Metal and its sub-genres are known to be overflowing with bands, and sometimes it can be a pain to separate the wheat from the chaff. That’s why the wonderful fellows at The Metal Observer have taken it upon themselves to guide you through these vast mazes of riffs and solos. The task was given as such; “tell us some of your favorite albums within sub-genre X, meaning timeless classics or newly uncovered gems”. We began this series with the slow and heavy, touching upon the highs and lows of doom metal, descended to the depths of black metal, before moshing through the pit of thrash.
In this series’ fourth installment, the journey takes us through the deepest fjords and the lushest forests, arriving at the both joyful and somber world of folk and viking metal. Should we be drawn and quartered for implying viking metal is an actual sub-genre? Did we neglect to mention your one-man instrumental harp metal project? Are Turisas and Korpiklaani way overrated? Or perhaps you agree with some of our choices? Let us know in the comment section!
1) Bathory – Hammerheart (1990)
This is the reason that everyone loves Vikings. While Blood Fire Death began to introduce the epic pacing and lyrics about Vikings, it wasn’t until Hammerheart, in 1990, that Bathory perfected the style. This truly is Quorthon’s magnum opus, which is saying a lot, because Bathory’s discography is lined with solid gold. Hammerheart is the sound of glorious war played to the tune of metal; a brilliantly sweeping and devastating album. It should also be mentioned that “One Rode to Asa Bay” actually received airplay on MTV. Imagine seeing that, youngsters?
– Shawn Miller
2) Finntroll – Nattfödd (2004)
While folk metal is all the rage these days, there was a time when it was somewhat strange and foreign. Sure, Skyclad and Cruachan had been peddling their mixtures of folk melodies and heavy metal for years, but Finntroll proved to be one of the leaders in a strong wave of folk metal bands that stormed through Europe towards the beginning of the new millennium. Rather than just being a band with a fiddle or a violin, Finntroll incorporated humppa into their sound, which is a polka style that is local to Finland. This broke open the field for the grand surge of folk metal bands dallying in everything from Middle Eastern to Asian to Native American elements. While the band’s other albums are quite good, Nattfödd shows the band’s grand marriage of humppa folk and blackened heavy metal at its best. Truly an oddity that must be witnessed to be understood.
– Shawn Miller
3) Moonsorrow – Voimasta Ja Kunniasta (2001)
Epic is an overused word, but when it comes to Voimasta Ja Kunniasta, the term is definitely applicable. Moonsorrow tell a grand tale throughout this album and they take their time doing it. All intros are long and the mood is carefully set with nature sounds, crackling campfires and beautiful keyboard melodies before the Metal kicks in for real. When it does, there is no turning back. Skillfully the Finns stir together aggressiveness, grief and bombast and the resulting brew is strong. Sharp black metal guitars and desperate shrieks are contrasted with mouth harp, choirs, stunning melodies and a spacious production. Well-placed spoken parts and sound effects add even more to the narrative feel of it all. Furthermore, all tracks but the intro exceed the seven minute mark, as the band builds up every song gradually toward crescendo after crescendo. Altogether, this is one of the most immersive albums out there. If you pay attention, you will be sucked into Moonsorrow’s epic saga and who knows if there is a way out for you?
– Adam Westlund
4) Primordial – To The Nameless Dead (2007)
Irish Primordial have carved their very own niche within the metal scene, starting out as folk influenced black metal and slowly morphing into an entity that defies classification, instead erecting monolithic albums such as To the Nameless Dead, which are built on pure, raw emotion and atmosphere. Especially this album refuses to conform to the paradigms of folk or pagan metal and lives by its defiant Irish spirit that is instilled into each of the hymns contained.
– Alex Melzer
5) Ensiferum – Ensiferum (2001)
Using the sound of Amorphis as a stepping-stone and adding a few elements, Ensiferum immediately found their own niche in the folk metal genre. With lightning-fast lead guitars, quality growling and well-placed clean vocals and choirs Ensiferum here convey the image of a warband traversing a snow-clad forest, while retelling legends of the past. In many ways, this is the most accessible you can make a sound that originates from extreme metal. The basis is melodic death metal and there a few even darker touches, but the folk influences, the power metal epicness and the relative melodiousness of Jari Mäenpää’s growling all make this album an ideal gateway for those who have previously only enjoyed the more accessible side of the metal genre. However, it is the quality of the song-writing that makes this album so much more than just an introduction. Every track is splendid on its own – together they create one hell of a ride.
– Adam Westlund
6) Primordial – The Gathering Wilderness (2005)
The label “folk metal” is often associated with catchy drinking songs and jolly romps with plastic swords and novelty armor galore. Bucking the trend, Ireland’s pride Primordial started out playing obscure black metal in the late 1980’s, before refining a sound that would reach its pinnacle with 2005’s dark epos The Gathering Wilderness. The album is rife with the obsidian aesthetics of black metal, crossed with a glorious melodic edge and headed by the magnificent pipes of frontman Alan Averill. Channeling the tragic past of their homeland, the monolithic “The Coffin Ships” is the breathtaking centerpiece of what might pagan metal’s finest moment.
– Ailo Ravna
7) Týr – Erik The Red (2003)
Some may label a band from the remote Faroe Isles an exotic band that lives off their unusual location, yet Týr quickly proved that their unique blend of power metal, heavy metal, some progressive elements and lots of influences from Faroese folklore has enough quality to stands on its pure musical merit. Erik the Red is brimming with energy and is a near perfect amalgamation of their influences.
– Alex Melzer
8) Moonsorrow – Kivenkantaja (2003)
Moonsorrow’s Kivenkantaja must surely be one of the most important albums in the pagan metal sub-genre, because it blew a big fresh breath of life into a realm where a lot of good bands were doing what do best without doing much more. I also think it got a lot of people interested in this type of metal and one of the big reasons, besides great songwriting, melodies and storytelling, is the atmosphere. Kivenkantaja, just like all their albums, can draw you into the world they created and leave you transfixed throughout, when you emerge on the other side of the album it feels like you drifted off for only five minutes. Above all, with their at times gentle mix of elegant folk nuances and crushing riffs, Moonsorrow personified the word ‘epic’ like few have managed before and since.
– Jean-Pierre DuToit
9) Månegarm – Vargstenen (2007)
Viking metal has strong roots in Sweden and Månegarm have been flying its banner high since 1995 and have left their very own stamp on it. Not only are the lyrics in an archaic form of Swedish, but their well integrated use of a violin adds an extra dimension to their already versatile sound, which uses both harsh and clear vocals, while firmly walking on the tightrope between heaviness and melodies, demand and accessibility. Vargstenen is one of Sweden’s finest hours in the viking metal world!
– Alex Melzer
10) Heidevolk – Walhalla Wacht (2008)
Many folk metal bands either use female vocals and/or growls and black metal rasps in the vocal department, Dutch Heidevolk bring in two deep, powerful, clear voices that round off the voluminous folk metal of Walhalla Wacht. Keeping folk instruments to a minimum, the band uses the dual vocals to add depth to their very varied and original compositions, which are immediately accessible, but reveal new details over time, with repeated listens. Using Dutch lyrics, they create an overall experience that to date is unparalleled.
– Alex Melzer
11) Asmegin – Hin Vordende Sod & Sø (2003)
20) Arkona – Goi, Rode, Goi! (2009)
39) Enslaved – Blodhemn (1998)
40) Ancient Rites – Rubicon (2006)