In one of yesterday’s posts I compared a song from Sweden’s King of Asgard to Naglfar and Immortal, and I got questioned about that comparison in one of the comments, suggesting that King of Asgard is a Viking metal band. That caused me to consider, certainly not for the first time, what “Viking metal” really means and whether there really is such a thing as a “Viking metal” genre.
These are questions that have been argued in many other places at many other times. For example, our brother Trollfiend devoted a post to the subject at ALSO, WOLVES last fall, insisting that, yes, it’s a genre and it’s defined by the band’s lyrical themes (though he also implied that, musically, it’s a subset of black metal). Other people contend it isn’t a genre at all, or that if it is, it begins and ends with Bathory and early Enslaved and everyone else can go fuck off. And still other people say it’s a pointless question — you either dig the music or you don’t, and who gives a rat’s ass what you call it.
The fact that there seems to be no consensus about how to define “Viking metal” weighs in favor of the argument that it isn’t a genre. That conclusion is bolstered by the significant diversity in the music of bands who different people classify as “Viking metal” (see, e.g., the bands included in the “Viking metal” tag at Last.fm or the Viking metal genre group at Metal Archives). Genre classifications are usually (though not always) defined by widely accepted hallmarks of the musical style, and if no such consensus exists, or if the sound of the music isn’t really the defining characteristic, can we really say that “Viking metal” is a genre?
Is the lyrical content really enough, especially when much of the time you can’t make out the words in the songs when you hear them?
Just to have something we can throw darts at, here’s the definition that appears at The Font of All Human Knowledge, in an article in which the contributors then proceed to contradict themselves:
Viking metal is a subgenre of black metal characterized by its chaotic and noisy sound, slow pace, use of keyboards, dark and violent imagery, and lyrical themes of Norse mythology, Norse paganism, and the Viking Age. It was developed in the 1980s through the mid-1990s as a rejection of Satanism and the occult, and instead embracing the Vikings and paganism as the leaders of opposition to Christianity. Influenced by Nordic folk music, it is considered a category of folk metal, but it is a separate branch of that style, as there are notable differences between Viking metal and folk metal. Another characteristic of the style is that nearly all bands claim to have Viking ancestry.
I haven’t done an exhaustive survey, but I’m still calling bullshit on that assertion that nearly all bands who are considered Viking metal claim to have Viking ancestry, or that claiming Viking ancestry is any kind of defining characteristic of the “genre”. While it’s probably fair to say that most bands considered to be “Viking metal” are from Scandinavia (Sweden, Denmark, Norway), I don’t think most of them “claim” Viking ancestry — and there are certainly bands thought of by at least some people as Viking metal who are from outside Scandinavia and have never claimed Viking ancestry as far as I know.
But let’s go back to that definition’s musical references (leaving the lyrics to one side for now). On the one hand, it says Viking metal is a subgenre of black metal, and then later it says it’s a category of folk metal. I guess it could be both — a style of music that incorporates both elements of black metal AND folk-influenced melodies.
But while the two bands most credited with starting “Viking metal” — Bathory and Enslaved — began life as black metal bands, the music they created which is credited with spawning the “genre” could hardly be called “folk metal”.
Also, if “folk-influenced black metal” is the defining characteristic of Viking metal as the music is heard by listeners, then we would need to exclude bands such as Amon Amarth. Their music (as they have repeatedly acknowledged) is much more in the vein of melodic death metal, despite the fact that lyrically the band’s songs are deeply steeped in Norse mythology and Viking lore (and they sure as fuck look and dress the part of latter-day Vikings). So, is this or is this not “Viking metal”?
And what should we do with a band like Sweden’s Naglfar? Again, their music’s lyrical themes (at least in the early days) might qualify the as a Viking metal band in the minds of many, but musically they seems to be more of an intersection between melodic black metal and melodic death metal, with not much folk in the mix:
What about that reference to slow pacing and the use of keyboards? If those were defining characteristics, wouldn’t we have to exclude a death metal band like Sweden’s Unleashed, whose music lyrically focuses on Viking culture and Norse folklore, and Norway’s Kampfar, whose music is also inspired by Norse folklore and whose very name is an ancient Norse battle cry referring to Odin or Wotan, or Illinois’ The Horde, who call their music “Viking thrash”?
On the other hand, if lyrical focus were enough to define the genre, then wouldn’t Viking Funeral, the 2007 debut EP by Brooklyn’s Hull qualify (it’s streaming here), and wouldn’t we also have to include the Viking-inspired themes of Heidevolk from The Netherlands? And would that mean that we’d need to include Manowar, who is credited in many quarters with being an inspiration to the “Viking metal” genre?
Well, you can see how confusing I find most discussions of Viking metal, and how difficult I think it is to come up with a workable genre definition. It seems to me that a lyrical focus on Norse mythology and Viking culture/history is a necessary part of any definition — if a band isn’t singing ABOUT Vikings and their pagan beliefs, then it seems to me no one has any business calling them a “Viking metal” band.
On the other hand, it also seems to me that the lyrical focus alone can’t be the defining characteristic, unless we’re just willing to accept that “Viking metal” as a genre can sound like almost anything.
Okay, dear readers, have at it. What does “Viking metal” mean to you, and who are the bands you’d name as exemplars of the genre as it should be considered? And if you fall into the category of people who don’t care much about strict genre definitions, who are the bands you’d recommend that might be considered “Viking metal” if you bothered to slap a label on them?
Or should we abandon any pretense that “Viking metal” is a genre and stop using the term, relying instead on more acceptable genre classifications for the sound of the music?
As you ponder those questions, here’s some more music from bands often classified as “Viking metal” that I came across for the first time in researching for this post: