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Folk Metal Comes to Philly (Live Reports)

Korpiklaani
Korpiklaani. Photo credit: Tashia Byrd

Folk metal is not the trendiest of subterranean subgenres, and sometimes it’s easy to snicker at men in chainmail and kilts. But it’s hard to explain how something that the brilliant likes of Skyclad, Amorphis, and Bathory helped create is maligned by anyone. It may be the power metal elements that often seep into many of the biggest bands; the whole thing may also seem gimmicky to metal fans with a low tolerance for such shenanigans.

Just don’t criticize it for being homogeneous. Not every guitarist is in chainmail, and not every lead singer wears a kilt. Just as there are huge historical differences between Mongolian Hordes, Finnish Pagans, Russian Varangians, and, um, the Philadelphia Gritty, folk metal from those regions is as disparate as there are miles separating them. Fortunately, bands from those regions were nice enough to stop by Philly in the same week, saving us a lot of airfare.

At the Kung Fu Necktie last week, Tengger Cavalry proved that a band with roots in Mongolia could still be a certifiable folk metal band, and one that’s plenty heavy. However, that last part wasn’t immediately apparent: the band had no support act and promised two long sets. “The first set is acoustic,” said vocalist Nature Ganganbaigal. “So let’s get mellow.” With a pre-planned intermission, the band sort of opened for itself.

It wasn’t strictly unplugged since there was an electric guitar; however, the indigenous instruments overpowered it. They had a morin khuur – like a two-stringed Mongolian cello – whose dissonance meshed with the harsh gravelly throat singing that Nature often employed. The vocalist also strummed a stringed instrument that may be a topshur or a dombra. Despite its rickety, boxy appearance and only a third of the strings as the Ibanez, it still seemed the dominant instrument in the mix.

Nature’s intro notwithstanding, mellow it wasn’t. There were furious riffs at the flick of his wrist while his band toiled behind him. If this is what Mongolian folk music actually sounds like, they invented some seriously heavy and darkly uplifting music. A quick trip through YouTube reveals that Tengger Cavalry add their own modern touches to update the centuries-old sounds that influence them. However, it was the “metal” set that would decisively show how the band was likely the heaviest to ever play Carnegie Hall.

Shockingly the instrumentation for both sets was the same — it was all just louder and more sinister. Drummer Randy Tesser using drumsticks instead of muted mallets, and bumping the tempo exponentially had a lot to do with it. Nature went from mystical shaman to a mad, masked, fur-hatted biker during the break. The music retained flourishes of the spiritual but with an epic, stomping pace and intense crunch that could be the Asian answer to Panopticon’s Appalachian black metal.

Later the same week, the TLA across town hosted a trio of bands quite removed from Mongolia. The support act didn’t have nearly as far to travel as everyone else, since Frost Giant is a local band from the Philadelphia suburbs.

The half-hour set featured Rachel Kolster on violin. Although not an actual Frost Giant (at least not yet, though evidently all parties seem thrilled at the prospect of having her join permanently), she effortlessly integrated her strings into every song the band performed. This was no mean feat since she had to compete with the volume of three guitars.

The last cut, “Monuments to Nothing,” a nearly nine-minute track off The Harlot Star which came out earlier this year, was indicative of the band’s sound which draws as much from anthemic punk rock as it does Celtic flavors. They minimize the metallic side yet sound nothing like the Dropkick Murphys, thank Odin. No really, thank Odin — the Renfaire rhythms make all the difference.

Although there are many shared traits between folk metal bands from different regions, Arkona’s distinctly Slavic style is a giveaway that you’re not in Helsinki anymore. Vladimir Reshetnikov’s flute and other ancient instruments accentuated the differences, creating eerie, almost nautical sounds beneath a wall of thrashing death. It didn’t even matter that the accordion was piped in.

To say there is no one quite like frontwoman Maria Arkhipova is an understatement. In Dungeons and Dragons terms, the vocalist seems like a pixie raised by trolls. She alternates between deathly growling and pleasant folk singing with ease, an ancient take on the beauty-and-the-beast vocals that somehow feels fresh. All the while, she commands attention whether she is banging on the drumheads built into her intimidating steer skull mic stand or throwing herself across the stage with little regard for her personal safety.

Even the bagpipes were authentic since there are several types of bagpipes from the region including the volynka. The traditional instrument is made from goat skin and that’s pretty fucking metal though Vlad probably used a more modern version.

A lot of folk metal might come off as a whimsical soundtrack for a joust. By comparison, Arkona is a an ice cold shot of vodka in front of a roaring fire during a Siberian winter with wolves howling in the background. It’s primitive and authentic and intense and it sounds not quite like anyone else.

There are a lot of different inspirations for folk music. Arkona took the well-trodden dark side of folk with a performance that could be called warlike. Korpiklaani by comparison play party music. You could see them taking a stage at whatever Finnish coeds do for Spring Break and tearing it to pieces. I have no idea what the lyrics actually translate to, but the usually prescient Encyclopaedia Metallum does say that one lyrical theme the band employs is alcohol. Drink up!

The band collectively resembled what the house band in an obscure Lewis Carroll novel would look like. Violinist Tuomas Rounakari was head to toe in white with a top hat; bassist Jarkko Aaltonen was a hirsute innkeeper who practiced sorcery on the side; Sami Perttula’s bald head replete with Manchurian Queue and accordion half his size was a court jester for comic relief; guitarist Kalle SavijJärvi looked like he joined Lynyrd Skynyrd while vocalist Jonne Järvelä looked like he just left the Australian outback. Even more amusing was that everyone was decked out in the exact same garb they’re wearing on the artwork for their most recent album Kulkija missing not even a fringe from the fiddler’s pants.

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The band performed nearly half of the new album kicking off with the mead-chugging singalong “Neito” alongside a smattering of older tracks. Standouts included the Oompah-metal of “Erämaan Ärjyt,” and a triumphant triumvirate of “Beer Beer,” “Wooden Pints,” and “Vodka.” This did nothing to dispel the notion that alcohol is a frequent Korpiklaani theme.

It was the kind of celebratory music played after medieval woodland weddings — unsophisticated, a little uncouth, but perfect for blowing off steam and a blast to dance to. It’s inspiring and uproarious. Savatage members took metallic melodrama, added jingle bells and now make quite the killing as Trans-Siberian Orchestra. This clan could do the same thing with folk metal and Joulupukki and kick the shit out of Disney on Ice if they were so inclined. In its current form, though, it’s plenty metallic.

Seeing these shows in quick succession doesn’t completely dispel the gimmicky aspect of folk metal, but it does make it obvious that it doesn’t matter. There is diversity in the genre befitting influences that literally span the globe. If nothing else, it’s pretty cool that bands of this ilk are not relegated to a solitary annual Paganfest anymore.

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