Friday, February 21, 2014

Viking Metal is a Thing

Despite the intrinsic appeal of music to human beings regardless of age, language or culture, we insist on breaking it into styles, types and genres.  In one sense, we have to; these labels exist primarily as a convenience, a referential shorthand to make documentation and conversation easier.  But they can also turn fans against one another as they debate the perceived superiority of one style compared to another, or whether or not a given performer fits better in this category or that.

Take rock and roll as an example; originally a sub-set of popular music oriented towards the North American teenager (a demographic byproduct of the end of WWII), rock and roll was originally known for combining elements of jazz, blues and western swing styles, and was sometimes disparagingly referred to as 'race music'.  For much of its early days, Elvis Presley was known as 'The King of Rock and Roll', but today he is regarded by most youth as a quaint mainstream artist, as famous for his contributions to country, gospel and sequined jumpsuits as the rebellious sexuality conveyed in his Ed Sullivan appearance.  Music from the '50s is now regarded more as 'oldies' than rock and roll.

Rock fans today still feel the need to differentiate themselves: classic rock differs from modern rock, punk rock stands apart from alternative rock, and the once-frequent overlap between pop and rock is now populated almost exclusively by an eponymous fizzing candy.

Nowhere is this factionalizing more apparent than in the genre of heavy metal.  Once a relatively homogenous offshoot of rock and roll, heavy metal ( or simply 'metal') has broken into branches and sects in a way that would make most religions shake their collective and figurative heads in awe.

Some of these branches represent a progression through time, rather than style; the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Saxon, etc) reflects a period as much as it does a sound, and it is unfathomable that a new act might lay claim to this genre, although I suppose we can never rule out the possibility of a Newer Wave, can we?  Others may be limited to a geographical region, such as the 'visual kei' of Japan, but most, appropriately, are dependent upon the sound of the music itself.

The spectrum of metal is as rich and broad as any musical genre, and this variety is reflected nowhere better than in the brilliantly presented and curated Map of Metal, an interactive tapestry of words, music and visuals that comprehensively guides the curious through both the history and scope of heavy metal. Metal encompasses a range of vocalization that stretches from guttural grunts and screams to the operatic wail of singers like Bruce Dickinson; guitar sounds might be muted, dark and distorted, played with ponderous intent reminiscent of swampy blues, or classically influenced arpeggios fretted out at blistering speeds, and everything in between.

The names themselves are evocative: speed metal, death metal, symphonic metal, folk metal, grindcore, thrash, industrial, black; all speak of a particular musical experience and effect that seems to matter far more to the listeners than most of the musicians.  One such variation is known as power metal.

Typically characterized by clear, melodic playing, impressive vocals, symphonic composition style and positive imagery with a decidedly fantastic slant, power metal is far more popular in Europe than North America. It is sometimes referred to as 'happy metal', which suits me right down to the ground, and power metal bands regularly come together for large outdoor music festivals across the continent, where hundreds of fans sing along with every chorus, and a significant portion of the verses.  So how the heck did an eclectic middle-aged nerd from the prairies fall into it?

Despite having a fairly broad based and eclectic taste in music, I had given metal almost a complete miss until about 8 years ago, when a GW co-worker in B.C. ('sup Boltgun!) went on at length about how much more there was to the genre than the frenzied solos and theatrical growling I'd come to associate with it.  "It isn't all music made to piss off parents you know," he chided me.  "I mean, there's lots of that, sure, but metal is still the only kind of music where they sing about epic stuff like dragons and honour."

Boltgun burned me an audio CD called "Epic Metal Mix" featuring an assortment of power metal bands, including  Dragonforce, Dream Evil, Three Inches of Blood, and Rhapsody.  Italian power metal pioneers Rhapsody (now known as Rhapsody of Fire), with their orchestral and choral backing, classically styled arrangements and folk elements, made the biggest impression on me, so I began collecting their albums.  Aided by the public library and YouTube, I was soon listening to a number of Scandinavian bands such as Sonata Arctica (also coming to Edmonton this September!), Nightwish, and Stratovarius (which may be my favourite musical group name ever).

It was while looking for reviews of a Rhapsody of Fire's e.p. that I stumbled across one for Lay of Thrym, from Faroese Viking metal band Tyr.  The reviewer spoke glowingly of not only the energy and instrumentation of the album, but of the skillful way it wove together the unlikely twinspirations of Norse mythology and the Arab Spring.  I got the album and was blown away by the phenomenal balance Tyr had struck between ancient folk music and accomplished modern guitarwork, as well as the tremendous harmonies they are capable of putting together.

Like power metal, Tyr's 'viking metal' lends itself well to strong choruses, belted out at high volume, singing of bravery in the face of oppression, brotherhood in the shadow of danger, and strength to confront adversity.  It's unfortunate to me, personally, that they take such a dim view of Christianity that one of their songs actually suggests using Thor's hammer to re-crucify Jesus, but on the other hand, a) this is what you get when you convert a bunch of Vikings to your faith at swordpoint a thousand years back, and b) I am fully confident that Jesus, having escaped one cross, could probably do it again if He needed to.  Due in part to this opposition, Viking metal actually claims two progenitors in the metal family tree: black metal and folk metal.

For his part, lead singer and songwriter Heri Joensen once described the band's sound as "progressive ethno metal", but admitted in an Edmonton Sun interview that this was probably a mistake:
“I said that once, but our booker said never mention the word ‘ethno’ ever again; The pagan, Viking, heathen stuff comes from our ethnic background. But apparently when you say ‘ethno’ in metal, it’s nerdy guys with girly ponytails drinking tea with their grandmothers. And that’s not the image we should go for.”

Thus far I have Tyr's last 5 albums, including last year's Valkyrja, and all of them get played fairly often in the car, especially Lay of Thrym, and their Viking apocalypse theme album Ragnarok.  Glory is also a big fan, and was crushed to find out that although they are finally returning to Edmonton, Tyr is playing a venue that doesn't allow minors.

This is why after seeing Tyr perform at the Union Hall (formerly Thunderdome, and known to some oldsters as Goose Looney's prior to that) tomorrow night along with Death Angel and 'melodious death-metal' band Children of Bodom from Finland (the "kings of melodeath!"), and then getting up at 4 am to go cheer on Team Canada at a friend's place, I will be driving to Calgary with my youngest daughter to see a bunch of shirtless tattooed pagans with leather pants play a lot of unrepentantly loud and aggressive music.  And probably buying a sweatshirt to prove she did.

A friend at church asked what I was doing this weekend, and after I told him, he grinned and said, "Viking metal is a thing?"

Viking metal is a thing.

No comments:

Post a Comment