I’m still having problems with this word ‘folk’ in a metal context. It prima facie means popular music, usually written by an unknown author, transmitted through word of mouth; it forms part of regional identities and traditions. In this strict definition it’s usually simple, catchy, something everyone can play and sing. Much folk is played on traditional instruments, ones that did not make their way into contemporary music in the same way that the guitar or the drum kit did. It may also have close links to religion and spirituality. In short it is as diverse, vague, and amorphous a label as ‘pop’ or ‘classical’ when applied to music.
The definition morphs further when applied to metal, which has very specific features in mind when it comes to folk music. Usually the use of traditional instruments, scales, and playing techniques applied to otherwise original material. Over the years this has solidified into a strong interest in music history in metal circles; with many abandoning the distorted guitars altogether. Is it still folk music? Yes and no. It’s an easy label to affix to these artists, and one that we can all agree upon; which after all is the function of words.
Wardruna however, are musical historians as much as they are folk artists. Their second LP ‘Runaljod – Yggdrasil’ (2013) is where things really took off for them. Their passion for authentic instruments and vocal styles led to their music featuring on the TV series ‘Vikings’ on the History Channel. This is noteworthy because this is traditional Norwegian music that has been rediscovered via metal’s evolution. The core of their audience is metalheads. But any trace of rock has all but been dispensed with.
Follow up, 2016’s ‘Runaljod – Ragnarok’, boasts an even bigger sound, to the point where it could be a film score. It’s a more textured, laboured release, that focuses on slow, building layers of instrumentation. This is not a solitary musician sat by the fire, this is what sounds like an entire orchestra; music conjuring images of open spaces, vast forests, the majesty of the wilderness. The actual music is understated by comparison to ‘Yggdrasil’, but after repeated listens one can gauge the intricate layers, how they build and compliment each other.
There is a professionalism to Wardruna lacking in the folk and ambient projects of many metal artists. This comes from a deep study of traditional instruments and vocal techniques combined with very modern production values and modern expectations. By that I mean it sounds like good video game or film music, but done really well. For all the pretensions to authenticity, this is still a well crafted marriage of the old and the new. And for that reason comes across as more polished than someone messing about with similar ideas on a cheap keyboard.
There are many many projects outside of metal’s remit that explore the history of music – usually from a regional perspective – and combine this with modern ideas and techniques. Often dubbed ‘world music’; a label with even less intrinsic meaning than ‘folk’. But Wardruna have cornered the market on a style with a strong appeal for metalheads. At the heart of it all however, is well written music with bags of appeal in its own right; even when we set aside the quibbles over labels and history.
A longer standing and more idiosyncratic iteration of this can be found in the career of Finland’s Tenhi. Formed back in 1996, the music of Tenhi is comprised of familiar instruments to the modern listener, guitars, drums, piano; but they do some pretty interesting things with these commonplace building blocks. Authenticity has never been a key concern of mine when enjoying music at an emotional or artistic level. Music history is fascinating, but it plays second fiddle when we analyse the end result.
For that reason I have no problem with describing Tenhi as neo-folk. They are modern musicians playing modern instruments (for the most part) with modern recording techniques, but their music gives more than a nod to traditional Northern European music. Their latest LP ‘Saivo’, released back in 2011, offers continuity with only subtle differences to prior releases. It’s an odd mix of fireside acoustic guitar refrains, underpinned by very laid-back drums playing conventional 4/4 timings, and sparse low-end vocals. It calls to mind a less flashy Empyrium.
They work seamlessly between conventional chord structures and mournful, almost despondent passages that invoke a sense of loss, of solitude. But the bare bones of the music are so minimal that one could be forgiven for tuning out and letting the music serve as mere ambience. Enter the piano. At times this instrument has simply been used to add texture, on previous releases it has taken on the role of lead instrument. Taken on its own it’s highly engaging, taken in the context of the album it comes across as jarring. On ‘Saivo’ however these problems with tone have been ironed out somewhat, and the instrument is better integrated into the music. It still shines, but in a way that allows the music as a whole to shine with it.
The same can be said of the vocals. These are a very gentle, deep spoken-word, with very subtle hints at tune. But they work into the music so well that they can be treated as just another instrument. Morbid comfort against the emptiness beyond the firelight. There can be periods of stagnation, just gently strummed chords, very basic drums, a flute or violin here and there. But I find this thoroughly relaxing window dressing. It lulls one into a false sense of security and provides the perfect contrast for the many genuinely novel ideas packed into this album.
What to make of a comparison between these two albums? In one sense this is the difference between the new Star Trek films and the original series. One is overblown, exciting, designed to generate mass appeal, places heavy emphasis on production values. The other is prima facie boring, well crafted, laboured, minimal, and somehow charming. But this would be a superficial reading. Wardruna – unlike the makers of ‘Star Trek 2009: The Star Trek’ – go to great lengths to respect their source material and use it as a means to tell a story. They aim at music of the past, shedding the present whilst using its tools and techniques. Tenhi on the other hand, look to the future by mixing techniques from the past and present. But I am not so much concerned with intention or integrity as I am ‘does it sound good?’ And Tenhi are just that bit more unique. Yes they’re more boring, maybe there are more moments of wondering exactly why the music is; but the experience as a whole is fascinating because of this. They always unpack a moment of genuine novelty for the patient listener. Wardruna offer a pleasing mural of ambient folk; no doubt well written to boot. But the music ends up being just a bit more familiar and less intriguing than Tenhi’s as a result.