The Myth and Metal of the Norse Afterlife
Fólkvangr takes listeners on a heavy metal tour of life after death.
Everyone knows the Norse gods are the most badass gods — as well as the most metal. Ever since Led Zeppelin sang about Valhalla in the inimitable “Immigration Song” in 1970, musicians of the heavier sort have turned to Norse mythology for inspiration. One example is the folk metal outfit Fólkvangr. On its recent EP Hel’s Demise, the band devotes four tracks to the Norse afterlife. Take up ax and shield, don your over-ear noise-isolating headphones, and commence hewing.
Fólkvangr hails from Iceland, source of two important ancient records of Norse mythology: the Poetic Edda and the Prose Edda, also known as the Elder Edda and Younger Edda. The former is a collection of anonymous poems, while the latter is the work of lawspeaker Snorri Sturluson (1179–1241). Between the two Eddas, everything is there — creation, deities, trickery, bloodshed and apocalypse. Fólkvangr has several releases dating back to 2014’s Saga of the Lone Skald, and they all have music evoking the ethos of cold climes where the adventuring is good, the gods wily, and the dying hard.
“Between the two Eddas, everything is there — creation, deities, trickery, bloodshed and apocalypse.”
“Hel’s Demise” kicks off the album with Fólkvangr at its best. There’s a chugging riff that’s immediately satisfying, then growled vocals join for a sound reminiscent of Amon Amarth. From there, the music builds with folk instrumentation providing melodies ranging from uplifting to somber. In what proves to be a pattern followed by the other tracks, there’s a brief lull followed by a return to original themes for the climax. Clocking in at 3:23, it’s a short but powerful track, with a vibe like the epic genre music of Two Steps From Hell but grittier.
Hel would demand no less. According to the Prose Edda, she was one of three children born to the mischievous god Loki and the giantess Angrboda. Her siblings were the wolf Fenrir and the Midgard serpent, which encircles the earth. Odin gave Hel rule of Niflheim, the dark underground realm that houses those who die of sickness or old age. Half her body has the vibrancy of the living, while the other half is gray like the dead. She’s fearsome to behold and she has a bloodstained watchdog named Garmr. Viking metal fans may know the beast from Týr’s album Hel (2019), which depicted him in cover art and song.
The Eddas don’t clearly describe Hel’s demise, but perhaps she dies along with the rest of the gods at Ragnarök, the extinction level event in which the gods do battle and annihilate themselves. Nonetheless, there is hope for this dread lady. My favorite moment in Neil Gaiman’s bestseller Norse Mythology is at the end when Balder and Magni find golden chess pieces representing the gods and then begin to play a match. This is based on similar events in the Prose Edda. It presents the hope of pagan cyclical time rather than the promise of Christian linear eschatology. For cosmic forces, there is no end that does not portend a beginning, so if Hel does indeed die in the great conflagration of the gods, we can be certain she will, like the living dead, return.
The next track on the EP is an instrumental. The title “Arrival of the Valkyries” is highly suggestive of one of the most recognizable pieces of music ever composed. Richard Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” opens Act 3 of his music drama Die Walküre, first performed in 1870. The Valkyries are often depicted as nine warrior women armed with spears. Mounted upon winged steeds, they swoop over battlefields, choosing who will fall and who survive, and they carry the slain to Valhalla. In Wagner’s work, the music does indeed signal the arrival of the Valkyries, as they gather on a mountaintop, so I can’t help but think Fólkvangr had Wagner’s music in mind when naming this track.
Like Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries,” Fólkvangr’s instrumental is a forceful effusion of sound. It begins with soft strings, rhythmic clanking as of armor and tack, and a soft folk drum before the rest of the metal ensemble kicks in, guitar thrumming in place of Wagner’s trilling woodwinds and string arpeggios. The guitar has a curious fat and gritty sound at times remarkably similar to the sound on Frantic Amber’s 2019 album Bellatrix about warrior women from Viking shield maidens to the female fighters of Japan in the Boshin War. Further comparisons are, again, to Amon Amarth — which included a track about Valkyries on this year’s Berserker — and Two Steps From Hell. Imagine Tessa Thompson as the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Valkyrie — only times nine — laying waste to an army of your enemies, and here you have the soundtrack to that.
Those whom the Valkyries take to Valhalla are known as the Einherjar, the subject of the EP’s closing track. Each morning upon waking in Valhalla, the Einherjar gird themselves for battle and step outside to fight each other. At the end of the day, they go back to the Allfather’s hall and drink with the Aesir — Odin, Frigg, Thor, Týr and others. North Germanic warriors had hard lives, and apparently they didn’t want their afterlives to be easy either.
Less well-known is that not all fallen warriors go to Valhalla. The goddess Freyja represents fertility, love and beauty, and she has the right to select half the slain at any battlefield. These she takes to Fólkvangr, which the band has adopted as its name. In Old Norse, this word roughly means “folk field.” Here, Freyja presides over Sessrúmnir, a counterpart hall to Odin’s in Valhalla. In Myths of the Norsemen from the Eddas and Sagas, H.A. Guerber says that Freyja also welcomes maidens and wives and that many northern women would rush upon the battlefield to meet their fates and thereby join their husbands in this heavenly abode.
Hel’s Demise is an enjoyable EP, but it never quite lives up to the promise of its opening moments. Despite half the tracks being instrumentals, all four tracks sound so similar that after a few spins I feared I had bought a single with different versions of the same songs. This isn’t the case, and after a few more spins, the tracks began to stand apart, especially the swinging, circular riff weaving through “Einherjer.” Nonetheless, every core sound — and Fólkvangr has a good one — needs variety to truly stand out and shine, like iron bands and boss against a wooden shield. I would like Fólkvangr to explore ways to take listeners different places across a full-length album. When it does, I’ll eagerly be there for the ride.
Until then, I’ll be returning to Hel’s Demise for its beefy cinematic folk-death. Early in the television drama Vikings, there are moments when Ragnar Lothbrok and his ragged crew advance into battle, threatening and wary at the same time. Fólkvangr has the same poise and swagger and imparts some of that thrill to its listeners. It’s a feeling to be prized and one you can’t get just anywhere.