Wednesday, August 8, 2012

The Essentials: Viking Metal

I was thinking last night about how, despite all the different stuff I have to listen to, when I'm in the mood for a particular type of of music I tend to go back over and over to the same few songs. Most of us probably do that. It got me thinking, though, about what songs I would pick out if I had just a few tracks to introduce a prospective new listener to a specific variety of metal. There are of course several things to consider. Is the song representative of the style I want to illustrate? Is it by a band that I'd like to make the listener aware of to help guide their further exploration of the sub-genre? And of course, does the song sound good, allowing the style to put its best foot forward?

These considerations lead me to the creation of this list, and I intend to follow up with several others in a similar vein. These articles will probably not be of much interest to the seasoned metal listener, but if somebody finds themselves looking for a good starting place for exploring a specific style of metal then these will hopefully point you in the right direction.

For this and each subsequent list, I will select and briefly describe a metal style or sub-genre. I will then pick 5-10 songs from that sub-genre, provide links to them, and give a short explanation for why I chose each song. I was listening to Viking metal when I decided to do this, so I have elected to make that the subject of my first entry.

Viking Metal:

This is a close relative to black metal, pagan metal, and folk metal. Many will contend that it does not even warrant its own distinct classification. I disagree, but that is an argument for another time. Regardless, many bands from within this sphere cross boundaries and blur the lines between the individual members of this branch of the metal family tree.

Most Viking metal focuses on creating an epic atmosphere. The base of the style is rooted in black metal, with sometimes rough production and a tendency toward coldly harsh guitar and vocals. The music is usually slowed down somewhat, though, with song lengths that are often excessive by most standards. Individual tracks frequently surpass the 10-minute mark. Keyboards, Scandinavian folk instruments, sound samples (typically of horses, waves, or clashing weapons), and chants are often added on top of that base to form something like the imagined soundtrack to a Viking voyage or an epic battle. Bathory pioneered the style with a trio of fantastic albums from 1988 to 1991, and Viking metal has continued to pick up steam and gain popularity over the years since then.

(Note: Amon Amarth are popularly considered a Viking metal band, but they do not play Viking metal. Stylistically they are actually a melodic death metal band with Viking-themed lyrics. They are an excellent and immensely entertaining band, but I have excluded them from this list for the purpose of accuracy.)

One Rode to Asa Bay -by- Bathory
As I said, Bathory were the pioneering Viking metal band, and it's never a bad idea to start at the beginning. Their 1990 effort Hammerheart still stands, in my opinion, as the best Viking metal album ever released. This is the closing track from that album (excluding a brief outro), and it's the only song for which Bathory ever recorded a music video. On a personal note, it's also my favorite metal song of all time.

Kampen -by- Windir
I remember years ago when I was part of a message board conversation and somebody asked "What exactly is Viking metal?" The response, repeated by many other posters, was simply "Windir". In their nine years as an active band, Windir established themselves as titans of the Viking metal world. Sadly, their core member Valfar died at the tragically young age of 25, and the band subsequently dissolved. I suppose freezing to death in the mountains of Norway is a pretty metal way to go, but it was still a tremendous loss. I personally feel that their 1999 release Arntor best captures the core atmosphere of the Viking metal sound, and this is my favorite track from that album.

Heathen Throne -by- Ensiferum
Ensiferum are a more polished sounding group. Their lack of genuine grit makes them less of a purist's band, and many of their fans abandoned them after the departure of their original vocalist Jari Mäenpää in 2004. In terms of enjoyability, though, few bands within the style have ever been their match. I was tempted to pick a song from one of their first two albums (the ones Jari appeared on), but instead I selected the best track from 2009's From Afar because I believe it represents the best of Viking metal in its current state.

Kylän Päässä -by- Moonsorrow
Moonsorrow are a band who can produce genuinely gorgeous music. The intro to their phenomenal 2001 release Voimasta Ja Kunniasta is a perfect illustration of that. I elected instead to offer up what I feel is the best complete song from that record, though like Hammerheart and Arntor, I would strongly recommend that any developing Viking metal enthusiast listen to the entire album. Their sound is less enthusiastically energetic than Ensiferum's, but they capture a classically informed level of beauty like no other Viking metal band.

Roman Land -by- Falkenbach
Falkenbach, a German one-man project, produces the closest thing to the Lord of the Rings soundtrack that you're likely to find in metal. On the plus side, this means they often succeed in capturing an epic feel, but on the other hand some listeners may find them boring or overly repetitive. Roman Land, from their 2005 album Heralding - The Fireblade, is actually not an especially long song. By Falkenbach's standards it's fairly lively, and it provides an enjoyable gateway to their sound.

Mjölner -by- Thyrfing
Sweden's Thyrfing have, in my opinion, never quite garnered the level of attention they deserve. In my mind, they rank amongst the Viking metal elite. Though Vannesinnesvisor is often cited by fans as their best album, I have always had a personal affinity of its immediate predecessor, Urkraft, from 2000. I had a hard time picking a specific song by them, since they have good overall material but few stand-out tracks. I eventually settled on the opener from Urkraft, since it's a good way to introduce a band I really wanted to include.

En Fallen Fader -by- Månegarm
If I had to pick a single Viking metal band that has been the most consistently excellent for the longest time, I would give the nod to Månegarm. The band are all very talented musicians, and rather than simulating folk instruments like many bands in this vein, they use the real things. Apart from an all-folk EP, their sound tends to stay more firmly rooted in black metal harshness than many Viking metal groups, which makes them a good way for black metal fans to bridge the gap. They have also constantly grown and improved, with their finest hour coming in 2007, over a decade after their formation, with the brilliant Vargstenen. This track is my personal favorite off that highly-recommended album.

Lord of the Seas -by- Nomans Land
These guys are my wild-card selection. The Russian group is a bit on the corny side, even for Viking metal. They are a lot of fun to listen to, though, and they are not as well known as they probably deserve to be. Despite sounding a little like it belongs in a Legend of Zelda game, I have deeply enjoyed this particular track for years. It comes from Hammerfrost, their best album in my opinion, which came out in 2005.


  1. Very cool post idea. I immediately started thinking about what my picks for doom metal would be.

    I'm puzzled by your inclusion of Falkenbach as a Viking metal band. I always thought they were a pagan metal band, based on my impression that pagan metal is a form of black metal with traditional folk instrumentation and a far less aggressive attitude.

  2. It's a blurry line at times. I've personally always considered them a Viking metal band, but I understand where you're coming from. I included them as part of an effort to give a broad picture of the style and its boundaries.