Genetics of Viking Metal, part 3: Musical Precedents

It’s time to talk music. This is going to be a little messy. Hopefully not Courtney Love messy, but we will have to wait and see.

I will skip the general rock & roll overview. All we need to know is that rock’s ancient roots are in Africa and Europe. In pop culture, things get old in just a few years, so a few hundred years ago is musical antiquity.

Viking Metal is an odd beast. People describe it as a sub-sub-genre of several different types of heavy metal music. I spared you the technical details of gene copying. We can also skip delving into the different branches of heavy metal. RNA and black metal are interesting topics but not necessary for this discussion. All we need to know is that there are several types of heavy metal.

Viking metal really is an overlapping group of hybrid genres. Simply put, metal bands have added Scandinavian musical ideas or Viking-influenced lyrics to already existing types of metal. The bands start from different places and chose different “Viking” elements to add to their music, so the results vary. What they all have in common is that they have added some kind of Scandinavian or Germanic influence to some kind of non-mainstream form of heavy metal. I will describe a few bands in more detail later.

Because many of the artists are from Scandinavia, Viking metal can be seen as a process by which people add elements of their own culture to rock and roll. In this context, Viking Metal has a number of precedents. I will enumerate a few of them.

The Band (1969), the second album by The Band, added many older North American folk and country influences to what was happening in rock at the time. Their first album, Music From Big Pink, contains some of this even in the inner gatefold artwork, but The Band really feels like it comes from another era. The standard guitar-bass-drums-keyboards rock instrumentation is occasionally augmented by an old-fashioned-sounding horn section and mandolin. Many of the songs address older themes, such as westward expansion, the Civil War, farming, and even retiring to a rocking chair in “old Virginny.” One thing to keep in mind is that The Band’s old-timey songs are really great, but they don’t really rock the way some of The Band’s other tunes do.

As told in record producer Joe Boyd’s excellent book White Bicycles, The Band discouraged a British folk-rock group Boyd was producing. Fairport Convention had been playing American-influenced folk-rock and realized they could never do it as well as the Band did. The death of their drummer gave them another reason to reject their original repertoire. Their next album, Liege & Lief, adds traditional British influences to their folk-rock sound. Like, The Band, even their original compositions seemed very old-fashioned. In the opening track, singer Sandy Denny refers to her band mates as “minstrels.” The album contains two long versions of traditional ballads. Young British folkies had been playing traditional songs for more than a decade. Fairport’s approach was different because they played electric instruments and it rocked. The music wasn’t as heavy as Black Sabbath or Blue Cheer, but there definitely was a weightiness to it.

In 1977, strong Celtic influences appeared in Jethro Tull’s formerly bluesy hardish prog rock sound. The song titles say it all: “Songs From the Wood,” “Jack in The Green,” and a December favorite of mine, “Ring Out Solstice Bells.”

Jethro Tull’s 1982 song “Broadsword” certainly points the way to Viking Metal. Metal fans who are still upset that Tull beat Metallica for the first Best Hard Rock/Metal Performance Grammy award in 1989 might think I am nuts.

I can’t use anything like mitochondrial DNA to prove my point, but I can turn to other evidence. First, listen to the song itself. The audio on this video is the same as on the LP/CD.

What is the song about? Preparing the defenses for a Viking raid. It begins with the same atmospheric keyboards and ominous drums you can find on “Krig (Intro)” , the opening track on Finntroll’s CD Jaktens Tid. The guitar is fairly distorted (remember this is 1982). If you check out the guitar solo, it’s pretty metal, with the artificial harmonics and fast shred-like passages.

I hear the similarity, but my argument would be a lot more persuasive if Viking Metal musicians recognize it. Cris and Stewart of Svartsot list Jethro Tull as an influence or favorite band. (Check their bios.) Svartsot call themselves a Folk Metal band. I will explain why I lump them in with Viking Metal in a future post.

The Pogues did a fantastic job of combining traditional Irish music with punk rock. I like their first three or four albums the best.

Musicians in Asia and the Middle East are bringing their own culture into western dance music. Six Degrees and Putumayo are two US record labels that have plenty of interesting compilations to explore. Look for compilations with titles like Asian Groove to find what I’m talking about. Any connection between these musicians and Viking Metal is obscure, but it is interesting to note that this phenomenon exists outside the west.

Next up? I’m not sure yet. Maybe further exploration of metal or a look at pre-historic human migration.