Finding the Progressive in the Regressive: That’s Folkin’ Metal

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Everyone has different notions as to what “progressive” music is. While I personally find the term difficult to define, I believe that any form of music can be progressive so long as the listener is challenged in their conceptions of what music can be.

In order for music to progress it must hold new sounds for the listener. We often tack genre-tails onto the “progressive” epithet (such as “progressive-metal” or “progressive-rock”) to orient ourselves, to provide a frame of reference by which we can begin to grasp the new sounds that we’re experiencing, but the actual progression is that the music transcends genre. For example, a band can be playing loud, aggressive music with all the traditional facets of a heavy metal band, utilizing styles common to heavy metal, but can be producing a sound entirely foreign to the genre. We then align ourselves with aspects of the music we understand (which could be the distortion or simply the arrangements), and from that familiar ground stems the beginning of comprehension.

Certain kinds of music will challenge us more than others, which is where our individual musical backgrounds come into play. For example, people who have studied music will be able to adapt and understand “out” music much quicker than people who haven’t. They’re able to pull from their own training and resources to dissect sounds that the untrained ear would take much longer to comprehend (this isn’t to say that people who aren’t formally trained in music can’t teach themselves the same thing; the training then just comes in a different form). To play Meshuggah for a doctor of music (assuming she/he had never heard them before) would elicit a much different reaction than if you were to play it for your typical Theory of a Deadman fan (if we assume the same ignorance), but both would be challenged by the music. There are indeed artists who are overtly progressive, obviously (some might say exaggeratingly) pushing the boundaries of what their respective genre-tails have to offer, and are admirable in that respect. But music can be subtly (or more accurately, subjectively) progressive, and here I reiterate my initial claim: progressive music is more dependent on the listener than the performer.

Let me explain. Music is a personal experience. Artists that once challenged us will eventually bore us, and we move to more and more “out” forms of music until we’ve rejected tonality (or some other aspect of conventional music) completely. Our personal reaction to challenging music will fade over time until the music can no longer be defined as such; however, this only occurs on a personal level. That feeling can be (and often is) shared with other people, but only with people who have reached a similar place musically. This is key.

Musical experience differs from person to person. Music once progressive to a person (that is, they were progressed by it) but has lost that edge can still be mind-blowing for a different person who has never heard such sounds. This suggests that the progressive experience is subjective, and is why I believe progressive music can never become a genre. There is no such thing as “Progressive rock” or “Progressive metal,” there is only music with certain characteristics which we have labeled in order to help orient ourselves (such as metal and rock). Progressive music can utilize or even be firmly grounded in those genres, but the progression itself is free of genre, for in order to be progressing it must be new. It must be breaking ground.

When music falls into the so-called “Progressive” genre, it ceases to experiment. Where once it embraced its genre roots and evolved, it now uses the result to create a stagnant, clichéd version of what was an “out” music (Dream Theater is a perfect example to me, both as a band who became their own genre and as one who spawned all kinds of imitators who classified themselves as “progressive” whilst lazily regurgitating what had been cutting edge a decade before), effectively nullifying any aspect of the music that would challenge the listener. However, this phenomenon is applicable and true only to: listeners who have either followed the artist for long enough to recognize this stagnation or were already advanced beyond the level of said artist, or to the artist themselves. New or inexperienced listeners will still be challenged, and for them the music remains progressive — for a time.

So if progressive music is subject to the listener, with their experiences, understanding, and conceptions, then any form of music can be progressive so long as it brings new awareness to its audience. But there is some music where experimentation shines in that it unfolds itself to the listener as their musical intellect expands. This is music that I view as being truly progressive — it grows with the listener and continually reveals layers of complexity not initially available or necessary for enjoyment, but understood and appreciated with a mature ear. Sometimes this music is written by highly educated musical geniuses, but sometimes this music comes disguised to us in forms that deceptively appear regressive.

Folk music, true folk music, is the music of the people groups of a specific geographical and/or cultural region — hence the vastly different types of folk music around the world. Certain types of folk music are very normal to our Western ears, and certain types are more difficult to understand (Middle Eastern quarter tone music, Mongolian throat singing, Bulgarian polyphony, Corsican chants, et cetera); such forms of folk music are all quite normal and natural to peoples who have not steeped their entire lives in the standardized Western 12-tone scale, or Western tonal music in general. Folk music is often characterized by vocals and singing (our esteemed ex-prez-in-res W. wrote an excellent piece about vocals in music, and I think his arguments there help explain why vocals are so important in folk music) which tell stories in patterns that have little regard for conventional time signatures. Couple that with a lack of standardized musical education and folk music can take some of the most interesting, complicated turns whilst retaining easy listenability, accessibility, and (possibly most important) danceability.

This is progressive music that deceptively appears regressive. Folk music can be (and in no small way due to hipster culture) dismissed as simple, uneducated music, when in reality it can be the exact kind of music that pushes conventional boundaries in an appealing and enjoyable way. There are immesurable examples of this, but one of my favourites is the folk group Värttinä.

Värttinä, a folk group from the imaginary country known as Finland, is firmly rooted in Finno-Urgic polyphonic tradition. Naturalization of conventionally odd-time signatures is prominent in their music, but their usage shies away from abrasion. For example, listen to “Riena” from their 2006 release, Miero:

It would take a very careful listener to discern that the time signature of the verse is 11/16, a meter challenging even to many trained Western musicians. The performance is so natural and the delivery so fluid that only over time is one able to unravel the subtle complexity that is a constant in Värttinä’s compositions. They are university educated musicians, but are trained in folk music and understand the natural, untrained push-pull relationship of the words to rhythm, which makes them a perfect example of what I call deceptive progression.

Värttinä is exactly what I desire from progressive music. It is accessible to people from all musical backgrounds or levels of training, but it continually evolves and challenges me as my own musical understanding grows. They are a perfect example of progressive music that evolves in complexity with the listener, and will take a significant period of time and education to become passé for the listener. Even then, I doubt Värttinä, much like other bands with the same gift for composition, will ever become dull or truly uninteresting. They have captured the subtlety of progression and expressed it in an accessible art form, in a way that few artists are able to do — and this all on grandpa’s guitars.

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  • Doctor Dickless

    Värttinä is pretty good stuff. I love folk music, but folk metal has never really sparked my fire.

    • Guacamole Jim

      It depends on the band, for me. Some folk metal bands I really like, but others are pretty bland.

    • Pagliacci is Kvlt

      I’ve been listening to Kauna non-stop for about a week now, but Värttinä isn’t doing much for me.

  • W.

    This is a great article, Jim. Thanks for the namedrop! That Bulgarian polyphony track is awesome. Also, i think your comment about imitators following in the footsteps not truly being progressive is spot-on. I think the djent bands have been inaccurately labeled progressive.

    • Yea I hate when someone says “hey check out this prog band” and I go and it’s just djent with keyboards or something. Aside from the fact that I hate that “djent” sound, adding keyboards or xylophones or whatever doesn’t make you progressive. I would love to see more bands utilize the saxophone in metal, but would I call it progressive? No, just clever/unique.

      • W.

        I don’t know that it automatically makes something progressive, but I personally would love to see more experimentation with different instruments and vocal techniques in metal.

      • Xan

        We need more jazz metal.

      • The Black Dahlia Burger

        I pretty much agree, but it’s kind of hard to say something like this isn’t progressive, even though it’s little more than keyboards/ambient noises on top of well-made deathcore. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k0VBaye65sc Like what genre could this be? It’s definitely not just deathcore because it sounds nothing like your typical chelsea grin/suicide silence/etc, but it’s not full-blown prog either. So i dont know really

        • Between The Buried & Smee

          I always considered Danza 4 the prime example of progressive deathcore.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TAN_V6BXMcE

          • The Black Dahlia Burger

            If any person on this earth who likes metal can listen to this and say Phil Bozeman isn’t a great vocalist then they’re lying

          • crazytaco_12

            Agreed, I love that dude’s voice

          • Howard Dean

            I just clicked play and checked out both that Born of Osiris song and this TDTE song.

            I remember now why I don’t touch this stuff. Blurgh.

          • Between The Buried & Smee

            Listen to them at the same time and you’ve got a Dillinger song.

          • The Black Dahlia Burger

            What don’t you like about the BoO song?

          • Howard Dean

            Really doesn’t do anything that tickles my fancy, and the stuff it does do are things that I don’t usually like in metal. I’m not really a fan of most deathcore, but that aside, I don’t think they did a good job trying to combine their baseline sound of deathcore with the stuff around it, like the spacey synths or the kind of noodly/tech lead guitar (I’m not big on most tech death either, so it’s an ugly mix). Vocals were meh, too. The whole thing is just not a good combo for me.

          • The Black Dahlia Burger

            Fair enough, that’s a good breakdown (lol) of what makes it either work or not work for you.

      • JWG

        I agree, but I’m biased heavily – as a baritone saxophonist I feel that I could easily fit into the right kind of ‘heavy’ band instead of their bass player, and take it to strange new places via my (admittedly limited) studies in bebop and funk.

        …And I’d be just as likely to repel the ladies as a bass player, so if that’s what they’re worried about it’s all good.

        I brought this up before, but it actually saddens me that when I mention that I like “Morphine” even my musician friends think I mean I’m on drugs.

    • Doctor Dickless

      IT AIN’T GOOD IF IT DON’T DJENT!

    • Guacamole Jim

      Djent is a prime example! I’ll admit I’ve got a soft spot for some djent because I really dig the grooves, but it’s not progressing anywhere. And thanks!

    • Ferris Mueller

      Can any sound or style truly be original anymore? Seems like all that can be done is take an old idea and put a slightly new spin on it.

  • YourLogicIsFlushed

    Still gotta check out the music but very interesting interpretation of the concept. I think I agree with most of it, but there’s something fishy about not being able to call something inherently progressive, and the saying that the label can fade over time. I am not sure if I can counter at the moment, but your article will make me think about that in a different way. Thanks!

    • Guacamole Jim

      Good! That was what I was hoping for, and I’m excited to see what you come up with.

  • Renan Ribeiro

    I’m interested in discussing the differences between “post” and “progressive” as sometimes I see both terms being used interchangeably.

    Sepultura’s Roots album is one of my favorite examples of metal reaching towards folk music for inspiration – both in theme and in composition.

  • I disagree with your point that we will continue to move forward as we are no longer challenged by our music. I give to you the evidence: Riot – Thundersteel. Riot does not challenge your perceptions of what music is or can be, but rather, challenges you to quit being a sniveling little wimp and play kick ass guitar riffs for the rest of your life

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nZUysqemMmg

    • King Shit of Fuck Mountain

      Excellent fucking track!! Ripping!!

      • Ripping? I think you mean RIPS POSERS AM I RIGHT BRO?

        • King Shit of Fuck Mountain

          Thanks for the kind correction!

        • Xan

          RIP THE CUNTING LIFELOVERS!

    • crazytaco_12

      Probably one of the most metal songs I’ve heard in my lifetime, think you’ll dig https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rc7klZ5_oPQ

  • Well written, you delicious chip dip! I agree with ALMOST everything, but I can’t get into it right now because I’m about to cut open a human brain.

  • King Shit of Fuck Mountain
    • Nordling Rites Ov Karhu

      This is good and Finnish and I didn’t know about them. For shame

  • King Shit of Fuck Mountain
    • Oh my lord, I completely forgot about this band, GORGEOUS music

      • King Shit of Fuck Mountain

        One of my faves.

        • Saivo was my introduction to them. Blew me away first time. It’s like Ulver when I don’t want to listen to Ulver

  • Xan

    Folk metal is some of my favorite metal when done right. Sadly for every good folk metal band, there are literally 1,000 awful ones. I dislike even half of the one’s that are held in high regard such as Korpiklaani and Finntroll. I feel like I’m listening to a 14-year old carnival band.

    • W.

      Tengger cavalry >>>>>>>>>

  • Speaking of progressing, Job For a Cowboy just dropped a new song. It’s nowhere near what I would expect from them, but damn it’s good. dat bass. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zDo-VEam_JA

  • Cock ov Steele

    I like cute female vocalists more than typical cheap “hot” looking ones. Like a more wholesome and natural look over the “we formed this bro metal band with smoking hot babes on vocals to appease the Bdubs fight night crowd.” So basically these band>Butcher Babies.

  • Does this count? Black metal with sitar and steeped in Eastern mythology?
    http://youtu.be/XkiM0YgPf5U

  • My kingdom for a chance to stick my pinky up those chicks’ poopers!

  • Guacamole Jim

    Nobody is probably on here at this point, but I deliberately refrained from posting the obvious progressive band that deceptively appears simple: Porcupine Tree. They’re a prog band that actually deserves the title, in my opinion.

  • Guppusmaximus

    So, are you saying that “Mary had a little Lamb” would be progressive to an infant because said infant hasn’t heard much music?!

    Honestly, I don’t see how any form of music could be considered Progressive to those people who have no understanding or cannot grasp the basic fundamentals. When my parents heard me cranking Death, they thought it was just noise. So, I think there has to be an initial understanding of how music is composed, the technical process involved and how genres might fit together (sometimes seamlessly) in order to successfully communicate a “new” idea. Sorry, experimental genres like ‘Noise’ aren’t progressive to me because the Human species started creating music by making noise first… Just my .02

    • Guacamole Jim

      That’s exactly what I’m saying – Mary Had A Little Lamb CAN be progressive, if the listener is challenged in some way by it. Now, it’s a song that’s deliberately written to be simple and easy to grasp, so there are very few people who would ever be challenged by it, but your point is exactly right.

      What you’re saying about understanding composition is exactly my point in paragraph #3, but you see how music progresses us right from our very initial exposure to it (Mary Had a Little Lamb) up until we are listening to stuff that’s way out there. The more experience we have, the better equipped we are to understand “out” music.

      The point I’m trying to make is just that once we’ve mastered the understanding of a particular kind of music, it no longer challenges us and therefore loses any element of progression, but only for the individual. It doesn’t mean we don’t like it any more, and it doesn’t mean that we’re always going to keep moving on to the next thing. I was just making a point about how things that challenge us won’t keep challenging us forever.