INTRO: Last month, I read this Decibel feature on neofolk which got me thinking a little more about the genre. It's always just kind of been accepted (if not necessarily embraced) as part of the metal canon but how did it get there? Was it because a handful of black metal bands went puss in 1996-1997 and picked up acoustics? Is it like when Michael Jordan played baseball for those couple years but he'll always be a basketball player? (no, it's not even remotely like that). Or is it that there is an inherent symbiosis in the DNA of Heavy Metal and that of neofolk? Sure, both dig dark ambiance, medieval music, the occasional bow chugging sesh, and totalitarian semiotics (wolves and shit), but there's got to be more to the relationship between these strange bedfellows than that.
Hypothesis: I call bullshit on the Neofolk-as-metal-genre phenomenon. How can you have a genre simultaneously rooted in and inextricably linked to industrial, classical, Northern-Eastern Europe indigenous folk music, and heavy metal? Aren't these mutually exclusive to a degree? Don't get me wrong, I've got as much of this stuff clogging up my shelves and iPod as the next guy. I'm man enough to admit I've got love for Amber Asylum. But what I don't get is why they crop up in the metal dialogue in the same breath as Agalloch, say. Just cos they got cellos and covered 'Kneel to the Cross'? Can someone enlighten me?
Let's look at the data.
From my analysis, you've got three main food neofolk food groups, none of which sound like they have anything to do with one another or with metal. Maybe there is more to this taxonomy, but writing this blog is a voluntary thing and Revenge is on tonight.
ENCHANTED FOREST NEOFOLK
ENCHANTED FOREST NEOFOLK
Here we have Musk Ox, that one album by Ulver, and dozens of other dudes who can completely shred the classical axe. This is my go-to stuff for dinner time or showing my 11-month-old how to whittle a wolf totem. Musk Ox has been garnering attention for a couple of years through endorsements by some heavy hitters, like members of the aforementioned Agalloch. He plays unambiguously beautiful guitar accented by piano, chants, and some atmospherics. Of all the bands in this post, Ulver is perhaps the most varied in that they went from raw black metal, to straight-laced nylon string guitar folk, to Shadows of the Sun, which boasts a theremin, a string quartet, and a cameo by Fennesz of all people. We could spend all day debating how deftly they made these transitions.
I'm going to lump Wardruna and their ilk into the Enchanted Forest neofolk group too. Bands who draw inspiration from traditional folks songs of pagan tribes, vikings, gypsies, that sort of thing. Wardruna is the guy from Gorgoroth playing didgeridoo, chanting, and using all sorts of shit to lead the listener through a musical journey about runes, according to Wikipedia and the record sleeve. I'm feeling it. Everyone knows runes are metal as fvck. Hate Forest had Battlefields which co-opted ostensibly Ukrainian folk traditions (I say ostensibly because I can't begin to imagine what real Ukrainian folk music would sound like) and welded it onto a black metal template. Drudkh did the same thing on Autumn Aurora. These are both pretty boring records in spite of Drudkh's almost unimpeachable discography.
Some 'Enchanted Forest' bands get shoehorned into metal via the 'dark ambient' tag. Amber Asylum, for instance. They (she) sound like a newborn fawn drinking dew from the paw of a benevolent giant. But a newborn fawn with a choice contact list as evidenced by callabos from John Cobbet, Steve Von Till et. al. Sometimes Amber Asylum sounds like Enya only more miserable but that is the risk you run dabbling in neofolk. Once we're in the 'Dark Ambient' farthing, we're treading dangerously goth-y territory. In a few short moves via Dead Can Dance and Fields of the Nephilim we're at My Dying Bride and Anathema. NO ONE WANTS TO BE THERE.
It seems unfair to only have Empyrium and Hekate in this category since they're both German, but that's just how the data sorts out. Empyrium followed a decidedly Ulverian trajectory by releasing a couple folk-inflected metal records before going all in on elaborate coiffuture and singing in rounds. Neun Welten is another one; basically the same thing as Empyrium without the vocals. They too are German.
Hekate is some of the most ridiculous shit you've ever heard. Seriously, one time I listened to them mowing my lawn in the middle of the hot ass day while half drunk and I just had to sleep off the whole experience. It was too much. It's almost completely unlistenable. I'm not talking about Gnaw Their Tongues or Blue Sabbath Black Cheer unlistenable, this is a completely different dimension of unlistenable. On their latest album (Die Welt something or other), Hekate covers Sol Invictus's 'In my Garden,' basically taking a perfectly lovely, somber folk tune and running it through some kind of Johnny Depp-as-Willy Wonka everlasting gobstopper ring modulator or something. I mean, I'm exaggerating but you get the idea. When Hekate are at their most subdued, they sound like some of that hyper-melodic, panglobal music you hear when you're copping a falafel from the Middle Eastern takeout.
This is your Death in June, your Sol Invictus and what have you. Lots of people say Death in June/Sol Invictus invented neofolk but I'm not buying it. They usually sound like Billy Bragg on ludes after reading a bunch of William Blake. With that awful electro-acoustic guitar tone where the brightness is up too high and you're in a coffee shop and it smells like pachoulli farts and someone is singing about dandelion wine. I'm not complaining that they are in the metal club. It means I can listen to them with a clear conscience. But who decided to let them in?
CONCLUSION: Data inconclusive. This exercise has been a complete waste of my time and yours. It has answered exactly zero of my questions. And so I turn to you, consumers, to guide me. Help me understand. Lest we fall down the 'trve metal vs. untrve' rhetorical wormhole, let's keep the question to 'Who put all this flute in my metal and why am I OK with it?'
To get you started, here is a four pack of my favorite neofolk records. I realize all these are pretty safe picks but they encompass most of what I discussed here for the uninitiated. As a bonus at no extra charge I'm throwing in that Hekate album you just need to hear to believe.
Download SOL INVICTUS - Lex Talionis
Download MUSK OX - Musk Ox
Download WARDRUNA - Runaljod-gap var Ginnunga
Download AMBER ASYLUM - Frozen in Amber
Download HEKATE - Die Welt Der Dunklen Garten