Say the words 'folk metal', and what comes to mind? We’d guess Vikings, the cold winds of the North, and bands like Scandinavian Pagans Heilung, who dress in animal pelts and use instruments made from human bones. But every culture has their own folklore and folk music, and there are bands all around the world who are incorporating their own cultures into metal – from Orphaned Land, who mix Middle Eastern folk music with death metal, to The Hu, who use traditional Mongolian instruments like the Tovshuur.
We’ve collected some of the widest-ranging folk metal bands from all over the world – from South America to China, Russia to Tunisia – who prove that just about every country can take their individual musical traditions, and use them to go exceptionally hard.
Cemican, a name which means 'the duality of life and death' in the Mexican language Nahuatl, bring indigenous traditions to thrash metal. If you stick on their latest single Yóok 'ol kaab Maya, you’ll hear an airy flute drifting over the top of the melody, lulling you into a false sense of security before thunderous drums kick in. Every song sounds like a variation on a war cry, calling upon indigenous people to fight for their rights and their land.
From the mountains of South America comes Curare, named after the type of plants used to make poison arrow darts. In their music, the Andean flute takes centre stage, replacing what would generally be the vocals or guitar work in Western metal. The vocals range from melodic to guttural, and Curare often combine all the elements together in a beautiful, chaotic climax, leaving the flute floating over the top of the mix. They recently celebrated 20 years in the industry, and also released their own range of beer.
Kaatayra make music that you can get absolutely lost in: atmospheric black metal with acoustic instruments and Brazilian folk elements, all mixed together to create a sound that's somehow as ethereal and delicate as it is heavy and oppressive. The acoustic guitars trickle over the top, reminiscent of the rainfall in the Amazon rainforest.
Zmey Gorynich (Russia)
You aren’t supposed to take this band seriously. It would be incredibly difficult to anyway, what with their bizarre mixture of dance, grindcore and Russian folk music. They often perform in traditional Russian peasant garbs, and get the audience to dance arm-in-arm in circles. Consisting of figures well known in the Russian metal scene (Rys from Ориана, Mityay from Chatalhüyük, Malafay from Smothered Bowels and more), the band treat all the genres they use with respect, and weave them into each song masterfully, resulting in a bright, brilliant and bonkers tapestry of sound.
Znous' band name means 'species', a Tunisian slang word used to describe and insult people who deviate from the norm, and they are likely the most political band on this list. Their logo is a Hamsa hand flipping you off, and their lyrics deal with political and social inequalities in post-revolutionary Tunisia. In their music, distinctly Arabian melodies float through the driving drumbeats and chugging guitars. They’re as much influenced by hardcore punk as metal, creating a truly energetic sound. Their upcoming third album, the release date of which is yet to be confirmed, will feature their own fans performing backing vocals alongside the band – making their DIY, community-driven roots abundantly clear.
Arka’n Asrafokor (Togo, Africa)
One band who occasionally sing in their native Ewe language are the African metallers Arka’n Asrafokor, who call their music ‘Asrafocore’, as ‘asrafo’ means ‘warrior’ in Ewe. They see themselves as a precolonial Warrior Spirit thrown into the present world. The band make use of French and English alongside their native language, and hope to reach as many people as possible. They aim to champion the unity of humanity against those who try to destroy, something which is heard in their exploration of themes such as fighting global oppression and dehumanisation. They are also one of very metal bands from Africa who make heavy use of traditional African instruments, dedicating two of their members to playing a selection of hand drums and other percussion, alongside their traditional kit drummer.
The perfect blend of harmony and brutality, Aeternam’s vocals sound truly otherworldly. This is all underpinned by a thick sound of drums and thrashy, chugging guitars. But they also maintain a level of delicacy in the melodies, always leaving something a little lighter for your ears to cling onto. They’ve collaborated with Kobi Farhi of Orphaned Land, which, if you’re looking for good folk metal, is one hell of an accreditation.
Thy Worshiper (Poland / Ireland)
While Thy Worshiper currently reside in Ireland, the members all originally hail from Poland. Their sound draws heavily on the folk music traditions of Eastern Europe, and their lyrics are all in Polish. They have an impressively menacing atmosphere, expressed through chanting and hypnotic guitar riffs. This isn’t music for the faint of heart, but it’s a dark journey that rewards as well as challenges.
Senyawa take an experimental approach, mixing Javanese mythology and instrumentation with flavours from different heavy music genres. The first few droning notes of their 2018 album SUJUD will ring out low enough to rattle your speakers – but it’s all done through Rully Shabara’s powerfully low vocal chords. When instruments are used, they're predominantly homemade, created from tools used in rural Indonesia.
Vengeful Spectre (China)
Arguably the heaviest band on this list, it’s debatable that they should even be on it. But at the heart of all the riffs and blastbeats, Vengeful Spectre pay homage to Chinese mythology and history. They're part of the tremendous black metal scene in China, and their lyrics are inspired by Chinese myths and legends: their debut self-titled album is a six-chapter story of Eastern swordsmen concerning war, conspiracy, betrayal and revenge. Amidst their wall-of-sound heaviness, you’ll often find a Chinese pipa (lute-esque instrument) or dizi (a bamboo flute), placed so high in the mix that it’s impossible to ignore.
If Vengeful Spectre are the newcomers of the Chinese black metal scene, Zuriaake are the veterans. One of the longest active groups in Chinese black metal history (China’s black metal scene is especially illustrious), Zuriaake have long since championed the metal scene in China, saying that the long-haired metal look is reminiscent of ancient Chinese warriors. There is a hollow sound to Zuriaake’s music, as if it’s being played in the expanses of an ancient cavern. Their music is ancestry in action, the sound of a slumbering history being brought back to life.