A beginner's guide to folk metal in five essential albums

Classic albums by Skyclad, Amorphis and Primordial
(Image credit: Noise / Relapse / Metal Blade)

Fairport Convention started playing old English folk music with electric guitars and drums in the late 60s - an influence which quickly rubbed off on Led Zeppelin - while the folk rock of Jethro Tull was a key inspiration on Iron Maiden. And yet, folk metal took a long time to gestate; even after its birth, Skyclad virtually had the genre to themselves for years. Ireland provided a noble spearhead with Cruachan, Waylander, Geasa and Primordial, and by the mid-00s the genre was the toast of the European festival circuit, with Finntroll, Korkipklaani, Ensiferum and Turisas confirming Finland as a prolific stronghold. Here we tell the strange tale of folk metal across five crucial records.

Metal Hammer line break

Skyclad - Jonah’s Ark (1993)

With metal’s first full-time violinist, lyrics about environmental catastrophe and medieval pagan aesthetics, Skyclad were marked out as batshit eccentrics in the early 90s, but they were just years ahead of their time. From the insurgent thrash-with-fiddle of Thinking Allowed? to the playful but vicious flamenco metal of Bewilderbeast, Jonah’s Ark was the first album to confirm the Nottingham sextet as a distinctive, accessible, versatile and forward-thinking force for good.

Amorphis - Tales From The Thousand Lakes (1994)

With an atmosphere that crackles like a campfire on, well, a Black Winter Day, the Finns made a giant leap from their gnarly death-doom roots with this quirky masterwork. Alongside ‘70s prog Moog solos, ancient folk melodies seductively twinkle in the gloom on frosty classics like Drowned Maid, The Castaway and Forgotten Sunrise, with enigmatic lyrics taken from Finland’s epic mythological poem the Kalevala lending another level of antique mystique.

The Lord Weird Slough Feg - Twilight Of The Idols (1998)

Unsurprisingly for such a young nation, American folk metal never really took off. The best examples have a whiff of the comic book about them - none more joyously than these freak-flagbearers, whose passion for Celtic mythology came via 2000 AD’s barbarian wanderer Sláine. This second album bangs trad metal and folk heads together with gleeful abandon, yielding such irresistibly epic singalongs as The Wickerman, Highlander and High Season II.

Týr - Eric The Red (2003)

Drawing on traditions previously unheard in metal, Faroe Islanders Týr assimilated their native folk music into an epic, progressive framework, making this second album stand out as both excitingly new and authentically ancient. Strange and beautiful, Eric The Red guaranteed Týr recognition and respect far beyond their homeland’s narrow boundaries, while their arrangement of seventeenth century classic The Wild Rover wrestled the tune back off the rugby club karaoke circuit.

Primordial - To The Nameless Dead (2007)

‘Folk metal’ sits uneasily as a useful descriptor for Eire’s favourite sons. It fits, though, not just via themes of nationhood, rolling 6/8 rhythms, acoustic chords, or even guitarist Ciáran’s immersion in traditional Irish music. Primordial’s windswept, emotionally charged metal is just so existentially ingrained with the dirt and sadness that distinguishes the most evocative trad folk, counterpointed against their own magisterial take on black metal fundamentals to stunning effect.

Chris Chantler

Chris has been writing about heavy metal since 2000, specialising in true/cult/epic/power/trad/NWOBHM and doom metal at now-defunct extreme music magazine Terrorizer. Since joining the Metal Hammer famileh in 2010 he developed a parallel career in kids' TV, winning a Writer's Guild of Great Britain Award for BBC1 series Little Howard's Big Question as well as writing episodes of Danger Mouse, Horrible Histories, Dennis & Gnasher Unleashed and The Furchester Hotel. His hobbies include drumming (slowly), exploring ancient woodland and watching ancient sitcoms.