#TBT: SKYFORGER'S Sword Song Shows that Modern Folk Metal can be Deeply Authentic
Welcome back to Throwback Thursday! This is the place where we get to indulge in nostalgia and wax poetic about excellent metal of years past. For the month of May, we're continuing the seasonal trend of worshiping mother nature with the old-world Pagan themes oft found throughout the beloved sub-genre of folk metal. Today's 36th TBT focuses on a band that espouses the richness and deep-seeded Pagan roots of a lesser known Baltic culture. Skyforger, hailing from Riga, Latvia, is generally better known for playing in the style of blackened and thrash metal. However, their 2003 release Sword Song shows the pure essence of the regions' history and lore stripped of familiar metal trimmings. Take a trip deep into a forgotten land with…
SKYFORGER'S SWORD SONG
Release Date: September 1, 2003
Sword Song is not an album for every metal fan. In fact, the entirety of the album is bereft of any of the black metaly-goodness Skyforger is well-capable of playing – and for that matter, any 'metal' at all. There's no screaming or growling, widdling or waahing, blast beating or synthscaping whatsoever. And yet, Sword Song has earned it's place in metaldom by offering a new, very coloring perspective to Skyforger's discography and to modern folk metal. Sword Song is gripping yet simple; it is also so raw and so minimal, that it makes you feel as though you've happened upon a coven of men singing ritualistic oaths to old gods deep in the woods. Primarily composed of a few men's voices blended into 5th-step power harmonies, Sword Song is just rough enough around the edges to give the raw feeling of the album an unwavering authenticity. The result is record an echoing with presence and knowing.
Pēteris Kvetkovskis, founding member, singer/guitarist and also main lyricist, is a self-proclaimed historian who is absolutely in love with his country and it's foundations. You can easily tell this from his personal blog about Pagan and Latvian roots found here. The information is fascinating. Scared groves, alternate versions of history, and important places of worship are all part of his blog. Interestingly enough, the entries (though sadly limited) seem very self-aware and often mention how Latvian history borrows and lends to other surrounding cultures. According to Kvetkovskis, unlike other nations, Latvia has a very small amount of written source that tells the stories and origins of Latvian mythology. Over time, many historical materials and monuments have been destroyed by Christian or Soviet activists. He also states that historians basically rely on Latvian songs and the information they provide to define their heritage. We can obviously assume that what Skyforger endeavors to do with their albums, especially Sword Song, is to tell these tales and continue to enrich and honor that tradition.
A fine example of this gripping presence is found on the opening track off of the album, "Long I Heard, Now I See":
I've read a variety of translations for this song which is sung in (I believe) Latvian. From what I can extrapolate, the song structure is a duo repetition of a variety of imagines pertaining to God, his foul and horses, a sister, and land. I admittedly don't know what it all means, but a great way to find out is to check out this portion of Skyforger's official website that offers a brief history into Latvian mythology.
Sword Song is the very definition of folk music. The record tells a story (with authentic and regionally available instruments) about the land in a way that is both timeless and haunting. There are songs of/in prelude to battle, as well as covers of traditional folks songs from Lithuania and from Latgalian people. The songs on the album don't differ in tone that much from one another, but the straight-forward vocals provide subtle changes in sonic temperature and atmosphere. Listening for these changes has a hypnotic effect.
Traditional instruments like the Kokle can be heard on the title track "Sword Song":
"Sword Song" exemplifies why minimalism isn't boring. With so few elements in a song, the parts that compose the piece become that much more important. In "Sword Song", the steady increase of the tempo and the repetitive chanting combined with a vocal baseline with the unwavering resonance of a didgeridoo creates a palpable energy.
More traditional instruments and icy harmonies can be found on my favorite track off of the album "Oh Fog, Oh Dew". I found a video for it that is homemade, but I really like it. It shows the band using all traditional instruments and how they normally dress on stage.
Sword Song is such a stark contrast to what we normally think of and feel when it comes to folk metal (especially because the album isn't actually "metal", though the band generally is). Yet I include it in today's TBT because of it's authenticity and it's unique story telling of a region often ignored when it comes to most areas of metal. Skyforger are modern bards with their feet firmly planted in the past. Sword Song was successful for them, and many 'harder' versions of this album's songs, including "Oh Fog, Oh Dew", are often played live and a few have been rerecorded. But, for me, I like the stripped down versions that echo with intensity and atmosphere. And if you're a metal fan looking for a respite from your own metal collection, Sword Song is a great place to start.