The initial loadstone for foundational black metal was an explicit exercise in self-limitation. Cut the fat away from metal as it was becoming by the late 1980s, the meaty production, the excessive riffs, the complex and the bouncy rhythms and what are you left with? Obviously this ascetic quest was quickly jettisoned by the turn of the century in favour of high drama and ever more lavish orchestration.
But history often runs into barriers, and movements will mutate or shatter in the smashing of said barriers. The fragments that emerge from such collisions often bear noteworthy fruit of their own. The binding of black metal sensibilities with northern European folk traditions was one such fragment. Before the popular iterations of the modern neofolk movement gained traction, acts like Tenhi and Empyrium were exploring a more austere, stripped down, and ultimately rawer iteration of folk. This followed in the wake of the self-limiting ethos – acoustic instruments, intimate production values, sparce soundscapes – but sought an entirely different way to present these sonic values when compared to extreme metal’s latent aggression.
Empyrium’s journey to this monastic offering made to a largely metal audience was not straightforward. Having started out as a folky black metal act, their second LP ‘Songs of Moors & Misty Fields’ (1997) has gone down as a classic of folk metal. But their onward trajectory into Germanic folk proper came as little surprise. And by the release of ‘Wieland’ (2002) they had consigned the amps and distortion pedals to the storage locker, and reached for the acoustic guitars. The backbone of this sound is a series of gentle arpeggios plucked out on acoustic guitars, meandering in their progressions, much like a careless wanderer through woodlands. The black metal roots of this music still make themselves known, as with the track ‘Fortgang’ that sees black metal tremolo riffs picked out on acoustic guitars, replete with the requisite distorted vocals to complete the package.
But the majority of this album is tranquil, sombre, mournful. It sits right in the tradition of Schubert’s ‘Winterreise’ and the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich. Flutes, strings, a rock drum kit, and a very occasional wind sample all make an appearance. But the presentation of the album is undeniably sparce, making use of silence as much as instrumentation to convey the playful hostility of the Germanic countryside. The drums largely stick with rock patterns, but this says more about the influence of folk as a rhythmic underpinning for a pop hook than it does of vestigial rock elements within this album. And indeed, if it wasn’t for the sheer drabness of Empyrium’s presentation, many of these pieces might seem positively danceable. But the stop/start approach to momentum – flowing from stolen joy to unbridled sorrow – cuts down any notion that this music is anything other than a series of laments.
Vocals, when not veering into black metal territory, stick with clean, emotive crooning. An uncharitable reading of this style would call it quaint. It is straight out of another era, a time of dramatic poetry readings, tragic authors, and congenitally ill Germanic composers. This style, set to the simple yet elegant guitar lines, feels so out of time and place precisely because it juxtaposes so dramatically with the majority of contemporary music the average Western music fan is likely to encounter. This is an archaic form of expression, ill-suited to modernity’s insatiable demand for urgent and rageful outbursts.
But this understated and naïve delivery is precisely what makes the Empyrium formula work so well. This music is not short on emotion and drama. But the subtle and relaxed delivery stands in defiance of modern excesses at one end, and cuts to the quick when it comes to sincerity. A sincerity that many modern artists shoot for yet struggle to find. Empyrium’s delivery may well come across as quaint, a little childlike, but it is in this very emotional rawness that we find new (or rather the old given new context) avenues of expressing the human condition, our sorrows, our joys, our restless relationship with the reality that confronts us every day.
One of the many acts to follow in the wake of Empyrium was Finland’s October Falls. Using a similar blend of minimalist acoustic folk and pronounced black metal sensibilities, their career has bounced from one form of presentation to the other. But on their debut LP ‘Marras’ released in 2005 we are given a pure and stripped back iteration of neofolk. The album is entirely instrumental, again trading on those basic acoustic guitar arpeggios to serve as the main sonic thread woven throughout this half hour of music. Piano plays loyal accompaniment, along with strings, flutes, and some light snare drums to focus the rhythm when required. The offering is so minimal, so delicate, that we could probably admit to being in ambient territory here, despite the total lack of keyboards or overt atmospheric adornments.
Where other iterations of neofolk at least tip the hat to folk’s jauntier aspects – with singeable hooks and percussive motion – October Falls on ‘Marras’ strip all this back to the barest of bones. Seen in this light, despite the sparser presentation, this album is arguably less true to the Northern European folk traditions that it emulates. But this can hardly be called a criticism. This artist is using these most rudimentary of building blocks in an admirable act of self-limitation, with the aim of creating and carrying a distinctive atmosphere and vibe over the course of a full-length album.
So on that metric, does it succeed? There are far more acts operating in this style now than there were in 2005, seemingly standing in defiance of the excesses of the Heilungs of the world. But one has to offer cautionary words as to the distinction between ambiguous minimalism, and lazy composition. And ‘Marras’ sits right on the border between the two. This is partly down to the choice of timbre on this album. Because all is presented on acoustic instruments, there’s little to talk of in terms of character, production, aesthetic choice. As a result we have recourse to talk of nothing else but the compositions. And these in themselves are crafted from the simplest of chord progressions, with the occasional flute or stringed instrument providing harmonics to the guitars, and the odd drum beat to remind the listener of the passage of time.
There is something to be said for this arrangement as a work of defiance – much like Empyrium’s ‘Wieland’ – in that it speaks to a largely metal audience and implicitly calls for calm and reflection. Specifically in relation to the sonic excesses of metal as it was in the 2000s. The modesty, humbleness, and accessibility of metal as a grassroots movement was being stripped away. Rather than make this point in a metallic context, October Falls seem to be demanding even more of musicians, to strip away not just the lavish instrumentation, but also the riffs and the narrative arcs of the compositions themselves. From there we are left with no other pursuit than to create a vibe, a loose thread of sonic ideas with only the most subtle of distinctions in intensity and key.
This tantric approach to composition is compelling when read in this light. But this form has developed little since the release of this album, making it seem, with hindsight, a little lacking in substance. We can hardly blame the October Falls of 2005 for this. But it does speak to how easily this formula is repeatable. It was a message that needed to be conveyed, but it requires more imagination and musical innovation to carry forward into being a piece of art that stands independent of the overzealous curation just offered.
In deciding on the pick of the week one could be forgiven for assuming that my reasoning is simply that ‘Wieland’ offers more musically, therefore it is a better album. And whilst that is part of the truth, it is a simplistic reading of the decision making process at play here. If we are to interpret these albums as a course correction for extreme metal at the start of the new century, then ‘Marras’ certainly takes the more drastic measures. And as a piece of mood music, borderline ambient, it certainly succeeds. But ‘Wieland’ seems to have taken the next step beyond mere statements of intent. Atmospherically there is much crossover with October Falls, but Empyrium work in musical ideas that stand on their own. They take us on a journey, and through the pronounced naivety and unabashed romanticism of their work they end up making the case for reflection more effectively. For this and reasons of simple personal preference ‘Wieland’ is the pick for this week as a unique and confident album, with ‘Marras’ being filed as one of history’s curiosities.