orphaned Land. Their first album, 1994s Sahara, incorporated oriental flavourings instead of the fiddles of Europe. They formed in 1991, and again unlike European influences such as Celtic and pagan influence, Orphaned Land drew inspiration from Jewish and Arabian history. This style of oriental metal separated itself from folk metal quickly and established itself strongly in the world of 90s metal, in particular in the East.
Returning to Europe we find Skyclad on their fourth studio album and the Spanish Mägo de Oz, one of the earliest folk metal bands who formed in 1988, releasing their self titled debut.
With the year about to become 1995 and the explosion of folk metal on the horizon, we will leave this here for now…