Starter Kit analyzes the ins-and-outs of some of the more obscure and niche sub-genres within the metal spectrum and offers a small group of bands that best represent the sound. Read other Starter Kit entries here.
Folk music is a style that has always influenced metal and rock. Especially post metal and its more ponderous predecessors, have both legs deeply rooted in the foundations of folk. As such, it enjoys a wealth of iterations and conversations on what it is, why it exists and how we should draw from it. What this conversation is often missing is the understanding that folk music is the palette with which a lot of modern music now paints. More genres than you know owe their genesis to the folk revivals of the 50’s and 60’s. The goal of these, among others, were to supply the flesh and bone to the growing, modern culture since classical music was perceived (and was often) sterile and detached from the tastes and sensibilities of the new middle class.
Therefore, a lot of folk is ingrained into the way we listen to music today. I think that as a result of that, an artist relying on tried and true folk sensibilities is doing nothing wrong; they are simply laying bare the roots of their music and the basic influences which informed it. Examples include Opeth, In Flames, Blind Guardian and Iron Maiden.
The other point which is often heard and is misplaced is the demand from folk to be innovative. That kind of misses the point of what folk is about. Folk is about creating a communal sound, about channeling historical aspects and themes into music that tells a story, sets the mood or creates a theme. It’s not about new things and about innovation per se, although that can certainly come into play (for example, Ulver‘s Kveldssanger). However, it’s not a major element.
Think of it like a fairy tale: I need to start it with “once upon a time” and it needs to have certain common elements so that you can recognize it as such a tale. Otherwise, the tale doesn’t make sense and you might walk away from reading it with completely different ideas than what I set out to convey. Now, you might say that’s boring and if so, folk is probably not for you. But within the genre, or people that draw upon the genre, it’s not necessarily laziness or complacency (although that can be the case of course). It’s something deeper in how the genre is created and understood.
Read on below for some of the examples how folk is being used today to convey themes and sounds which are kin to metal in their focus: nature, loneliness, sadness, anger, depression. While they draw on traditional ideas, the bands of the oft-misunderstood genres cited here tell fairy tales: established stories with modern twists, telling us things about ourselves and the world around us.
Wovenhand are a band that have been written about a time or two here on Heavy Blog, most recently (and abundantly) last year during their most high-profile album cycle to date for Refractory Obdurate. The Deathwish, Inc-backed record is rooted in religious if not apocalyptic Americana folk and performed to a backdrop of post-punk and psychedelic rock. What’s laid to tape in this quasi-live studio recording is impassioned kaleidoscopic gospel and a hazy atmosphere, conjuring images of Old West peyote trips and huge Sunn and Orange amplifiers.
Band leader David Eugene Edwards’ history and clout as a singer-songwriter in alt country — as well as his committed vocal performance — is built up into walls of noise and fuzz by the rest of his collective and producer Sanford Parker. The disparate pairing of doom and folk is balanced so expertly it’s hard to believe that there haven’t been many forays into this particular sonic territory in the past. Sure, Earth have been doing similar work for years in merging the poles, but Refractory Obdurate is an entirely unique experience, and isn’t much enthused in slow-burners. Make no mistake; this album rocks, and serves as an excellent entry point for the open-minded metal fan seeking to gain acclimation to Country/Western tones.
Considering T.J. Cowgill’s slick, clean appearance, ownership of a fashion brand (Actual Pain) and casual recording moniker King Dude, it seems odd that “Lucifer’s The Light of the World” is his personal slogan. But fifteen minutes into Fear and chill, Cowgill flashes a sinister glance that permeates the room with a distinctly satanic vibe. Fear’s dark fusion of Americana, country, folk and rock ‘n’ roll shift between sour positivity and tunes from the deepest Circle, all with Cowgill’s gravely, deep sneer. Whether armed with an electric or acoustic, Cowgill conveys these moods consistently, beginning with the aptly titled “Fear Is All You Know.” With sweeping chords and stomping percussion, Cowgill sets the tone for the album in line as his repetition of the phrase grows into a building demonic growl. Elsewhere, Cowgill diversifies his approach by plucking along to pleasant ballads like “Maria” and inspiring Devil-worshipping dance circles with the hoe-down worthy “Cloven Hooves (Of Fear).” Overall, Fear is a sonic encapsulation of nineteenth century American folklore; there’s evil and fear in the wilderness, and Cowgill makes a persuasive argument for giving into temptation and joining in on the depravity.
Steve von Till is a name unto itself; as the vocalist of Neurosis, von Till has influenced an entire generation of musicians and artists. It shouldn’t come as a surprise to any one familiar with the band that von Till has deep folk roots: their music is steeped in it and many of his vocal performances clearly channel folk influences. However, what his solo project lays bare is the darkness and weight that folk music has for von Till as an artist and the intimate place which it takes up in his psychology. The closing track “Known But Not Named” is perhaps the best example of the psychological significance of the album: in it, self abnegating, anger, sadness and self-pity mix into a haunting and blood curdling sojourn into the darkest places a person can go.
This all takes place within the context of the folk music that sets the path and timing of this sojourn. The guitars, acoustic but heavily manipulated via effects and production, are tolling milestones on our path. Static is introduced towards the middle of the track, infusing the traditional sound of the guitars with a modern, abrasive feeling. Von Till’s unique voice, somewhere between a repressed scream and a last, dying rasp controls the center stage, as many folks artists tend to do. These elements make it a perfect addition to this Starter Kit, since they introduce the listener to the more modern ways in which folk is used today, both musically and thematically. It has a broad canvas but still paints with intimate colors, thus creating an album that is both immediately recognizable and familiar but one which also speaks clearly with the artist’s umwelt and inner landscape.
Much ink and digital words have been spilt on those blog regarding Ulver‘s masterpiece, Kveldssanger. With good reason; it birth an entire genre and set the stage for many bands and albums to follow. Ulvesang and their self titled, debut album, are a great example of that. The album definitely draws on elements introduced on that seminal album: deep, male led choirs, long, drawn out passages of guitar and an overall feeling of night, fog and the woods. However, Ulvesang upgrade these basic elements with two major tools. First, this album comes to us in 2015 and utilizes the full variety of production tools available to it. Unlike earlier releases in the genre, it enjoys deep, rich recordings which enable several layers of music to be heard and parsed at once.
However, the more interesting aspect which leads it to excel is the wider net cast across the folk influences that inform it. Instead of drawing on just the more popular folk tropes (like acoustic guitars, deep vocals and ambiance) it also takes a page from less-cited elements. Tracks like “Litherpoan” and “A Town of Ash” for example, offer a more upbeat and intricate arrangement, with lilting beats and a structure that is repetitive but along more complex patterns. It also turns up the influences already present to their full power: the choirs are louder and more central, the guitar is more lonesome and evocative. As such, it’s a fantastic album to start with since it contains the main elements of neofolk alongside newer innovations. Regardless of which draws you, each one is perfectly accomplished and recorded, giving this album a finish that is often missing from the genre.
While the subgenres of doom-laden folk and neo-folk certainly describe a decent chunk of Chelsea Wolfe’s sound, it is by no means exclusively what has been brought to the table over the course of her four LPs. There were plenty of electronic influences added on 2013’s eerily-accessible Pain is Beauty, and her latest offering, Abyss, can get frighteningly avant-garde at times (particularly at the very end). But when having to describe Chelsea Wolfe to new listeners, the best way to start off is probably with Apokalypsis, arguably still her greatest artistic achievement. On just her sophomore album, Wolfe was able to infuse elements of mournful singer-songwriter tunes with terrifying ambience, haunting loops and even jarring black metal shrieks (the introduction is the perfect way to make sure you’re unsettled throughout). It’s an astoundingly-emotional album that’s well worth the investment and stands as one of the most interesting new sounds to come out of indie music’s underground in years.
If you ever get the opportunity to go see Chelsea Wolfe perform live, it’s obvious that you should, but also take notice of the crowd that shows up. Few other artists with such an alienating and specific style can draw such a wide array of listeners that seem to all have an equal appreciation for Wolfe’s ability to tap into a seemingly-universal feeling of loss. Pair that with some top-notch vocals throughout and you’ve got the basic idea. If you’ve slept on these albums until now, let this serve as your intervention.
Ulver – Kveldssanger (1996) [YouTube]
Musk Ox – Woodfall (2015) [Bandcamp]
Nebelung – Palingenesis (2014) [Bandcamp]
Alor – Haerfest (2014) [Bandcamp]
Vali – Skogslandskap (2013) [Bandcamp]
Harm Wulf – There’s Honey In the Soil, So We Wait for the Till (2013) [Bandcamp]
Divine Circles – Oblivion Songs (2014) [Bandcamp]