A brief Neofolk guide, part I: Ulver’s Kveldssanger
With each step of your naked feet, the cold and humid soil beneath your finger holds you gently. All your senses are fulfilled with the oak smells, the delicate moonbeams glancing through the trees. And when you reach the highest pine, you realize it’s time to sleep, to rest, to close your eyes in peace. In that moment, you will hear that acoustic melody. You will hear that song.
First of all, let’s talk about history, until we finally rest in peace like in the introduction of this article, ok?
Talking about the Neofolk genre is very difficult, because it’s used as an umbrella theme of general traits in a very minimalist style. And from now on, this article will be very speculative regarding the tagging process, because the artistic direction I want to share isn’t really alike to the original bands, apart from some lyrical contents.
The origin of Neofolk is deeply rooted in the post-punk and post-industrial music scenes in England. The conservative socio-political ambient of that era and the industrialized culture led to a lot of musicians to develop their own signature sound and talking about their own issues and perspective in that respective society. If you trace a line between Joy Division, Bauhaus, Siouxsie and the Banshees and even (Link favorites) The Cure, to note the most known examples, you will realize that the rhythmic approach and the vocal style had this mechanical fume inside and the rusty flavor of the industries.
From this, we move the line to Current 93, Sol Invictus and, obviously, Death in June. Expanding the textures of post-punk rock style made famous by the previous named bands; these three new proposals, shrouded in darkness, controversies and very definite political choices by their principal contributors, were the torch bearers of the consequent Neofolk movement.
The music composed by those three prolific bands is dark, brooding. The synthesizers and the ambient touches give the songs a very doom flavor. It’s not in vain that David Tibet, of Current 93, didn’t talk about Neofolk, but more about “Apocalyptic Folk” (a term that I like more, to diferentiate both soundscapes). In this style, the acoustic elements meets the arrangements of experimental sounds or martial rhythmic. It’s a complete march to the final destiny of humanity. Also, you can complement to this the late 80’s records of the Swans project, to enter that particular mindset.
But, what’s about after the death take your hand and takes you to your own trip?
This is where the other Neofolk style comes in mind and this is where one record serves as the first opening of the door of a new land: Norwegian experimental musicians legends Ulver’s Kveldssanger.
After the almost full black metal record Bergtatt: Et eeventyr i 5 capitler, the first proposal of the band commanded by a young Garm (Krystoffer Rygg was barely 19 years old there), they tried to expand the acoustic sound in the interludes in that album. The result was a 35 minutes masterpiece of pure acoustic and choral sounds.
In some interviews, Garm said that they were very naïve during the writing process. They just wanted to create a “classical” music album. And, in the end, they really encourage a lot of fellow metal bands to embrace the acoustic atmosphere.
Kveldssanger is a short record, but the length is perfect for the entire experience. The base of the compositions is constructed around simple riffs and arpeggiated acoustic guitar voicings with finger picking styles. The melodies of the guitars are very delicate, smooth. All of that are made to accentuate the woods textures, because there’s barely any rhythmic instrument.
Also, the music is occasionally intersected by three-voice male chorus, cellos, flutes and violins, which enrich the desired forest and natural vibes of the record. The main baritone voice is an amazing addition when it leads the melodies; and the masterfully done chorus juxtapositions make the music more solemn.
The romantic/renaissance aspect of the album is ever present; the compositions here are rooted in classical and folkloric music of the northern European regions. There’s no hint of the early black metal (aside from some growled whispering in the last song).
From the melancholic piece Kveldssang, the heavenly vocals in Høyfjeldsbilde, to the tension/release moments in Naturmystikk; all the record is crystal clear to enshroud the listener in the fog so he can be lost in the perpetual woods. Other cuts, like Halling, even sounds hopeful in the melody construction. All of this varied introspective sensations and vibes of the album make it what it is, a full circle of a day/life/era in nature, with all the mundane tragedies and the transcendental aspects of life.
Overall, I can resume the vibes I felt of this album with this list: haunting, delicate, brownish, olive green, warm, and sometimes cold, with pines tress aromas.
When the journey ends in Ulvsblakk, you will realize that the entire experience isn’t about condemned and decay. The darkness here is stylized as a love to the nature, the solitude and the melancholy, more than the oppression or pure obscurity conventions of Burzum ambient works or the interludes of second wave of Norwegian Black Metal bands.
As you can see, the release of the doom and brooding themes of the first bands I named made Kveldssanger a more distinct record. It’s unknown to me if Garm & Co. really used Apocalyptic Folk bands as template to start those compositions; in fact, I’m more akin to the theory that they were thinking first in renaissance or baroque era music to start, and it was just a casualty that the Apocalyptic Folk movement was still around. But, still, the stylistic choices in this album were really a start for other bands to begin creating a new folkloric voice to their region.
From now on, I like to think that this Neofolk branch (which I personally call to myself Nature Folk) born with the last notes of this Ulver record. Following this we will find other bands of North European countries that continued this paradigm and expand it to enrich this forest-hiking experience. But, that will continue in the other part of this article.
Meanwhile, enjoy this experience of travelling, feeling and opening your arms to the Mother Nature.
Random note: I finally learnt to spell: “Kveldssanger”! WOOHOO!