Genetics of Viking Metal, Part IV: Finntroll

As I wrote last week, I hear Viking metal as a collection of overlapping hybrid genres. The basic idea is that metal bands are adding some kind of “Viking” element to heavy metal music. Different artists have taken different approaches. Bands add one or more of the following elements: traditional melodies or rhythms, acoustic instruments (sometimes synthesized), and lyrics influenced by Norse mythology.

Metal itself is quite diverse. Because the metal bands can start from a number of places before they add their different Viking influences, there are a variety of sounds that can reasonably be called Viking Metal. I will illustrate this with a few case studies in my next few posts.

A friend of mine who knows a lot about extreme metal mentioned Finntroll to me, so let’s start with their CD, Jaktens Tid. I chose that CD because it happened to be in stock at my local record store.

The CD starts quietly enough, with ominous snythesizer and drums. There might be some faint chanting. There are some snyth horn calls too. If I made a b-movie about dawn before a big Medieval battle, I would want something like this.

When the second track gets going, we get a fast menacing riff on piano followed by guitar. The drums are actually playing a disco beat. The whole thing sounds like Rob Zombie if we were going to reference someone who a lot of people might have heard of. The vocals enter with a “hi-yaa!” that reminds me of a bear practicing Kung-Fu. The signing is in Swedish, if you could call it singing. It’s really more like growling. If you listen to death metal, you know what I’m talking about.

The lyrics are helpfully printed in the booklet and a tall, blonde friend of mine confirmed that they indeed are Swedish. In North America, we think that Swedish is kind of a sing-songy language–nothing to fear from the cheeseheads, right? Singer Katla really does sound like a troll-the kind of troll that lives under bridges and eats little children. Not the kind with the fluffy hair they used to sell at Hallmark stores that my little sister used with her Strawberry Shortcake dolls.

Numerous sources state that Finntroll sings about Norse mythology, especially trolls. I am reluctant to translate any of the lyrics. The music is so picturesque; I almost don’t need to know the actual lyrics. (Also, I am reminded of Yes, whose lyrics I used to know by heart even though I had no idea what any of the songs were about. Besides “Don’t Kill the Whale.”)

Back to track 2… There is an instrumental break in the middle with double-time accordion that is joined by guitar. We get 16th notes on the kick drum. This breaks down into a folk-influenced melody on relatively undistorted guitar with acousitic guitar in the background. Katla gives us some whispers and growls, while a keyboard choir builds. That is a lot of ideas for one song.

Track three is led by the accordion with an very fast Oompah beat. In Finland, this rhythm is called humppa and it all over this CD.

Let’s get a taste of non-metal humppa.

Now let’s hear Fintroll’s humppa.

It is the use of the humppa that sets Finntroll apart from other rock bands. This is just a continuation of the trend I wrote about a few days ago. Just as Fairport Convention added traditional British elements to the then-current folk-rock trend, Finntroll is bringing their country’s traditional music to now-current heavy metal.

Finntroll also employ a style of singing called Yoik. On first hearing, it could remind one of Native American singing. It’s actually a traditional style of people indigenous to Lapland, called the Sámi. (Search for yoik at the Finnish Music Information Centre for more info. Search for yoik on their music player too.) Yoik isn’t integrated as thoroughly as humppa. It’s more of a coloring. To summarize, Finntroll makes unique and very interesting music. It might be too energetic for many people, but the folk elements could also appeal to adventurous folks who don’t always enjoy death metal. The major elements in their style are:

  • Fast and aggressive death metal
  • Occasional atmospheric sections with synthesizer
  • Real or synthesized acoustic instruments, such as accordion and wind instruments
  • Humppa
  • Growled vocals
  • Yoik

They will tour the US this summer.

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.

Genetics of Viking Metal, part 2 – Mitochondria

I know you are dying to find out what Viking metal could possibly be, but we have to cover something else first. I am not making this up.

My previous post explained that DNA on the male-only Y chromosome is not as mixed around from generation to generation as DNA on the other chromosomes. I also told you that DNA gets all chopped up when chromosomes are formed for egg cells.

Don’t get concerned about gender issues. Women also pass along relatively unmixed DNA exclusively to their daughters. Hold on a minute, didn’t I just say that female DNA on chromosomes gets all mixed up every generation? How can there be unmixed DNA? Simple, it’s not on chromosomes. We have two sets of DNA.

“Hold on, Rock Dad. I thought our chromosomes contained all the DNA we need.” Sort, of. This is where it gets a little sci-fi.

Let’s talk about mitochondria. Mitochondria are separate structures inside our cells that do a whole bunch of important things. Mitochondria have their own DNA. What’s freaky is that their DNA doesn’t look like human DNA. It looks like bacteria DNA. For this and other reasons, some researchers think that mitochondria originally were bacteria that became part of cells. This goes way beyond the Egyptian plover eating parasites on a crocodile’s body in exchange for “safe passage” and protection from predators. The bacterium actually became part of us and now we need each other to live. The story is really cool and would be a good topic for a future blog entry. Remind me, some day.

Sperm and egg cells both have mitochondria. The sperm’s mitochondria die soon after fertilization, so 100% of everybody’s mitochondria comes directly from their mothers. Females pass on their maternal grandmother’s mitochondrial DNA. Males don’t pass on anybody’s mitochondrial DNA.

This means that mitochondrial DNA are a link back to the mitochondrial DNA of our female ancestors. It gives us another way to track our development.

Time to wrap up. Soon I will get into how the DNA changes over many generations and what those changes tell us. We will learn about Viking Metal and I just might touch on something about hip-hop before we are through.

Sit tight and rock on.

Genetics of Viking Metal, Part 1

…or Mommy, where did Finntroll come from?

Everybody knows Vikings are cool—cooler than pirates, maybe—but I doubt that many people outside the underground metal scene know much about Viking metal. I’ll get into that soon, but first we need to talk about Vikings. We are going to use genetics to trace humankind’s prehistoric route from Africa to Scandinavia and beyond. Then we will see if we can do something similar with Viking metal. It won’t be scientific but it will be close enough for rock & roll.

Geneticists have recently started analyzing how differences between genes in different populations can show how people migrated across the planet. They have sorted hundreds of thousands of people into groups based on these differences. Then, knowing where those people live or where their recent ancestors lived, they can figure out how we have moved around.

Let’s go (back) to high school for a little while. We need to remember a few things before we can get into the cool stuff. I am going to skip the stuff we don’t need to know here. A good place to look for more info is in this Wikipedia article.

The smallest chunk of genetic material is a nucleotide. You can think of a nucleotide as a letter. The four nucleotides are abbreviated G, C, A, and T. See, even scientists think of them as letters. Nucleotides pair up. G pairs with C. A pairs with T. Nucleotides are also called bases so a pair of nucleotides is called a base pair.

String a number of base pairs together and you get a gene. A gene contains enough information to tell your body how to make a specific protein. Proteins do things for you. Each protein does a different thing.

String a bunch of genes together and you get a DNA molecule. The DNA molecule twists up into structure called a chromosome. Chromosomes also come in pairs. If you, the reader, are a human you have 46 chromosomes in 23 pair.

I would like to pretend you are female because it makes this illustration simpler. If you identify with that Who song “I’m a Boy,” you can go back to being male soon.

Each egg cell you produce will contain only 23 chromosomes—not 46. That’s exactly how you want it. If an egg cell “gets lucky” (hopefully with a sperm cell from another consenting adult), it will combine with the sperm’s 23 chromosomes to create an embryo with a total of 46 chromosomes.

So how does your body decide which 23 of your 46 chromosomes go into the egg? It wimps out and includes material from all 46. The chromosomes are in pairs, right? Each chromosome in your egg cell contains a mixture of segments of DNA from each chromosome in your corresponding pair. The mixture is different in different egg cells. If you were into hip hop a few years ago, you might call this mixing “chopped and screwed.”

Take any of your chromosome pairs as an example. One chromosome came from your mother and contains a mixture of DNA from her parents. The other chromosome came from your father and likewise, it contains a mixture of DNA from his parents. Your egg cells therefore will contain a mixture of DNA from all four of your grandparents. The same thing will be true of any sperm that happens to fertilize your egg.

The end result is that (most) DNA gets really mixed up after just a few generations. It’s too mixed up to be of use here. Luckily, there are two exceptions.

You can be male again now. Turn off your Ray Lamontagne CD and listen to some AC/DC if you need help with the transition.

When you create sperm only 22 of your 23 chromosome pairs are “chopped and screwed.” Only one of your last chromosome pair is passed on and it is passed on pretty much exactly as you got it from one of your parents. This final chromosome is the one that determines gender. Some of your sperm will have the chromosome you got from your father. Sometimes this is referred to as a Y chromosome because it looks like a Y. The rest will have the one you got from your mother. It looks like an X.

Males have one X and one Y chromosome and either one could end up in a sperm cell. Females have two X chromosomes so no matter what they will pass along an X chromosome. The DNA on the X chromosome in each egg is a mixture of the DNA from the mother’s two X chromosomes.

Since you are male, your daughters will receive an almost perfect copy of your X chromosome. Your X chromosome came from your mother. Remember that when she made her eggs, the X chromosome that would become your was a mixture of your mother’s two X chromosomes. It went through the same mixing process described above, so it’s not useful for our purpose here.

It is important to understand that your sons will inherit a Y chromosome that is almost exactly like your paternal grandfather’s Y chromosome. His Y chromosome was almost exactly like his father’s father’s father’s father’s Y chromosome. I say “almost exactly” because the DNA copying process isn’t perfect and errors are made. This is also very important and I will discuss it in more detail later.

So even though I have no idea when I last hugged my dad, we are connected by this DNA thread that leads through all our male ancestors back into prehistory. Women are better at bonding anyway, but is this one way they are ripped off? NO! They have a similar DNA link but it’s even cooler. I’ll get into that in a future post. I promise that when I explain it you will think I made it up.