Neofolk is a type of music that, despite its stereotypical attributes, is one of the most heterogenous musical groupings out there. It is primarily (but not entirely) derived from the folk music of Europe and most neofolk bands use the acoustic guitar as the main instrument. As a word, "neofolk" functions better as an umbrella term for several different sounds, or perhaps as a descriptor for a particular scene, rather than as a meaningful genre in its own right. The most popular neofolk groups today are Death In June, Current 93, and Sol Invictus, all innovators of the sound since the 1980s and all hailing originally from the United Kingdom. Closely related genres of music include folk (duh), industrial, goth, dark ambient, darkwave, and (increasingly over the last few years) black metal. Neofolk music is almost exclusively a European/American phenomenon, with a handful of bands from Australia comprising a significant minority. I know of no neofolk artists hailing from Asia, Africa, South America, or the Middle East (the reasons for which will become clear).

Beyond being a type of music, neofolk is for its most devoted fans almost a lifestyle. It has its own ideology, culture, and language. This aspect is probably one thing that makes it so stylistically diverse since artists with this mindset embrace and are embraced by one another, regardless of the specific sounds emanating from their instruments. Like the American folk music that rose to prominence between the 1940s and the 1960s, neofolk is highly politicized, although it's quite far removed from the left-leaning protest music that really found its voice in opposing the Vietnam War and supporting the working poor in the US during the early middle part of the previous century. The ideology behind most neofolk music is closely associated with the European New Right (or Nouvelle Droite) as embodied by contemporary figures such as Alain de Benoist and Tomislav Sunic, with a philosophical pedigree stretching back to Friedrich Nietzsche, Oswald Spengler, Julius Evola, René Guenon, and Ananda Coomaraswamy. Other figures venerated by this group include Ernst Jünger and Corneliu Codreanu as well as other European conservative revolutionaries during the interwar period.

Today, about half of these figures are regarded as either fascists or neo-fascists, a controversy not lost on the artists or the Federal Republic of Germany, where many neofolk records are banned or censored for containing lyrics or imagery either associated with the Third Reich or that are seen to be overly ambiguous in presentation. For example, it is illegal to possess or sell Death In June's albums Rose Clouds of Holocaust and Brown Book, the former because of a lyric that is perceived as questioning the historical veracity of the Holocaust and the latter because of the commercialized, non-historical use of two samples of Nazi marching songs in two tracks; for legal reasons, the songs in question are edited out of German editions of Death In June compilations and videos. A song on the Current 93 album Imperium contains a sample of one of the same marches, but the album is not banned there presumably because it is juxtaposed over the reading of the Apocalypse of Thomas, an apocryphal Christian text describing the horrors of the end of the world.

Despite their protestations to the contrary and the apolitical content of many of their songs, it's clear from a cursory reading of certain lyrics and artist interviews that many neofolk artists do actually have a preoccupation with ideas, figures, and political movements that could rightly be considered "fascist" or at the very least, anti-democratic. Even just looking at song titles such as "Occidental Identity" by Von Thronstahl (Germany), "Against the Modern World" by Sol Invictus, and "the Blond Beast" by Strength Through Joy or album titles like Der Blutharsch's Gold Gab Ich Für Eisen (a wartime slogan meaning "I gave gold for iron," a reference to Germans being asked to exchange their jewelry for iron to help finance World War I) and Spiritual Front's Songs for the Will do much to reveal the thought process here. For many of them, though, this seems to be a natural outgrowth of a broader anti-modern ideology that emphasizes traditionalism, anti- capitalism, Indo-European paganism, and Eurocentrism, ideas that found their closest contemporary voices in the authoritarian right wing milieu that predominated in Europe from the late 1920s to 1945. Naturally, this set of beliefs turns off a great number of people, which goes a long way in explaining why this is such a niche genre and why you don't see any neofolk artists outside of countries that have populations that are predominantly European in ethnic extraction. Volumes more have been written about the nature of the neofolk ideology at other places, so I won't belabor the point, but it would have been irresponsible for me not to have addressed it up front.

It's difficult to pinpoint the precise starting point of neofolk as a genre, but probably the best place to start would be an obscure American folk band called Changes that formed in 1969. Changes recorded a demo called Fire of Life that was bootlegged and privately circulated, although they were mainly known as live musicians. Unlike most other 1960s folk bands, the songs by Changes were basically apolitical and instead tackled topics relating to Germanic neopaganism, the debased nature of the modern world, and the twilight of the West in an 11-minute epic song of the same name. While the recordings were not particularly influential at the time and they sounded a lot like other contemporary folk bands, they're important artifacts since they represent the first thematic neofolk recordings that we know of. These demos would be cleaned up and finally released as an album in 1996 by Michael Moynihan, the frontman of Blood Axis. Since then, Changes have released a few subsequent albums and collaborations, some of which still have a slightly old fashioned sound but definitely relate to the issues described above.

What we think of as neofolk today was an outgrowth of the industrial music scene in England in the late 1970s and early 1980s. "Industrial" had a different connotation then than it does now, referring to what we might now consider noise than more familiar contemporary rock-based "industrial" acts like Nine Inch Nails or Rammstein. Actual musical instrumentation was rare in early industrial music, relying primarily on loops, samples, and harsh percussion with occasional vocals, best displayed by artists like SPK or Throbbing Gristle. Industrial music was actually an attempt to create essentially the opposite of music, rejecting it as a commodity rather than art. Just like the inevitable reaction to punk music was post-punk, the outgrowth of industrial was post-industrial, a rather nebulous term with no concrete meaning. In 1981, a post-industrial band called Death In June formed and released some albums that sounded rather like an even bleaker Joy Division with minimal melody and the occasional trumpet. The band started experimenting with acoustic rerecordings of some of their songs and after the ejection of bassist/backing vocalist Tony Wakeford, began a collaboration with David Tibet of Current 93, an experimental noise/industrial project that was itself an offset of Psychic TV.

The collaboration between Death In June and Current 93 led to the release of 93 Dead Sunwheels and NADA!, containing in equal measures electronic industrial music and acoustic guitar based ballads. When it became clear that the band could not continue in both directions, the drummer/singer Patrick Leagas departed to form his own band Sixth Comm, which would remain thematically the same (dealing primarily with paganism in the early years) and would stay electronic in orientation. The next Death In June album, the World that Summer would combine acoustic guitar and keyboard accents with samples of films and lyrics taken from passages by Yukio Mishima and Aleister Crowley. Around the same time, Current 93 released primarily acoustic albums such as Imperium and Swastikas for Noddy (focusing on Gnosticism, Buddhism, Thelema, history, and old folk tunes), while Tony Wakeford formed his own band Sol Invictus that would debut with Against the Modern World and Lex Talionis. This group of albums represents the true gelling of neofolk as a genre and the sound of these bands (particularly Death In June) is the embodiment of what might be called standard neofolk: fairly standard chorus/verse structures, rarely using more than six or seven different chords per song, sung vocals, and light percussion (for example, chimes and bells) other than drums. Other artists of this type include Strength Through Joy (who collaborated frequently with Death In June singer/guitarist Douglas Pearce), Fire + Ice (led by vocalist Ian Read, who has appeared with all three of the above mentioned groups), and Sonne Hagal.

Interestingly, there was really no name for this type of music at the time, so the most commonly used descriptor was still just post-industrial. A throwaway comment from David Tibet about the music being produced by "apocalyptic folk" (as in people with an apocalyptic mindset) gave it a title, the first of many. In the mid-1980s, a Swedish band called In Slaughter Natives started releasing harsh industrial music with samples of marches from the World Wars over militant percussion. This could rightly be considered the birth of the subgenre called martial industrial, which would go on to include artists such as Deutsch Nepal, NON, and the Moon Lay Hidden Beneath a Cloud. At first, martial industrial and neofolk were basically distinct entities, although TMLHBAC made their particular type of music using samples and authentic medieval-era instruments while combining the same type of percussion and female vocal passages reminiscent of an exceptionally dark Dead Can Dance. However, the musicians behind NON (mainman Boyd Rice and his former protege Michael Moynihan) would begin to collaborate with Current 93 and Death In June, eventually leading to greater integration between the two subcultures. Moynihan would permanently part ways with Rice and form his own experimental neofolk/martial industrial group Blood Axis. Actual singing is rare in martial industrial, with shouts and spoken word being the norm. The most famous martial industrial band is Der Blutharsch, formed by Albin Julius after he and his girlfriend broke up and ended TMLHBAC. He would go on to collaborate with Rice and Pearce, eventually leading to Death In June releasing two martial industrial albums, Operation Hummingbird and Take Care and Control. The crossover style of martial industrial has become particularly popular in recent years, as evidenced by groups such as Von Thronstahl, Rome, Blood Axis, and Allerseelen, all of whom combine the use of live instrumentation and real vocals with the militaristic percussion and sampled marches representative of the style. Other popular martial industrial bands include Triarii, Luftwaffe, Wappenbund, and the electronic crossover band Dernière Volonté. The Slovenian group Laibach is sometimes considered martial industrial, but is considered a bit too musical (and mainstream, if you can believe it) to really fit into this grouping.

The genres of dark ambient and ritual ambient are lumped under the overall neofolk umbrella as well. These genres also have their origins in the post-industrial milieu, and are offshoots of ambient music in general (obviously). Current 93's first couple of records are still considered classics of this bleak, minimalistic type of music that seeks to disrupt the listener's mind rather than calm it (as generally seems to be the goal of regular ambient music). Instrumentation is almost exclusively electronic with occasional samples and vocals may exist, but just as easily may not. Sixth Comm has made music that would fit into the ritual ambient genre (particularly the album Pagan Dances). Dark ambient music progresses very slowly and ritual ambient music generally seems designed to induce a spiritual trance in the listener. Subjects are generally derived from song titles and artist interviews, and typically include the occult, death, paganism, and Lovecraftian themes. Given the obscure nature of this type of music, it's hard to say exactly when the first dark/ritual ambient recordings were made, but SPK's Zamia Lehmanni (a minimalistic work making use of sampled Greek liturgical chants over sparse industrial instrumentation and percussion) and Ain Soph's first five albums (especially Kshatriya, which sounds like the soundtrack to a waking nightmare about human sacrifice) are probably the best representations of this genre. The best dark/ritual ambient group was the unfortunately defunct Endura, which combined a broad range of instruments and styles to create discomfitting ambience without ever ceasing to be musical, which is regrettably common in groups who want to sound like dark ambient bands, but who can only make sounds.

A particular subgenre of neofolk that is popular primarily in continental Europe is sometimes referred to as folk noir, but is otherwise mistakenly categorized simply as "neofolk." What differentiates this strain of music from others is its almost cabaret feel with heavy accordion usage as well as violins. Almost all neofolk bands have at times used these elements on individual songs, but Sol Invictus really started the trend in the early 1990s by giving the violin the lead melody part and making the acoustic guitar a rhythmic backing instrument. These bands play songs that are typically down-tempo and sound rather sappy, with the most popular being Forseti, Waldteufel, Sieben, and later Ain Soph. Some Blood Axis material, particularly the most recent album Born Again, is done in this style. These bands will typically also play authentic folk songs, which is usually where they're at their best, but original compositions by these artists are frequently too depressing for me to enjoy too much.

Over time, of course, pretty much all genres of music receive a bit of mainstreaming and begin to assimilate more popular-sounding elements. There aren't a whole ton of bands that play in this style, but there are a few that are what you might call neofolk rock. These bands generally have better production values than their cohorts and don't often stray into experimentation with martial industrial or dark ambient. They make frequent use of live drums and electric guitars to give a more rock oriented sound while generally focusing on less obscure topics than Romanian ideologues or casting Runes. Strength Through Joy broke up and reformed as Ostara, likely becoming the first band of this type with a broader focus. Others of this type include Ordo Rosarius Equilibrio and Spiritual Front, both of whom played music less influenced by popular rock in their earlier days. General themes include malaise, lost love, pessimism, etc. I don't know if it would really be fair to consider these bands as "sell outs" because they're not particularly popular, but some people don't consider them to be true neofolk. Some of Sixth Comm's material from the 1980s might fit into this set as well, but Leagas has actually taken the opposite track, becoming progressively more and more obscure and far removed from the mainstream as the years have gone on.

A rather strange melding for some people is the relationship between neofolk genres and extreme metal. Folk influences in black metal especially have been around for quite some time, really coming to prominence in the late 1980s when Bathory released Blood Fire Death and Hammerheart, the first (and still the best) albums in the style known as viking metal, which combined standard metal instrumentation with folk-sounding music. Since that time, folk metal has gone on to become one of the most popular types of metal out there, with bands like Enslaved, Skyforger, and Ensiferum probably being the biggest out there right now. A side effect of this has been to see metal bands branch out into these neofolk-related genres with either side projects or complete stylistic changes. Burzum released two dark ambient albums about Germanic paganism and bands such as Agalloch, Nachtmystium, and Rotting Christ have all covered neofolk songs while incorporating the style into their own music to varying degrees. This phenomenon is primarily seen in the United States, Germany, Scandinavia, and Eastern Europe. The members of the German black metal band Taunusheim have another band called Carved In Stone that exclusively plays acoustic neofolk. In Poland, the leader of the most popular black metal band there -- Graveland -- has his own dark ambient/neofolk side project called Lord Wind. Perunwit, Kraina Bez Wiatru, and Wojnar are all similar projects from members of prominent underground metal bands there. In Russia's black metal scene, it is de rigeur for a musician to work with many groups and to have his own projects, including neofolk bands such as Temnojar, Sieg, and Khali-Yuga. One of the biggest martial industrial acts is Karjalan Sissit, which was a side project started by the vocalist for the obscure early Swedish black metal band imaginatively called the Black, and it has subsequently outgrown its main band in popularity. Similarly, the guitarist from the Danish doom metal band Saturnus has found significant acclaim for his neofolk band Of the Wand and the Moon. A few years back, the aforementioned American band Agalloch toured with Allerseelen. Another Swedish black metal band, Marduk, frequently collaborates with the martial industrial project Arditi for introductions to their songs and albums. The former black metal bands Empyrium (Germany) and Ulver (Norway) now play neofolk and dark ambient neofolk, respectively. Many extreme metal websites and publications regularly review neofolk releases as a matter of course.

The reasons for this significant interplay aren't 100% clear, but likely it has to do with the fact that the worldviews between neofolk musicians and extreme metal musicians are quite similar and it is very common for those who are fans of one genre to have at least a passing interest in the other. Interestingly, this exchange is almost completely one-sided: metalheads, who are well-known elitists and obscurantists generally resistant to change, are the ones who do basically all of the crossing over into the neofolk genres while hardly anyone who is primarily a neofolk artist or fan is willing to do the same for them. Ian Read of Fire + Ice seemed pleased that his ideas were getting out to a wider audience through metal bands and fans, although he said he himself did not personally care for most of their music. Most neofolk hubs or servers on peer-to-peer file sharing services either prohibit sharing metal or limit it to a certain proportion of the overall share; metal hubs and servers generally do not have these restrictions and will frequently refer to neofolk as a "related" genre acceptable to share.

While I've certainly skimmed over a lot of information, hopefully this is a good primer for people interested in these genres. Neofolk is in the strange position of being extremely accessible musically but highly esoteric and forboding thematically, while usually it's the other way around. For more specific information about this style, the webzines Heathen Harvest and Flux Europa (both of which are still online but not updated) are excellent resources.

Want to hear what some of these artists sound like? Here are some examples that typify the genre(s):

Death In June - The Perfume of Traitors
Fire + Ice - Gilded by the Sun
Current 93 - Imperium IV
Von Thronstahl - Adoration to Europa
Endura - Dark Face of Eve
Ain Soph - Monsalvat
Spiritual Front - Jesus Died in Las Vegas
Ordo Rosarius Equilibrio - Hell is where the Heart Is
Rome - Das Feuerordal

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