Pagan metal and black metal is an encompassing term. While there is no set stylistic quality in pagan metal, black metal seems to be a common theme. Black metal, prog, folk music and even death metal are styles utilized. Also, the term “pagan metal” is often interchangeable with folk and Viking metal. In the following column, I look at some of the most influential and best pagan black metal bands. Don your helmets, shields, swords and get your shaman to bless you on the battlefield: this is pagan black metal!
Any conversation about pagan metal or Viking metal in general should start with the second era of Bathory. The Swedish band is best known as one of the progenitors of black metal. Their first era was marked by blackened, Satanic-based speed metal. However, after a few years of this style, Quorthon, the sole member of Bathory, discovered Manowar’s Viking-themed albums, and with the album Blood Fire Ice, the band invented what became known as “Viking Metal.”
Blood, Fire, Death was a transitional album from the blackened streaks of early recordings such as their icon self-titled album to something more epic. This album straddled the line between the first style and their emerging, chain-mailed sound. Then they would release other classic Viking-era albums such as Hammerheart, Nordland I and II, and my personal favorite, the concept album Blood On Ice. While Quorthon didn’t have the best singing voice, no self-respecting fan of pagan/folk/Viking metal can disregard the influence these Bathory albums had on this weird sub-genre of metal.
Bathory – “Man Of Iron”
When it comes to Viking metal, there is no band that is synonymous with this style more than Enslaved. Hailing from Norway, bands such as Burzum and Mayhem influenced their blackened side, but also those bands’ efforts to squelch Christianity and return to their Odinistic ways certainly influenced Enslaved. Sure the band had pagan/Viking themes, but their style is quite unique, borrowing from thrash, death, black metal, as well as folk metal.
My first exposure to Enslaved was on Nordic Metal: A Tribute To Euryonmous. Enslaved included the song “Loko,” an education on the dark side of Norse Mythology. In the album liner notes, the group dressed in medieval battle attire. Then, I picked up my favorite Enslaved album, Frost. The cover art depicts a snow-filled mountain and again, the band dressed in medieval attire; including Ivar Bjornson’s leather-masked executioner gear. Black metal, thrash and folk music were all part of the band’s musical focus and influence. Frost was the first in a series of albums that praised the four elements — frost, fire, water and earth. Eld (fire) came afterwards. Their first album Vikinglir veldi and their split with Emperor – Hordanes Land are must-have Viking records.
Enslaved – “Loke”
Borknagar are another influential pagan/Viking band. The brainchild of founder Oystein Brunn (bass), Borknagar have featured such prominent musicians as Garm (Arcturus, Ulver), I.C.S. Vortex (Arcturus, Dimmu Borgir), Grim (R.I.P—Gorgoroth) Vintersorg (Vintersorg) and Lars Nedland (Solefald). While black metal is part of their sound, again their vision of pagan metal is very progressive and melodic. Acoustic guitar and epic, bard-style vocals help realize the mystery and majesty of nature and their lyrics show a close relationship man has with nature.
Borknagar’s self-titled album was a black metal album in the sense of production and harsh vocals courtesy of Garm. There were many awe-inspiring chorus lines and melodies. For me, their sophomore album The Olden Domain was their crowning achievement. Here Garm truly found his inner bard and songs like “The Dawn of the End,” a song they still play live, are absolutely transcendent. Garm left after the first two releases and was replaced by his bandmate in Arcturus, I.C.S. Vortex. Much like Garm, Vortex’s voice is diverse, the clean/harsh dichotomy in full effect, and he too is bard-like. Borknagar have been active since the early to mid-nineties and continue to release solid, pagan metal albums.
Borknagar – “To Mount And Rove”
Falkenbach are nowhere near as publicized as most of the bands in this column, but they’ve produced some of the best pagan metal albums you’ll ever hear. Obviously inspired by Sweden’s Bathory, Falkenbach formed in the ultra-early year of 1989. They didn’t release a proper full-length until their 1996 debut full-length En Their Medh Riki Fara. I feel their peak came in 2005 with the release of Heralding – The Fireblade.
Much like Borknagar, Falkenbach are very melodic, but full of natural beauty and atmosphere. Not only did they express these ideas, but they rival bands such as Borknagar and Enslaved in epic characteristics. Their rhythms are slow to mid-paced and super catchy. The vocals are, again like Borknagar’s early efforts, quite bard-like. Heralding – The Fireblade and their other albums are certainly worth digging into.
Falkenbach – “Vanadis”
Agalloch were one of the most popular and best pagan black metal bands in the United States. Their Oregon surroundings definitely influenced their mellow, nature-worshipping sound. Agalloch can be very dark, and the band incorporates both clean and harsh singing, but are also mellow and meditative. They’re not a blast-beat band. Their songs are slow to mid-paced and oh so mellow and transcendent.
Their 1999 effort Pale Folklore initiated their sound. While much rawer and blacker than later material, Pale Folklore is an ode to earth and sky. I discovered them when I bought their Of Stone, Wind and Pillar EP from Amoeba records in San Francisco. I played this EP when driving around the lush, verdant hills of the area’s redwood forests, including the majestic Big Basin Park. This was the perfect soundtrack to my surroundings. Their next album, 2002’s The Mantle is widely considered their greatest achievement. While still atmospheric, this album focused more on acoustic jams and the melancholy of nature and humanity. Unfortunately, Agalloch disbanded in 2016, but their legacy will echo through the halls of eternity.
Agalloch – “…And The Great Cold Death Of The Earth
Norway’s Kampfar are a band, I have to admit, that I don’t know nearly as well as the rest of the bands on this list. Kampfar formed in 1994 and released their debut full-length Mellom Skogkledde Aaser in 1997, still a time of great creativity for pagan metal bands. Its picture of a snow-capped mountain in the background and ice-chunked snowy fjords in the foreground is a classic calling to all pagan metal fans to hear.
Much like many of the bands on this list, this album was sung entirely in the Norwegian language. While non-Norwegian speakers won’t understand their lyrical themes and imagery, there music is transcendent (I love that word!). From the tried and true medium paces to acoustic sections, Mellom Skogkledde Aaser is essential.
Kampfar – “Urkraft”
Due to nationalist beliefs, Graveland are the most controversial band on this list. Led by sole member (he uses sessions artist for recording and touring) Rob Darken, Graveland are one of the most revered bands in the global black metal circle, and their war hymns are absolutely inspiring. Darken’s goblin shrieks, the band’s keyboards, folk rhythms, and battle-ready imagery are a necessity for black/pagan metal fans.
I haven’t talked much about Poland’s influence on black metal in Within The Abyss, but Graveland are definitely one of the progenitors of Polish black metal. They are the cult underground to Behemoth’s mainstream status — a band who also released amazing atmospheric black metal albums (think Emperor) in their early days. I read that the two competed in the scene; however in an interview I conduced with Behemoth, the band expressed their reverence to Graveland. If medieval battle imagery and atmospheric black metal are your thing, Graveland albums should be on your shelf!
Graveland – “Thurisaz”
While widely considered one of the true kings of Norwegian black metal, Satyricon’s early efforts are pagan and Viking themed. Dark Medieval Times, their debut full-length album, truly captures the essence of its title. Raw and grim, this album also included something very different from their Norwegian brethren, a flute. There are a couple of spots on the album featuring a flute, including the title track. When the flute enters their medieval riffing and pacing, that song because like a Bacchanalia with Satyrs playing their pan flutes and drunken revelry occurring.
Other Viking efforts include their Forest Is My Name Throne/Yggdrasill split with Enslaved and their second album The Shadowthrone. While not quite as memorable as their first record, The Shadowthrone is medieval black metal done right. It will inspire an ancestral connection to olden, archaic days of yore. They peaked with their third album Nemesis Divina, which included the video for “Mother North.” “Mother North” is a pagan song, one of their most requested and popular songs. In addition to hearing these albums, one should dig further and discover singer Satyr’s medieval band, Storm.
Satyricon – “Dark Medieval Times”
While Scandinavia boasts the most popular pagan metal scene, one must look to other regions around the world for more pagan goodness. Ireland’s Primordial are one band to check out. One thing to know (the history teacher in me has to mention this) Scandinavia and the United Kingdom’s tribes were known as Germanic tribes. Medieval German tribes such as the Saxons and the Angles (England’s name comes from “Angles”), have a shared culture (Wotan and Odin) shared sense of culture and history. Primordial explores this history, in particular, early Middle Ages, when Rome ran Ireland.
The history of Rome is not one without widespread tragedy. Rome and the Holy Roman Church, both sects (Eastern and Western) killed millions and forced Christianity down the throats of their pagan subjects. This tragic history has been thoroughly documented in an epic fashion by band founder and vocalist AA. Nemteanga. If the history of the Celtic people is something you find fascinating, then make sure to check out Primordial albums.
Primordial – “Where Greater Men Have Fallen”