Viking metal

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Viking metal is a subgenre of heavy metal music with origins in black metal and Nordic folk music, characterized by a common lyrical and thematic focus on Norse mythology, Norse paganism, and the Viking Age. Its musical style is typically manifested as Nordic folk-influenced black metal. Some common traits include a slow paced and heavy riffing style, anthemic choruses, use of both clean and harsh vocals, a frequent reliance on folk instrumentation, and, often, the use of keyboards for atmospheric effect. Viking metal developed in the 1980s through the mid-1990s as a rejection of Satanism and the occult, instead embracing the Vikings and paganism as the leaders of opposition to Christianity. It is similar, in lyrics, sound, and thematic imagery, to pagan metal, but pagan metal has a broader mythological focus and utilizes folk instrumentation more extensively. Most Viking metal bands originate from the Nordic countries, and nearly all bands claim that their members descend, directly or indirectly, from Vikings. Though artists such as Led Zeppelin, Yngwie Malmsteen, Heavy Load, and Manowar had previously dealt with Viking themes, Bathory, from Sweden, is generally credited with pioneering the genre with its albums Blood Fire Death (1988) and Hammerheart (1990). Enslaved, Burzum, Emperor, Storm and Falkenbach helped further develop the genre in the early through mid-1990s. The death metal bands Unleashed and Amon Amarth, which emerged during the early 1990s, also adopted Viking themes, broadening the genre from its primarily black metal origin.


Viking metal makes extensive use of Viking iconography, such as this Mjölnir pendant.

Sonic traits[edit]

AllMusic identifies Viking metal as a nickname for the 1990s Norwegian black metal scene, which the site describes as "noisy, chaotic, and often augmented by sorrowful keyboard melodies".[1] Journalist Johannes Jonsson described the style as "slow black metal with influences from Nordic folk music."[2] Lecturer Ross Hagen identifies Viking metal as a subgenre of black metal, albeit one that abandoned black metal's Satanic imagery.[3] Deena Weinstein mentions that Viking metal bands typically rely extensively on keyboards, which are often played at a "swift, galloping pace."[4] Also, according to Weinstein, Viking metal bands often add "local cultural flourishes" such as traditional instruments and ethnic melodies.[5] Aaron Patrick Mulvany considers it a category of folk metal, but with considerably less usage of "non-standard instruments".[5] For the vocals, Viking metal incorporates both clean singing as well as the typical black metal screams and growls.[6]

Scholar Imke von Helden acknowledges that "There are difficulties in defining [Viking metal], because the definition - apart from certain elements like anthem-like choruses - is not based entirely on musical features and overlaps with other metal genres. The music derives from the also Scandinavian-coined genres of black and death metal."[7] Some bands, such as Unleashed and Amon Amarth, play death metal, but incorporate Viking themes and thus are labeled under the genre.[8][9] Scholar Heather O'Donoghue also notes how Viking metal is defined more by its thematic material than musical qualities. She writes that "Viking metal draws on Norse themes not in a strictly musical sense — the work of groups such as Bathory is not by any means a mock-up of medieval music. Rather, it is in the band names, album titles, artwork of album covers and, especially, in the song lyrics that Viking themes are so evident."[10]

Thematic and lyrical focus[edit]

Thematically, Viking metal draws extensively on elements of black metal, but uses pagan and Norse lyrics and imagery instead of those of an anti-Christian or Satanic nature.[6] Viking metal combines the symbolism common in black and death metal, especially the exultation of violence and virility through weapons and battlefields, with a common interest in ancestral roots, especially a pre-Christian heritage, expressed through Viking mythology and imagery of northern landscapes.[11] However, some bands such as Sorhin keep the Satanic elements of black metal but sonically are influenced from more recent folk tunes.[12] Visual media such as album art, band photos, Web site design, and merchandise all highlight the dark and violent outlook of Viking metal lyrics and themes.[11] In his thesis paper "Reawakening Pride Once Lost": Indigeneity and European Folk Metal, Aaron Patrick Mulvany says that while much of the thematic history of heavy metal uses parodies of the occult in an incongruous fashion, Viking metal bands use "a very specific mythology which controls not only textual choices, but also the imagery used on albums and frequently the kind of music composed".[13] Deena Weinstein comments that despite a whole pantheon of Norse gods to choose from, Viking metal bands typically focus on Odin, the god of war, and Thor, "whose hammer, 'the hammer of the gods', defended the Pagans against the Christians."[4] Alcohol, particularly mead, is also a common lyrical focus.[14] von Helden identifies two main trajectories that Viking metal bands take toward their subject matter. The first trajectory is one of romanticism and escapist ideas, where bands cultivate an image of strength and barbarism and quote passages from various poems and sagas.[8] The second trajectory emphasizes historical accuracy, typically relying on Norse mythology as the sole focus of lyricism and identity.[8]

While many songs are composed in English, Viking metal bands often write lyrics in Nordic languages such as Norwegian, Old Norse, Swedish, Danish and, less commonly, Icelandic, Faroese and Finnish.[4][8]

Paganism and opposition to Christianity[edit]

According to authors Simon Trafford and Aleks Pluskowski, extreme and obsessive loathing of Christianity had long remained the norm of black and death metal bands, but in the 1990s Bathory and many other bands began turning away from Satan as the primary opposition to Christianity, instead placing their faith in the Vikings and Odin.[15] Many claim affiliation to Ásatrú, treating Christianity as a foreign influence that was forcibly imposed, and therefore as a wrong to be righted.[15] Trafford and Pluskowski state that some members of the scene were motivated to act, citing the church burnings by black metal musician Varg Vikernes as an example.[15] They admit that while most bands or individuals did not go that far, an undercurrent of racism, nationalism, and anti-Semitism continues to permeate parts of the black metal scene.[16] On the other hand, Trafford and Pluskowski note that Viking metal, including bands such as Enslaved and Einherjer, simply express interest in Vikings and Norse mythology and entirely reject the Satanic inclination of black metal, writing almost exclusively on Norse themes, without any racist or anti-Semitic undertones.[16]

Relationship to pagan metal[edit]

Weinstein considers Viking metal the progenitor of the pagan metal genre, citing Bathory's Hammerheart as the first pagan metal recording. She writes how "it is fitting that Pagan metal began with Viking metal, given that the Vikings were Europe's last Pagans, converted slowly and with reluctance to Christianity."[4] von Helden also notes similarities between Viking metal and pagan metal, but also highlights some key differences. "[Pagan metal] deals mainly with Pagan religions and lies in a broader context where not only Old Norse mythology is dealt with, but also Celtic myths and history, fairy tales and other elements of folklore. Traditional instruments like the violin or flute are used more often in pagan than in Viking metal music."[7]

Influence from sea shanties and popular media[edit]

Artistic rendering of a Viking ship. The Vikings used vessels such as these to trade, explore, pillage, and conquer.

Aaron Patrick Mulvany stated that "Viking metal… is much less concerned with traditional aural materials like instruments and melodies. Instead, Viking bands limit themselves mainly to the use of Norse mythology as a textual source, which they often augment with stylized shanty-like melodies that are meant to evoke apropos images".[17] Mulvany elaborated to say that

Although the majority of Viking metal bands… limit themselves primarily to textual borrowings, many others can be additionally classified as musically evocative of the Vikings. Unlike folk metal bands drawing from other mythologies, bands using Norse mythology as text have no musical-historical examples to augment their illusion. This has led to the creation of an ahistorical 'Viking music' that is used in tandem with the metal style to conjure up appropriate images.

—Aaron Patrick Mulvany[18]

According to Mulvany, Viking metal draws heavily on sea shanties and media images of pirates and Vikings, an influence evident in two basic forms of the genre. The first type "is largely stepwise in motion with many repeated note figures", is frequently in minor key, and is "primarily sung in unison".[18] The second type uses an "arching ascent-descent structure" and is less dependent on lyrics, making it "more evocative of rolling waves on the open sea".[18] Mulvany explains that the heavy sea shanty influence results from media stereotyping in which certain aural associations are equated with "images of sailors, sea-borne marauders, and Vikings", and that "though rooted in traditional sea shanties, these aural images have been perpetuated through the media of pirate movies and television shows, and they have been extended - by association - to Vikings".[19]

Keith Fay of folk metal band Cruachan has also noted the influence of sea shanties on Viking metal, though rather disparagingly. In an interview with Terrorizer, he stated that "There is no real defined 'Viking music', so all these Nordic bands use 'sea shanty' type tunes to match their music. A lot of these bands, especially the bigger ones, are called Folk Metal but they don’t really understand what real Folk Music is; though I know this is not true for all of them."[20]


Precursors: 1970s to mid-1980s[edit]

Manowar (seen here in 2009) is an early example of a band that made use of Viking themes

The use of Viking themes and imagery in hard rock and heavy metal music predates the advent of Viking metal. For instance, the lyrics to Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song" (1970) and "No Quarter" (1973) feature allusions to Viking voyages, violence, and exploration.[21] The Swedish band Heavy Load often featured Viking-themed songs, such as the 1978 song "Son of the Northern Light", and Eduardo Rivadavia of AllMusic writes that the 1983 song "Stronger than Evil" establishes a case for Heavy Load as the first Viking metal group.[22] Swedish neoclassical metal guitarist Yngwie Malmsteen sometimes featured themes of hyper-masculinity, heroic warriors, and Vikings, for example on his 1985 album Marching Out.[7][23] The German band Grave Digger and American band Manowar, both of which formed in 1980, drew upon Norse myth as envisioned in Richard Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen.[24] Manowar in particular adopted Viking imagery much more heavily than other bands. Trafford and Pluskowski write that Manowar, "champions of the furry loincloth", "were widely ridiculed even within heavy metal, but won a sizeable − and fanatical − following."[25] However, Trafford and Pluskowski stipulate that while Manowar adopted Viking imagery, it did not embrace it. They explain that "in any case, the Manowar version of the Vikings owes as much to Conan the Barbarian as it does to history, saga, or Edda: What matters to Manowar is untamed masculinity, and the Vikings are for them merely the archetypal barbarian males."[26] Unlike the later Viking metal bands, Manowar did not bother with the historicity of popular Viking image, and did not in any way identify with the Vikings, religiously or racially.[26]

Viking metal: Late-1980s to present[edit]

Åsgårdsreien by Peter Nicolai Arbo was used as the cover for Bathory's Blood Fire Death album, considered the first example of Viking metal.

The roots of Viking metal proper are generally cited to be later in the Scandinavian metal scene, particularly the death and black metal scenes of the late 1980s. Inspired by the Viking themes used by Manowar, some bands identified with the Vikings with far more totality than Manowar.[26] At the forefront of this movement stood the Swedish band Bathory. Its first album Bathory was released in 1984 and is "regarded by many as the first black metal record".[27] The band's fourth album Blood Fire Death, released in 1988, includes two early examples of Viking metal – the songs "A Fine Day to Die" and "Blood Fire Death". Eduardo Rivadavia of AllMusic describes this as "possibly the first true example" of Viking metal.[28] The cover to Blood Fire Death even features Åsgårdsreien, a painting by Norwegian artist Peter Nicolai Arbo which depicts Norse god Odin on a Wild Hunt.[26] Bathory followed up on this Viking theme in 1990 with the release of Hammerheart, a concept album fully devoted to Vikings.[26] Like its predecessor, this album also features a Viking-themed painting, this time The Funeral of a Viking by Sir Frank Dicksee.[26] Following up this release were 1991's Twilight of the Gods, titled after Wagner's opera of the same name, and Blood on Ice, recorded in 1988-1989 but released in 1996.[26] Rivadavia cites Hammerheart as a landmark album that "formally introduced" to the metal world the "archetypical Viking metal album".[29] Through this album, writes Rividavia, Quorthon, the band's founder, "became a standard-bearer for an entire generation of disenfranchised Norse-descended teens", and the album's "well-thought-out words and overall scope and vision engendered a deep-seated anti-Christian sentiment within the region's extreme metal scene" that culminated in the violence and hate crimes committed by members of the Norwegian black metal community in the early 1990s.[29] Quorthon later explained, in the liner notes to Blood on Ice, that his shift to Viking themes was an intentional move away from Satanism:

I came to the personal conclusion that this whole satanic bit was a fake: a hoax created by another hoax - the Christian church, the very institution they were attempting to attack using satanic lyrics in the first place. Since I am an avid fan of history, the natural step would be to find something in history that could replace a thing like the dark side of life. And what could be more simple and natural than to pick up on the Viking era? Being Swedish and all, having a personal relation to, and linked by blood to, that era at the same time as it was an internationally infamous moment in history, I sensed that here I might just have something. Especially well suited was it since it was an era that reached its peak just before the Christian circus came around northern Europe and Sweden in the tenth century, establishing itself as the dictatorial way of life and death. And so that satan and hell type of soup was changed for proud and strong nordsmen, shiny blades of broadswords, dragon ships and party-'til-you-puke type of living up there in the great halls

QuorthonLiner notes of Blood on Ice[30]

The characteristics of Bathory's Viking metal music featured Wagnerian "lengthy epics, ostentatious arrangements, chorused vocals, and ambient keyboards".[31] Mulvany notes that the 90's releases by Bathory marked the beginnings of a Viking-themed trend initially slow, even confusing, in formation.[32] For example, in 1994, the black metal band Abigor, on its album Nachthymnen, incorporated themes of Vikings and Germanic paganism, but stated about the first track on the album that "this vision should not be seen as a part of the upcoming Viking trend."[32] According to Mulvany, "The Viking trend presaged by Abigor was actually taking place around them, and it remains more 'true' to how black metal is often defined than the folk influenced metal that followed. Its folk elements are predominantly textual or musically evocative rather than musically-historically accurate".[33]

Enslaved performing live in Oslo in October 2012

The year 1991 saw the formation of the Norwegian group Enslaved, which Mulvany cites as "probably the first truly 'Viking' metal band".[33][34] Its debut album Vikingligr Veldi arrived in 1994 with "many melodies being borrowed from ethnic Scandinavian folk music to lend additional authenticity to the vicious, fast-paced black metal".[35] Inspired by Bathory, Enslaved set out to "create Viking metal devoted to retelling Norway's legends and traditions of old -- not attacking Christianity by means of its own creation: Satan".[35][36] Its second album Frost, also released in 1994, served as "an important release for the extreme music subgenre of Viking metal".[37] With "Viking themes, razor sharp guitars, blastbeat drums, and an ear for orchestration resulting in complex structures, bountiful harmonies and time changes", Enslaved is acclaimed as "probably the foremost exponents" of the genre.[36][38]

Varg Vikernes of the one-man project Burzum, 2009.

Besides Bathory and Enslaved, several other artists are credited as pioneers of the style. The original bassist for Emperor, Håvard Ellefsen, also known as Mortiis, was according to Allmusic "an indispensable force in the genesis of Norway's epic Viking metal sound."[39] Despite Ellefsen's short tenure in the band, it was his musical interests that catalyzed the band to mix chaotic black metal with synthesizer melodies based on Norwegian folk music.[39] Ideologically, the one-man project Burzum by Varg Vikernes helped inspire the Viking metal scene through Vikernes' strong racist, nationalistic, and anti-Judeo-Christian beliefs and longing to return to paganism.[40] Trafford and Pluskowski opine that Vikerne's beliefs, which had culminated in the burning of several churches, including the twelfth-century Fantoft Stave Church in Bergen, revealed the confused nature of ideas about Vikings in the Norwegian black metal scene. They note that "His tastes seem originally not for the unmediated medieval itself as for J. R. R. Tolkien: he adopted the name 'Count Grishnackh,' based upon an orc in The Lord of the Rings, and named his band Burzum after a Tolkenian word for 'darkness.'"[15][16] They postulate that only in retrospect did Vikernes "cloak his actions in an Oðinic garb and claim the motivation of an attempt to restore Norse paganism for his church burning."[16]

Other highly influential Viking metal bands are Darkwoods My Betrothed,[41] Einherjer,[11][42] Ensiferum,[43] Moonsorrow,[11] Thyrfing,[11] and Windir.[11]

Amon Amarth and Unleashed sonically play death metal but incorporate Viking themes and thus are considered to have broadened the scope of Viking metal. Florian Heesch in "Metal for Nordic Men: Amon Amarth’s Representations of Vikings" writes that "While receptions of Norse myths where mostly important in black metal, especially the Norwegian black metal of the early 1990s, and the younger pagan metal, bands as the Swedish Unleashed made the topic fit into death metal before Amon Amarth appeared."[24]

Spread outside the Nordic countries[edit]

According to Trafford and Pluskowski, practically all Viking metal bands claim Vikings ancestry, and after its inception in Scandinavia Viking metal spread to areas historically settled by Vikings, including England, Russia, and Normandy.[44] The scene also spread to other parts of Northern Europe in areas united by a common Germanic heritage, such as Austria. Trafford and Pluskowski cite the Austrian band Valhalla, which makes extensive use of Viking iconography, including horned helmets.[44] One of the first non-Nordic Viking metal bands is the German project Falkenbach, formed in 1998.[45] Viking metal bands have even formed in the United States and Canada, with their members claiming Viking descent either directly from Scandinavia or through England.[44] Some members of the Viking metal scene believe that it is impossible for someone to be a Viking unless they themselves are of northern European descent.[46]

Weinstein comments that "Viking metal has travelled further than any Viking ship. Self-defined pagan metal bands who describe their music as Viking metal can be found in the United States, Brazil and Uruguay, among other places."[47] She cites the sensationalism of the early Norwegian black metal scene for some of this popularity, but considers the genre's greatest influence to be "the inspiration it has given to others to explore their own roots."[47] This impact was particularly strong in the Baltic states, where Viking metal influenced the development of a distinct pagan metal scene known as "Baltic war metal".[48] Weinstein considers the Lithuanian band Obtest the prime example of this style. Formed as a black metal band in 1993 with Lithuanian lyrics, the band's 1997 album Tūkstantmetis birthed the war metal scene.[48] Weinstein highlights a comment by scholar Michael F. Strmiska that despite the claim that Scandinavia was home to the last pagans in Europe, "A point of particular pride is the knowledge that Lithuania was the last country in all of Europe to officially abandon its native Pagan traditions and convert to Christianity in 1387."[48] Another Baltic band influenced by Viking metal is the Latvian project Skyforger, which composes its lyrics in the Latvian language.[48] A final example by Weinstein of the influence of Viking metal on pagan metal is the National Socialist black metal band Graveland from Poland, which on its second release, Thousand Swords, released in 1995, featured a variety of folk styles mixed in with the band's black metal sound, and introduced lyrics about Polish history and Slavic gods.[48]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Scandinavian Metal". AllMusic. All Media Guide. Retrieved October 28, 2014. 
  2. ^ Jonsson, Johannes (13 November 2011). "VARDOGER - Whitefrozen". Metal for Jesus!. Retrieved 7 January 2012. 
  3. ^ Hagen 2011, pg. 190-191.
  4. ^ a b c d Weinstein, pg. 83.
  5. ^ a b Mulvany, pg.46-47.
  6. ^ a b Freeborn, pg.843
  7. ^ a b c von Helden 2010, pg. 257.
  8. ^ a b c d von Helden 2010, pg. 258.
  9. ^ Kahn-Harris 2007, pg. 106
  10. ^ O'Donoghue 2007, pg. 178
  11. ^ a b c d e f Trafford and Pluskowski, pg.65.
  12. ^ Mulvany, pg.42.
  13. ^ Mulvany, pg.42-43.
  14. ^ von Helden 2010, pg. 259.
  15. ^ a b c d Trafford and Pluskowski, pg.63.
  16. ^ a b c d Trafford and Pluskowski, pg.64.
  17. ^ Mulvany, pg.iv.
  18. ^ a b c Mulvany, pg. 36
  19. ^ Mulvany, pg.39.
  20. ^ Sulaiman, Ann; Yardley, Miranda (December 13, 2010). "Ann S. Presents – An Interview with Keith Fay (Cruachan)!". Terrorizer. Dark Arts. Retrieved October 28, 2014. 
  21. ^ Trafford and Pluskowski 2007, pg. 60.
  22. ^ Eduardo, Rivadavia. "Stronger Than Evil". AllMusic. Rovi Corporation. Retrieved 8 January 2012. 
  23. ^ Huey, Steve. "Marching Out". AllMusic. All Media Network. Retrieved November 11, 2014. 
  24. ^ a b Heesch 2010, pg. 72.
  25. ^ Trafford and Pluskowski 2007, pg. 61.
  26. ^ a b c d e f g Trafford and Pluskowski, pg.62.
  27. ^ Ferrier, Rob. "Bathory review". AllMusic. Retrieved 2008-03-27. 
  28. ^ Rivadavia, Eduardo. "Blood Fire Death review". AllMusic. Retrieved 2008-03-27. 
  29. ^ a b Rivadavia, Eduardo. "Hammerheart review". AllMusic. Retrieved 2008-03-27. 
  30. ^ Mulvany, pg.30.
  31. ^ Rivadavia, Eduardo. "Requiem review". AllMusic. Retrieved 2008-03-27. 
  32. ^ a b Mulvany, pg.32.
  33. ^ a b Mulvany, pg. 33.
  34. ^ Huey, Steve. "Enslaved". AllMusic. Retrieved 2008-03-27. 
  35. ^ a b Rivadavia, Eduardo. "Vikingligr Veldi". AllMusic. Retrieved 2008-03-27. 
  36. ^ a b Rivadavia, Eduardo. "Eld review". AllMusic. Retrieved 2008-03-27. 
  37. ^ Jeffries, Vincent. "Frost review". AllMusic. Retrieved 2008-03-27. 
  38. ^ Sharpe-Young, Garry. "Enslaved". MusicMight. Retrieved 2008-03-27. 
  39. ^ a b Huey, Steve. "Mortiis". AllMusic. Rovi Corporation. Retrieved 7 January 2012. 
  40. ^ Huey, Steve. "Burzum". AllMusic. Rovi Corporation. Retrieved 8 January 2012. 
  41. ^ Harris, Craig. "Darkwoods My Betrothed". AllMusic. Rovi Corporation. Retrieved 8 January 2012. 
  42. ^ DaRonco, Mike. "Einherjer". AllMusic. Rovi Corporation. Retrieved 8 January 2012. 
  43. ^ Pugh and Wiesl, pg. 108-109.
  44. ^ a b c Trafford and Pluskowski, pg. 70-71.
  45. ^ Frank Stöver: Falkenbach. In: Voices from the Darkside, no. 10, 1997, pp. 48f.
  46. ^ Trafford and Pluskowski 2007, pg. 71.
  47. ^ a b Weinstein 2014, pg. 84.
  48. ^ a b c d e Weinstein 2014, pg. 84-85