|Stylistic origins||Black metal, Nordic folk music, folk rock, folk metal|
|Cultural origins||Late 1980s, Scandinavia|
|Typical instruments||Electric guitar, bass guitar, drums, keyboards and/or Nordic folk instruments|
|Bands - Norse mythology - Norse paganism - Folk metal|
Viking metal is a subgenre of black metal and folk metal characterized by its noisy sound, slow pace, use of keyboards, dark and violent imagery, and, primarily, lyrical themes of Norse mythology, Norse paganism, and the Viking Age. It 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. Influenced by Nordic folk music, it is considered a fusion genre of folk metal and black metal, yet distinct from both.
Viking metal is "noisy, chaotic, and often augmented by sorrowful keyboard melodies". Journalist Johannes Jonsson described the style as "slow black metal with influences from Nordic folk music", and Aaron Patrick Mulvany considered it a category of folk metal. But, unlike folk metal, Viking metal "typically avoids non-standard instruments" and incorporates both clean singing and the typical black metal screams and growls.
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. 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. However, some bands such as Sorhin keep the Satanic elements of black metal but musically take influence from more recent folk tunes. 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. 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".
Paganism and opposition to Christianity
According to author David W. Marshall, 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. Many claim affiliation to Ásatrú, treating Christianity as a foreign influence that was forcibly imposed, and therefore as a wrong to be righted. Marshall states that some members of the scene were motivated to act, citing the church burnings by black metal musician Varg Vikernes as an example. He admits 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. On the other hand, Marshall notes 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.
Influence from sea shanties and popular media
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". Mulvany elaborated to say that "[a]lthough 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." 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". 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". 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".
Though the 1983 song "Stronger Than Evil" by Swedish band Heavy Load establishes a case for this band as the first Viking metal group, the roots of Viking metal 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 the American band Manowar, some bands identified with the Vikings with far more totality than Manowar. At the forefront of this movement stood the Swedish band Bathory. Their first album Bathory was released in 1984 and is "regarded by many as the first black metal record". 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. Bathory followed up on this Viking theme in 1990 with the release of Hammerheart, a concept album fully devoted to Vikings. Allmusic cites this release as a landmark album that "formally introduced" to the metal world the "archetypical Viking metal album". This also marked the complete departure of the band from "the Satanic mould", placing it "squarely in Viking mythology". Bathory founder Quorthon said that he intentionally moved away from Satanism, stating:
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?
The characteristics of Bathory's Viking metal music featured Wagnerian "lengthy epics, ostentatious arrangements, chorused vocals, and ambient keyboards". Mulvany notes that the 90's releases by Bathory marked the beginnings of a Viking-themed trend initially slow, even confusing, in formation. For example, the black metal band Abigor incorporated Viking themes on their album Nachthymnen, but stated about the first track on the album that "this vision should not be seen as a part of the upcoming Viking trend". 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".
The year 1991 saw the formation of the Norwegian group Enslaved, who Mulvany cites as "probably the first truly 'Viking' metal band". Their 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". 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". Their second album Frost, also released in 1994, served as "an important release for the extreme music subgenre of Viking metal". 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.
Besides Bathory and Enslaved, several other bands are credited as pioneers of the style. Allmusic called Mortiis, originally a one-man project by the former Emperor bassist Håvard Ellefsen, "an indispensable force in the genesis of Norway's epic Viking metal sound". 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. Other highly influential Viking metal bands are Amon Amarth, Darkwoods My Betrothed, Einherjer, Ensiferum, Moonsorrow, Thyrfing, and Windir.
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. The scene also spread to other parts of Northern Europe in areas united by a common Germanic heritage, such as Austria. One of these first non-Scandinavian Viking metal bands is the German project Falkenbach, formed in 1989. Viking metal bands have even formed in the United States and Canada, claiming Viking descent either directly from Scandinavia or through England.
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