Thursday, March 17, 2011

What in the Helheim Is "Viking Metal", Anyway?

Folk Metal Week: Part 4
A Brief Explanation of the Terms "Viking Metal" and "Pagan Metal"

In nearly every review I write (or maybe all of them), I include a discussion of what genres it fits into. I think it paints a better picture than simply a rote description of the music, and allows me to highlight how a particular album fits that genre, and what sets it apart. When I was first getting into the more extreme side of metal, it was helpful for me to read similar discussions. It was how I learned the difference between black metal and death metal, and eventually the somewhat fuzzier difference between sludge metal and doom metal. But there are some that tend to still puzzle me. And, in fact, some professional metal journalists don't know the meaning of the terms.

The term "Viking metal" gets thrown around a lot. In the latest issue of Decibel, the feature article describes Amon Amarth as a Viking metal band. And not just in passing, either. To anyone who actually knows what Viking metal is, that's a laughable/frustrating inaccuracy. As far as they've grown from their early sound (which isn't too far), they are still quite clearly a melodic death metal band.

Blood Fire DeathThe term "Viking metal" means more than simply metal with lyrics about Vikings and their gods. It refers to a style of music based in black metal, but with more emphasis on a dramatic sound, rather than the dark "necro" sound of old-school black metal. It often features clean vocals and keyboard accompaniment, and a strong folk music influence. Bathory is often considered the first Viking metal band, with their album Blood Fire Death. (This was of course after they were the first black metal band.) Others include Thyrfing, Helheim, and early Enslaved.

The term is somewhat useful, but extremely problematic. There are enough bands practicing the style, and it is distinctive enough, to warrant having the label. But the emphasis on lyrical content is, in a word, stupid. I've always rejected the idea that lyrical content can be decisive in categorizing musical genres. For this reason, I assert there can be Christian black metal (e.g. Crimson Moonlight). Anyone who asserts otherwise is using a ridiculous, unhelpful definition of the term. Most people just want to know what the music sounds like when they think of genre. And stylistically, Viking metal is really just a blend of folk influence with symphonic black metal, another recognized sub-subgenre. Originally, symphonic black metal was done with keyboards, not actual symphonies, so there's very little difference.

Viides Luku: HavitettyRelated to this is the label of pagan metal, which is thrown around less often but still seems to pop up. It, again, puts emphasis on lyrical content--here, on pre-Christianization pagan religions. Stylistically, it's just black metal with folk music and instrumentation. Why the term "folk black metal" isn't just as useful, I'm not sure. Negură Bunget may be the best known example of pagan metal, as far as an actual good example, but others include Nokturnal Mortum and Arkona.

Of course, neither of these terms has a firm, widely understood definition, so feel free to disagree with me. But these are the most widely held, useful understandings of Viking metal and pagan metal. With all the folk influence creeping into almost all brands of black metal (see Winterfylleth or Cobalt), they may become even less useful in the future.

1 comment:

  1. If Amon Amarth is a Viking metal band, why isn't Unleashed? They sing about Vikings just as often. Why isn't Nile Egyptian metal?

    I agree with you on that point. It bothers the hell out of me to hear people describe Amon Amarth as Viking metal.