“It’s OK to smile on stage. You don’t have to be that grim, über-serious heavy metal player. It’s very important to have fun.” In some spheres of heavy metal, the above phrase strays beyond taboo and into blasphemy territory. It’s not just the more-grim-than-thou extreme subgenres that like to keep a straight face, with even bands like Manowar and chart-topping German power metal vampires Powerwolf maintaining an implacably smile-free image.
Yet the above quote from Ensiferum’s Petri Lindroos is probably at the core of why they, and other bands like them from the folk metal school, have become strikingly popular.
“There’s a little bit of a darker side to all the bands, but it’s pretty much music to drink beer to,” Petri elaborates. “It’s meant to be fun; it’s not like when you go see some satanic black metal band that you see people holding their hands together and dancing in circles – that doesn’t quite fit – but in our gigs, it’s fine.”
And we know how metal fans love drinking beer. The recent ongoing success of folk metal as a whole, however, is slightly more complicated than fun and beer. For one, it has never really had the industry or press on its side, and yet quickly developed a sizeable, bonkers-committed following that spans multiple territories.
Arising as a force in metal in the mid-00s, folk metal – led by the Finnish warband of Turisas, Korpiklaani, Ensiferum and Finntroll – came at a time when the traditions of heavy metal seemed out of fashion. Major names of the time eschewed the genre’s conventions, making some highly original music – and many new fans – in the process, but alienating some of the traditionalists. Folk metal was the equal and opposite reaction, stretching back into the past, both in metal terms and in its folky inspiration./o:p
“People also want to go back to their roots,” Petri postulates as to why a subgenre rooted in such old music found an audience among modern metalheads. “I also like to check out new bands, what’s coming up, but still I also go back to listen to albums that were made 20, 25 years ago. Maybe it’s something like that.”
While they were part of the first wave to ‘make it’ in popular terms, Ensiferum and their peers were far from the first wave of folk metal in and of itself. Bands as varied as Skyclad, Mithotyn and Amorphis laid the foundations for others to follow, in the process introducing the core aural concept to the subculture. But the widespread popularity did not come to those bands as it has their offspring.
“The music itself is very similar to those bands, but still we have a not-so-serious aspect to it; having fun, dancing in circles during the shows and stuff like that – I haven’t seen that happening in any shows by Amorphis, for example,” Petri speculates as to why they found more popular success. “It could be that, but also that we are willing to go wherever we are asked to come play a show. We haven’t said ‘no’ to pretty much anything, so far. Going to new places is the cool thing of being in a band, and we’re running out of places!”
The ‘fun’ aspect could, in hindsight, be declared a masterstroke of ingenious career building. Unfortunately, according to Ensiferum, that declaration would be giving it a little more credit than it is due, as it seems to simply be a reflection of personality.
“We actually never decided that one, it just happened at some show many, many years ago,” Petri says. “Some of us were smiling on stage, and someone saw that and was like, ‘Hey, you smiled!’ ‘Yeah? So what?’ To us, that’s the natural way of being on stage; it was never settled on any backstage rule, it just happened, and it’s been our thing after that, and I’m very sure it’s going to continue to be.”
Folk metal is now way past the point it can simply be sustained by beer,fun, beer, warpaint and more beer (although those all remain important). If this were simply a gimmick that had attracted some fans bored of metal’s more mainstream contingents, folk metal would be dying on its arse. It isn’t. If anything, it is only getting stronger. And the reason it lasted beyond the novelty value is simple.
“We take the music very seriously, and we put a lot of time into it,” says Petri. “That’s the reason there are always such long gaps between the albums. In the worst case, we’re checking out the songs for a year, year-and-a-half, two years; getting them finally into a condition that we would dare take them into a studio. We put a lot of effort into it, a lot of time. The music has to be good; it’s not just that you’re entertaining live, the music also has to be breathtaking in what we can do, and we do that seriously. But you need to be able to have fun with it.”
The question is, however, what is the limit? Could a folk metal band, like a warpainted, kilted answer to Slipknot, end up becoming genuinely huge?
“There’s the chance of it,” says Petri. “We just need the perfect timing – the right place at the right time – and the one song that makes you really huge. I don’t know if we’ve done that yet, but it’s coming.”/o:p
FOLK SHIT UP
Some of the other folk metal mainstays taking over the scene right now…
The undisputed kings of boozed-up heavy metal fun and frolics, The Korps are another jewel in Finland’s folksy crown, having unleashed so many jigworthy party anthems in the last few years they could soundtrack a Hobbit frat party. Expect new album Noita to contain plenty more references to drinking and general merrymaking.
The Swiss ear-worm merchants are on a hell of a roll, with 2014’s Origins offering up yet another slab of hurdy gurdy-inspired anthems fit to drink mead and merrily wage war to. Expect them to continue co-leading folk metal’s frontlines for a long while yet.
He may have Axl Rose’d the hell out of second album Time, but for those who waited the eight years(!) between that and his awesome debut, Jari Mäenpää installed himself as one of the scene’s most grandiose-minded souls. Whenever Time’s follow-up finally lands, except it to sound bigger than Smaug’s farts.
Arguably, it was 2004 banger Trollhammeren that first alerted the metal world at large to the brilliant world of folk metal. The Finns have only grown in popularity since, and have brought a small army of mates with them through the very same door they kicked down./o:p