Black Metal Embraces Its Folk Legacy with Myrkur, Ihsahn and Behemoth's Nergal

"Imagine me starting a death metal band: useless. Imagine me starting a pure black metal band: fucking boring," says Behemoth's Nergal
Black Metal Embraces Its Folk Legacy with Myrkur, Ihsahn and Behemoth's Nergal
Myrkur photo by Shawn Brackbill
Black metal was built from the ashes of folklore and ancient traditions, upon a reverence of nature and days past. That's why folk has such an important place in the foundations of the occult genre. And, like any other trend's trajectory, black metal has finally returned to its roots.
 
Many of the exciting releases already out in 2020 are from black metal royalty like Adam "Nergal" Darski, originally of Behemoth, Amalie Bruun, aka Myrkur, and Vegard Sverre Tveitan, aka Ihsahn, best known for his work with black metal pioneers Emperor. But it's not blistering black metal records that these artists are dropping, but back-to-the-roots works that include tropes of folk.
 
So why folk, and why now? Of course, trends in music are common, but it seems like more than a coincidence that these artists are all letting their folk roots show at the same time. For most of these artists, the answer seems to be both getting back to basics and doing something different.
 
"The main reason why I decided to start the project was just to do something completely opposite to what I do with Behemoth on a daily basis," Nergal tells Exclaim! about his most recent project, Me and That Man, and their latest record, New Man, New Songs, Same Shit, Vol. 1. "I just wanted to play simple, mellow rock music."
 
Nergal also feels that, at this point, doing more black or death metal wouldn't actually break any new ground or be an interesting move.
 
"Imagine me starting a death metal band: useless. Imagine me starting a pure black metal band: fucking boring. Of course, you can still come up with something unique or fresh in metal, but it would just be useless for me. I want to just go to the territory that is completely unknown to me and hope for adventure."
 
While he also admits that his recent music has the potential to be more commercially successful than Behemoth, since it also contains elements of mainstream rock, blues and Americana, he doesn't hold onto any delusions about fame or fortune.
 
"If we become massive, if we sell out some clubs, that's awesome," he said. "But if it doesn't happen, I'm still doing what I want to be doing. I really wanted to bring some excitement back to what I do. With Behemoth, I kind of know what to expect, but with Me and That Man, there will always be a lot of question marks, a lot of unknown territories. Eventually, we're all gonna die, but until then, all that stuff that's gonna keep you keep your mind fresh and working and inspired is when you throw yourself into deep waters, metaphorically speaking, not when you do the same thing that's familiar. So that's what I'm doing with Me and That Man."
 
Myrkur's foray into folk territory is more intentional, on-the-nose, and familiar than Nergal's. With her latest record, Folkesange, she is intentionally covering classic Scandinavian folk songs. This type of music has always been a major influence in her sound, but now she's taking it in a more intentional direction.
 
"I think it was the most natural step I could possibly take from where I was, and also from what my life is at the moment," she says. "I was really just waiting for the right time, the right producer and the right songs before I could do this record. Instead of just writing on this record, I focused on selecting the songs, playing them, letting them get under my skin and then writing my own folk songs."
 
Like Nergal, she's excited to branch out and do something different, but in her case, it's more of a homecoming. It's also important for her to focus on the aspect of live performance when it comes to her latest music.
 
"It's extremely important to take the time to perform these songs live because it's folk music; it's not studio music. I wanted the album to open the door to a universe, and then you don't leave until the last song. That was very important to us, but we also didn't want the album to be like a dusty old museum. I just really love folk music, and I love playing it live."
 
In Ihsahn's case, he focuses on the very roots of black metal itself, looking at Norse instrumentation for influence, but also digging into a modern, bleak world of sonic layers that form his latest project, the Telemark EP.
 
"Telemark is based around a few guitar riffs that have been with me for a while," he said in a press release. "But I'd never really looked into the whole folk aspect before, even though I know a lot of Norwegian bands have. The riffs are heavily influenced by fiddle playing, but there are blast beats and screaming vocals, too. It has all those elements. Lyrically, it's dealing with historical metaphors and connecting the dots with those black metal aesthetics."
 
For all but Nergal, it seems to be about getting back to the roots of black metal, but even for him, it's about getting back to the roots of rock and metal in general, playing something simpler and more enjoyable. Overall, as these musicians get in touch with their roots, they create music that is both telling of their previous ventures and also more true-to-form and inspired than anything they've done before.