Connecting Metal to Culture: Unity in Disparity

Connecting Metal to Culture: Unity in Disparity

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ISBN-13: 9781783207008
Publisher: Intellect, Limited
Publication date: 05/15/2017
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 250
Product dimensions: 6.60(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Mika Elovaara is an independent scholar, writer, and soccer coach.

Bryan Bardine is associate professor of English at the University of Dayton.

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Thor and Trolls, Flutes and Fiddles: 'Folk' in Metal

Mika Elovaara, Ph.D.


The origins and popularity of Heavy Metal or more recently, 'Metal, have been discussed in a variety of works – from Deena Weinstein's seminal Heavy Metalthe Music and Its Culture (1991) to Ian Christe's popular The Sound of the Beast – The Complete Headbanging History of Heavy Metal (2004), Sam Dunn's documentary film Metal – A Headbangers Journey (2005) as well as his TV series Metal Evolution (2011), and various other titles in the past 30-plus years. Even though academia has increasingly started to pay attention to Metal and subsequently, more scholarship on Metal is being published, one of the main elements of Metal that has heavily influenced the dissemination and popularity of Metal – its appeal to the folk, due to its 'folk' elements – is still rarely discussed. In the greater Metal scene, Folk Metal has a peculiar place; fans of the subgenre see it as a representative of the truly authentic side of Metal due to its folk essence, and interestingly, Folk Metal has also become globally popular and yet retained its authenticity. So as not to confuse matters, however, it is important to note that we are not narrowing our discussion to Folk Metal. This chapter is about 'folk' in Metal. Folk Metal is a globally popular subgenre of Metal, but the elements of 'folk' in Metal go far beyond the confines of the subgenre.

This chapter offers a look into 'folk' in Metal holistically – for the various different elements of 'folk' in the music and its culture. More specifically, we will discuss 'folk' in Metal from four different perspectives: (1) 'folk' as demonstrated by the inclusion of folk instruments in some Folk Metal bands' music; (2) 'folk' with regards to the language of performance; (3) 'folk' as a thematic element in lyrics, and perhaps most broadly; and (4) 'folk' as an inherent ingredient in Metal. With a foundation in the broader field of Cultural Studies and previous Metal research, this chapter also utilizes empirical data gathered between June 2008 and May 2012 in a research project titled 'The Meaning of Metal - From Margins to Mainstream'. During the four-year period, close to 1000 fans from over 50 countries responded to an anonymous, semi-structured online questionnaire that included 30 questions. Also during the same time period, I interviewed over 50 people working in the Metal industry, either as artists, promoters, or record label owners. Understandably, only a limited amount of data and information gathered in the project can be used in one book chapter; further analyses and discussions of the material may be forthcoming.

Whereas the word 'folk' has acquired some connotations, especially in colloquial language, that often lead people to associate 'folk' with primarily something in or from the past (e.g., folklore refers to tales of olden times, folk music uses instruments preceding the electrical era, etc.), the denotations of the word 'folk' without any qualifiers still refer to a group of people of a certain location or community, or people in general. Scholars of Metal have often noted that among the most appealing aspects of Metal to its fans are a general lack of a commercial image, perceived authenticity (often equated with greater substance than what is seen in mainstream music), and disassociation with mainstream values – that the music and its culture appeal to 'ordinary' people; this all implicitly suggests that many scholars have, in fact, already discovered that Metal has distinct elements that make it appeal to 'folk' around the world.

To summarize, 'folk' in Metal comes from the great variety of denotations and connotations of the word 'folk' – whether it be folk as 'people in general' (Collins 1982: 549), or the derivatives of folklore, folk tale, and folk music. While Metal has attracted a lot of attention from scholars in the past five-to-ten years, folk elements in Metal, whether in Folk Metal or in Metal in general, remain enigmatic within the field. What follows is a look into this unknown area, in hopes of uncovering some key elements of Metal music and culture.

'Folk' as Demonstrated by the Inclusion of Folk Instruments in a Band's Music

The musical folk aspects of Metal are, perhaps, best characterized by a merging of 'universally folk' instruments and an eclectic culture-specific diversity of instruments, combined with rock instruments and a characteristic 'metal' sound. Among the most common 'folk' instruments in Folk Metal are the violin, accordion, tin whistle, and flute. Furthermore, and appropriately to the individual 'folk' authenticity of the genre, culture-specific folk instruments, such as the Finnish kantele or the hurdy-gurdy used by the Swiss Eluveitie, are also present in the array of instruments in Folk Metal. Because of the peculiar instruments specific to the genre, Folk Metal bands often have more members (even up to ten) than the most common four or five members of a rock band, although some bands in the genre resort to using keyboards or synthesizers to replicate the sound of folk instruments in the absence of folk instruments.

To offer an example of the sound world of Folk Metal, one could start off with the Swiss Eluveitie or the Finnish Turisas. For example, 'Primordial Breath' from Eluveitie's album Slania treats you to their characteristic sound, utilizing a variety of folk instruments in their music. The end result is a fascinating combination of traditional Celtic folk melodies with melodic Death Metal – a musical menu item that is always enthusiastically received around the world when Eluveitie performs live. Another distinct musical example of Folk Metal could be picked from Turisas, the Finnish band who, like Eluveitie, tours around the world regularly. Turisas's Folk Metal is representative of different kind of 'folk, in that it pays homage to the history and myths of the Vikings, therefore often earning the label 'Viking Metal' or 'Battle Metal'. Whichever it is, or even if it is neither, the elements of folk music are heard in the strong presence of the accordion and the violin, both of which are played by classically trained musicians on the band.

Challenging the stereotype of Metal musicians being self-taught guitar heroes, which is more thoroughly discussed in Kevin Ebert's Chapter 8, Olli Vänskä, the violinist on Turisas and the son of Osmo Vänskä, the Finnish-born Musical Director of the Minnesota Orchestra, is a graduate of both the Sibelius High School and the Sibelius Academy, a prestigious Musical Institution of higher education in Finland. According to Matias Nygard, the lead singer and one of the main songwriters for Turisas, their becoming a 'Battle Metal' band or a Folk Metal band was never intentional, definitely not planned. Instead, he said that the reason why he plays Metal has more to do with the environment he grew up in than anything inherently 'Metal' in his nature. When discussing his artistic career, he said that he could just as well have ended up in a reggae band or a rap group, if the environment and cultural influences had shaped him that way (Nygard 10 July 2010 interview). This further supports the notion that Metal musicians represent 'folk' rather than a specific group within 'the folk', and that the culture of 'the folk' influences the career decisions of 'the folk' as well. More on that a little later on in this chapter.

'Folk' as a Thematic Element in Lyrics

Song lyrics are, perhaps, the most scrutinized part of Metal music and its culture. The scrutiny of Metal lyrics since the 1980s Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) hearings has been well documented and thoroughly discussed both in the popular media and in research literature, even encyclopedias. When it comes to Folk Metal,

broadly speaking, lyrics in folk metal often deal with nature, pre-modern themes, pre-Christian themes, fantasy, mythology and historical events. Echoing Weinstein's conclusion that there is no single dominant theme in Metal, this disparate topical range suggests that it is difficult, if not impossible to exhaustively and conclusively explain what folk metal songs are about lyrically. (Elovaara 2013: 42)

Besides Folk Metal, one could argue that there are lyrics in many, if not most subgenres of Metal that appeal to 'folk' A holistic and thorough examination of Metal lyrics surely would require a book of its own, but for the purposes of introducing the idea 'folk' in Metal, let us look at a few examples.

In the golden era of the 'original Heavy Metal' Judas Priest wrote the song 'Parental Guidance' in which teenage fans tell their parents that they don't need their parental guidance. While recognizing that song lyrics should never be taken at face value and interpreted only literally, it is fairly explicit that at least one of the interpretations to these lyrics is teenage defiance of parental authority. As simplistic as it may sound, in terms of 'folk' elements in Metal, the theme of rebellion as a teenager certainly could be seen as one – teenage rebellion is relatable to the youth, to many young 'folks' around the world and therefore one could argue that 'Parental Guidance' works as one example of how themes of 'folk' have been present in Metal from the early years. To gain some range and perspective on the topic, let us look at another, very different example from non-Folk Metal to illustrate 'folk' as a thematic element in Metal lyrics. At least to their fans, the Finnish band Swallow the Sun is known for their uniquely powerful sounds with drastic changes in tempo according to the mood expressed in the eloquent and carefully crafted lyrics. As both Juha Raivio, the main songwriter of the band, and Mikko Kotamaki, the lead singer of the band attested in our 2010 interview, Swallow the Sun lyrics, are often inspired by loss, grief, anger – many of the fundamental human experiences and emotions (Raivio 5 March 2010 interview; Kotamaki 5 March 2010 interview). Discussing his ability to adopt lyrics that someone else has written and sing them with conviction and true emotion, Kotamaki stated that singing about the burden of loss, of losing a close person, and the difficulty of dealing with emotional agony is a human experience, relatable to anyone, no matter if you are a musician or not (Kotamaki 28 June 2012 personal communication). Dealing with intensive emotions is certainly a shared human experience, expressed in the song by the speaker in many of his lines, for example, 'hell is here', and 'I will follow you!' in an appropriately intense tone, texture, and volume. As a shared human experience, both the expression of emotions and the difficulty of dealing with the loss of a loved one can surely be considered appealing to 'folk' regardless of one's musical taste, nationality, or country of residence, for example.

Expanding from the individual human experiences discussed with regards to 'Parental Guidance' and 'Cathedral Walls', let us consider a broader 'folk' theme prevalent in Metal lyrics, particularly in the lyrics of Scandinavian bands: the North. In Decibel magazine's 2015 'Finnish Metal Issue', Chris Dick writes:

If one thing connects Swallow the Sun to their forebears, it's the use of the word 'north'. Also, the meaning behind it. Looking back, Sentenced had North from Here, Catamenia had Halls of Frozen North, while Amorphis had a song called 'Folk of the North'. All three referred to a place above something else. The relative North could be Finland, or it could be the Arctic. Either way, the north has a special place in Swallow the Sun's heart. (Dick 2015: 68)

Indeed, an examination of the catalogs of Scandinavian bands would certainly reveal an abundance of lyrics inspired by the north or life in the north. More specifically, Finnish bands often not only explicitly refer to the north and sing about northern nature, the idea of north is implicitly present in the music as well. In the words of Raivio:

I live a very isolated life in the middle of the woods, surrounded by huge forests and lakes. So, I wrote all the songs [on their triple album Songs from the North I, II, III] and lyrics here by listening to the wind and the heart of midwinter and the midsummer. We always have had the nature of north in our songs and lyrics, so it's just natural for us like it is for so many other Finnish bands. Our parents play and sing to us pretty melancholic music when we are in the cradle. North is just simply in our blood. (Raivio 2010: 68-69)

Raivio's reflection on the importance of North to the Finnish 'folk' is very interestingly aligned with Dr. Peter Davidson's conclusions in his book The Idea of North:

Everyone carries their own idea of north within them. To say 'we leave for the north tonight' brings immediate thoughts of a harder place, a place of dearth: uplands, adverse weather, remoteness from the cities. A voluntary northward journey implies a willingness to encounter the intractable elements of climate, topography and humanity. (2005: 9)

Through these two examples, it becomes fairly easy to see the appeal of both the lyrical contents and the music of these northern artists to the northern 'folk' everywhere in the world.

Whereas the genre of Folk Metal would offer a wonderful array of bands from whom to choose examples for more themes of nature (e.g., Korpiklaani), pre-modern themes (Metsatoll), pre-Christian themes (Eluveitie), fantasy (Wintersun), and mythology (Tyr, Amon Amarth), for the purposes of discussion in this chapter, let us look at lyrics from non-Folk Metal bands, the Finnish Amorphis and the Swedish Sabaton, both of whom are extremely popular worldwide, to further examine the appeal of Metal lyrics and lyrical themes to 'folk.

Amorphis are a Finnish progressive melodic Death Metal band whose early catalog was inspired by (Finnish) nature and the storytelling of The Kalevala, the national folk epic of Finland. Most recently, they have moved on to collaborate with a lyricist outside the band to write lyrics in their own fantasy canon, still inspired and consistent with themes of Finnish folklore. As an example of Amorphis' lyrics and The Kalevala, 'Song of the Sage' from The Beginning of Times is explicitly about Väinämöinen, 'the Gandalf-like "eternal sage" who establishes the land of Kaleva and leads and teaches its people' (Ellison 2005). Everyone familiar with The Kalevala recognizes that these lyrics describe Väinämöinen:

No man nor a god, with a sword he carved / With a feather he conjured / An instrument from the bone of fish / A kantele from the jaws of a pike / Sat on a golden rock, on a bank of a golden river / By the brink of golden falls, under the golden sun. (Holopainen and Kallio 2011)

As discussed in Hardcore, Punk, and Other Junk,

The song is completely about Väinämöinen, the Creator in The Kalevala, and [...] we not only hear the story of Väinämöinen's song [in the lyrics], or his call to all creatures through the national folk instrument of kantele which he made of the jaws of a pike, but we also hear elements of the Kalevala-typical reversed syntax and even remains of the Kalevala-meter, the trochaic tetrameter, both of which further illustrate the homage the contemporary metal rockers are playing to their national heritage, in topic and form. (Elovaara 2013: 40)

According to the founding members of Amorphis, they

never set out to 'do' Kalevala, but rather, came across it and then it stuck with us. That we are identified with our national epic is something we are proud of and feel comfortable with. In the earliest years of the band, before we had The Kalevala themes in our music, we couldn't really relate to themes of murder and brutality, but it feels quite natural for us to draw inspiration from our own literary heritage. The Kalevala is a part of our identity as a band, and we do realize that even though we did not plan for it, we now play a role in making our national epic better known around the world. We even have fans around the world who want us to sign a copy of The Kalevala in their native language, even though everyone obviously knows that we did not write the book. (Etelävuori, Holopainen and Koivusaari 10 July 2011 interview)

Whereas the folk elements in the lyrical themes and the lyrics of Amorphis are often very explicit, at least to anyone familiar with the Finnish national epic, the 'folk' elements in the music of the Swedish Power Metal band Sabaton are quite different from those of Amorphis. Sabaton's lyrics are quite explicitly derived from historical events with war as a common thread through most of their songs. One of the most unique things about Sabaton is that they have written songs about the historical events of many nations, and on their most recent album, about the war heroes of a variety of nations. Similar to Amorphis, whose founding members stated that they never planned to be a 'Kalevala band, Sabaton's lead singer and founding member, Joakim Broden said in our July 2011 interview that the lyrical themes for the band simply originated in a discussion in the early years of the band, when they had been doing cover songs and had not written a whole lot of their own material. He said that one of the members suggested historical lyrics and the more they dug into them, the more it seemed to feel like exactly what they wanted to do; a connection not unlike that between Amorphis and The Kalevala described previously (Broden 10 July 2011 interview). Sabaton have written songs about Sun Tzu – the Chinese military tactician and leader from around 500bc – as well as wars of the twenty-first century, and everything in between. Given the insistence on authenticity in everything among masses of fans in Metal, which stems from the genre's roots of promoting independent thought, going against mainstream, and not conforming to the norm, it is remarkable that Sabaton manages to appeal to audiences worldwide when singing about the war heroes or historic events of other nations. By singing about underdogs, the oppressed, heroes, or overcoming adversity, Sabaton appeal to a shared human experience, very similarly to the lyrics of Swallow the Sun discussed earlier in this chapter. To illustrate, a Swede waving a Finnish flag and singing about the Winter War, a historic event during the Second World War that is a tremendous source of pride for Finns, would most often be met with skepticism or scorn, but when Broden pulled it off at Ruisrock in 2011 as Sabaton were thundering through their song 'Talvisota' (Finnish for Winter War), he had the crowd captured, clearly not only appealing to the Finnish 'folk, but evoking national pride in them as well. Although it is only one example, a closer examination of Sabaton's discography would reveal that their works include numerous similar songs where the band is paying homage to heroes of war of different nations or otherwise commemorating historic events of significance of various nations. In doing so, and by becoming immensely popular among Metal fans around the world, Sabaton have really transcended the connotations of 'folk' and attracted fans much due to a very postmodern essence of 'folk' in their music as well as their captivating and skillful musicianship and energetic live performances.


Excerpted from "Connecting Metal to Culture"
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments, vii,
List of Figures, ix,
Foreword Alex Skolnick, xi,
Introduction Mika Elovaara, Ph.D. and Bryan Bardine, Ph.D., 1,
Chapter 1: Thor and Trolls, Flutes and Fiddles: 'Folk' in Metal MMika Elovaara, Ph.D, 13,
Chapter 2: ... Another Thing Coming: Nostalgia and Kitsch in Mass Cultural Manifestations of 'Metal' Brad Klypchak, Ph.D., 37,
Chapter 3: Metal as a Vehicle for Critical Culture in Latin America and the Caribbean: Challenging Traditional Female Gender Roles through Music Nelson Varas-Díaz, Ph.D.; Sigrid Mendoza, M.A.; Eliot Rivera, Ph.D.; and Osvaldo Gonzalez, B.A., 57,
Chapter 4: Diversity in Metal Politics André Epp, Ph.D., 81,
Chapter 5: The Horror and the Allure: Metal, Power, Gothic Literature, and Multisubjectivity Jeremy Wallach, Ph.D. and Esther Clinton, Ph.D., 99,
Chapter 6: Bang Your Head to the 'Beat' of Non-Conformity C.C. Hendricks, M.L.A., M.A., Ph.D. Candidate, 119,
Chapter 7: Metal Documentaries: The National, the Global, and the Cosmopolitan Gerd Bayer, Dr. Phil. abil., 143,
Chapter 8: But That Doesn't Help Me On Guitar!: Unraveling the Myth of the Self-Taught Metal Guitarist Kevin Ebert, M.M., 163,
Chapter 9: Beyond 'Forms of Aggression': Teaching Extreme Metal in the Composition Classroom Paul Petrovic, Ph.D., 191,
Chapter 10: From Sabbath to Slayer: Using Metal in the Writing Classroom Bryan A. Bardine, Ph.D., 209,
Conclusion Mika Elovaara, Ph.D. and Bryan Bardine, Ph.D., 229,
List of Contributors, 243,
Index, 247,

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