As it comes time to commemorate the 389th anniversary of the Mayflower’s voyage with mass turkey genocide, we hearken back to memories of yore, and remember the plight of those that have come before us. Their sufferings were great; the winter was bitter and unforgiving; starvation and frostbite took many lives. And as we enjoy our warm welcome in the company of our dearest friends, nothing could be further from our minds than the frozen graves of our ancestors. But just as the United States was founded upon an epic voyage across the black seas of destiny, so too were many great legacies, especially that of the Vikings, the mighty Norse warriors. Even today, their stories, as well as those of our forefathers, are told through song. This article will examine the history and art of Viking metal.
The hallmarks of the genre are a massive, epic feeling to the songs, a generally medium tempo, extensive use of keyboards, and an upbeat, empowering melody that is prominently displayed in the song. Whatever other genres a band may fall under, most Viking metal bands exhibit these elements. Many are an offshoot of Folk metal, which began to develop at about the same time, and feature acoustic instruments and clean vocals mixed with the growling style of death metal.
Besides some early efforts of Ronnie James Dio, the first band to combine mythological themes with the metal sound is probably Manowar, formed in 1980. Their first release, Battle Hymns in 1982, contains many of the underlying stylistic elements of modern Viking metal bands like Ensiferum, Wintersun, and Stormwarrior. Clean vocals and a generally cheerful, epic tonality are hallmarks of this early album, as evidenced by the final song, “Battle Hymn.” Their second album, featuring the track “Gates of Valhalla” was the first to specifically call out Norse mythology.”
For the next 7 years or so, a few Viking themed acts followed. Yngwie Malmsteen’s “I Am A Viking” was released in 1985, Blind Guardian released Battalions of Fear in 1988, but overall, the genre was still in its infancy and was mostly just Manowar. The origination of what is today traditionally identified as Viking metal can be traced back to 1988, to Bathory’s release “Blood Fire Death.” The album was a different direction for Bathory, featuring a slower, more calculated approach to the music, and is primarily considered a Viking metal album because of the introduction of the Viking theme, although it generally falls more under the heading of black metal. Bathory’s next album to follow, Hammerheart, expanded on Blood Fire Death’s Viking themes and became the progenitor of what is now known as the archetypal Viking metal sound. It introduced elements such as multi-part vocal harmonies, keyboards and orchestral arrangements, and traditional folk melodies from ancient Norse music, which have since become defining elements of a majority of all Viking metal bands.
But it’s not enough to just say that he sang about Vikings. Where did Quorthon get his inspiration for Hammerheart? According to him, the music was created in an attempt to get away from the political implications of writing about Christianity and Satanism.
We arranged our music and used sound effects to create an atmosphere of the north twelve hundred years ago before there was a Satan or a Christ. We didn't pretend to know all about the Viking age, we just borrowed ingredients from that time. We didn't even call it Viking Metal. All that was a thing that came later and it was mostly an imagination thing among our fan base.
Quorthon also said that some of the inspiration for the next album, Twilight of the Gods, came from listening to some of Wagner’s operas, and the term “opera metal” was suggested at the time. Quorthon started listening to classical music in 1985, and it eventually became “the only music” he listened to.
Quorthon said that he “had never heard a Manowar song” before writing Hammerheart. However, through a strange coincidence, Quorthon played a riff that his drummer matched with a simple Manowar beat, and the sound was instantly forged. Said Quorthon: “had we felt that using the Nordic topic writing about swords and dragon ships was going to be too close to Manowar, it would never have happened out of fear for being called Manowar clones.”
Modern day Viking metal bands such as Ensiferum, Wintersun, and Amon Amarth, have a large following of dedicated fans. Their combination of death metal mosh with the anthemic choruses that are often found in hair metal/NWOBHM is an attractive mix that fans of all metal can relate to. Though their tempos are generally slower than most death metal, the music is still heavy, and great for moshing as well as singing along; a fitting tribute to those warriors of old. Listen to Viking Metal if the idea of fighting all day, having sex all night, and doing it again in the morning sounds appealing to you. And who knows? Maybe Odin can find it in his heart to usher some of us, the new metal warriors, into Valhalla.
- Jacobb Byers (c) 2009