I’ve always had an uneasy relationship with folk metal. I love the untainted honestly of pure folk music, and obviously I love metal as well. But I’ve always had issues with the amalgamation of the two genres. There are some bands that manage to combine the two styles really well—Ensiferum, Amorphis, Moonsorrow and Týr spring to mind. But so much folk metal falls apart in the mix; it gets overly sentimental and twee if bands lean too hard on the folk. Or, if they favor the metal side disproportionately (and record it poorly), then the folksier aspect just ends up sounding like a half-remembered, underutilized accoutrement, rather than an essential component. However, there’s no danger of Svartsot falling into either of those traps because Maledictus Eris combines the two genres with a deft touch, and has all the austerity and energy I crave in well-constructed folk metal.
Svartsot formed in 2005, and over the course of three albums they’ve explored Northern European folklore from a firmly Danish perspective (using their native language on releases). Maledictus Eris, their third full-length album, is the band’s best release by far. Showing an admirable development in songwriting terms, the album is a vast improvement on 2010’s Mulmets Viser, which—although a solid effort—wasn’t an album I revisited often. Maledictus Eris is a different beast altogether.
Maledictus Eris reverberates with a big thick sound and fantastically hefty drums, but still leaves plenty of room for the folksier elements to shine. The album itself tells the grim tale of the black plague in medieval Denmark. Svartsot do a grand job of expressing that tumultuous period with a combination of folk and medieval instrumentation, melodic black and death metal, and a fair amount of upbeat power-metal harmonics to keep things from getting too dour.
The fantastic melodic yet deathly lead-in of “Gud Giv Det Varer Ved!”, with its swinging hook and interweaving whistle, lets you know just what to expect from Maledictus Eris—gloomy momentum cut with delicate counterpointing melodies. Throughout the album Svartsot make great use of an expanded palette of folk instruments. “Dødedansen” and “Om Jeg Lever Kveg” are ably supported by bodhrán, mandolin and whistles, bringing harmony to what are essentially pounding, complex death-metal tracks. A fantastic ‘hey-ho’ propulsion underscores “Farsoten Kom” (which is also superbly accompanied by a mandolin sweep); “Holdt Net Af En Tjørn” has a great bagpipe undercurrent; and the acoustic “Spigrene” brings in a peaceful mood near the end of the album.
There’s a tendency among folk metal bands to group together in sonic clusters. You’ve got your inane little goblin crews, your wicked blackened pagan outfits, your lightweight, poppy and treble-happy types—and then there are those who espouse folklore. Do they all sound the same? Well, obviously not, but when you’re working from a limited palette there’s only so much you can do.
The key to being a great folk metal band, as opposed to a mediocre one, is it to find a way to balance the folk and the metal to complement your overarching narrative. Svartsot have found that balance perfectly on Maledictus Eris. With a burly mix of big riffs, guttural and croaking vocals, and a dark melodic heart that has been bolstered by the judicious use of folk instruments, Svartsot have come up with an album that is easily distinctive and powerful enough to stand out from the crowd.