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Pagan Death Cult

What could Greenwich Village folk and South Korean black metal possibly have in common?




To a civilian bystander there could hardly be two white pop genres less simpatico than metal and folk. On the one hand you've got corpse-painted quasi-fascist Vikings grunting about blood and Satan; on the other you've got tree-smooching hippies warbling about peace, love, and blissed-out forest creatures. Short of some scene of hideous pillage, it's difficult to imagine any intercourse between them.

Yet intercourse there has always been. Led Zeppelin was as much a folk band as a metal one, and since the early 90s folk metal has existed as an established genre, epitomized by horror-at-the-Ren-Faire outfits like Finntroll. Of course lots of different music counts as metal, and the same is true of folk—a campy, bombastic outfit like Def Leppard doesn't have a whole lot to do with an earnest protest singer like Pete Seeger. But if by folk you mean acoustic music with medieval English roots, and if by metal you mean thrash, death, doom, and especially black, then there's a lot of common ground. It's no accident that Forest is the name of both a 90s Russian black-metal band and a 60s British folk outfit; around both thundering orcish metal and tinkling elvish folk lingers the spirit of Tolkien and the distinctive scent of weed. Folk and metal aren't so much opposites as they are two sides of the same coin—different takes on the same obsession with the idealized pagan past of northern Europe.

Two recent offerings on that unholy altar are among the best releases of the summer: Karen Dalton's Green Rocky Road and Pyha's The Haunted House. Both consist of music made in virtual isolation by brilliant eccentrics and then very nearly lost. Dalton was an almost-famous Greenwich Village folkie from the 60s whose musical legacy consists largely of ingratiating, bluesy guitar tracks on which she sings like an improbably docile Billie Holiday; the two albums she released in her lifetime, in '69 and '71, were both reissued in 2006. Green Rocky Road, a disc of recently unearthed home recordings from 1962 and '63, mostly on banjo, is the only record of her earlier, starker musical persona—the live material reissued on last year's Cotton Eyed Joe, though from roughly the same period, mostly sounds like the albums.

Pyha is even more obscure. A native of South Korea, he allegedly recorded The Haunted House, his first black-metal opus, by himself between the ages of 12 and 14, then began circulating it on CD-R in 2001. A copy brought back from Korea fell into the hands of the metal aficionados at the San Francisco label Tumult, who managed to track him down. The album had its much-belated formal release, with extra tracks from '04 and '05, in July.

Sonically the two albums are vastly different. Green Rocky Road is so bare-bones it makes Alan Lomax's field recordings sound polished. "Katie Cruel" is interrupted by a telephone ringing; part of the beginning of "Nottingham Town" is erased. And such cock-ups aside, Dalton's voice and banjo playing are incredibly harsh—each phrase and plunk seems to come scraping out of some desolate hollow.

The Haunted House, on the other hand, is a dense, claustrophobic maelstrom—the record's signature sound is blown-out static, the gasps of overdriven recording equipment dying in agony. Its great slabs of noise lurch and collide like zombie leviathans. In "Tale From the Haunted House Part1" the background hiss and wail just... stops, replaced by whispering over a ghostly synthesized chorus, which in turn cuts back to distorted screaming and a midtempo drumbeat that goes on and on, mindlessly repeating. Throughout the record, each of black metal's customary layers of sound (guitars, drums, synths, shrieks) feels manually lifted and dropped, one atop the other. This sense of grinding effort reaches its peak on "Song of Oldman," where the buzzing static actually seems to overwhelm the mikes, cutting in and out in random, painful bursts, while the almost human wailing of the synths distorts into a horrible scraping noise, like a metal bar dragged across your teeth.

Yet for all their differences, Green Rocky Road and The Haunted House meet on the same bleak wasteland. Dalton is alone in a void and Pyha is buried alive, but both seem lost, abandoned, nearly extinguished. Tempos on both albums stutter and grind down almost to paralysis. Pyha's music is sometimes so leaden it could almost qualify as doom—on "Tale From the Haunted House Part 3" the drum machine sounds positively stoned, thudding just behind the beat so that the track sounds like it's slowing down all through its four and a half minutes. Dalton's songs are similarly stupefied. The banjo line on "Whoopee Ti Yi Yo" turns the familiar melody into a wavering slog, off the beat and even off-key, unrecognizable until Dalton's voice comes in. On "Nottingham Town" her picking and singing have even less to do with each other: the banjo speeds up, stretches out, trips over itself, and plunks notes so far out of tune you'd swear the tape speed was screwy. She sounds like the Shaggs on a serious downer.

"Nottingham Town" is an eerie traditional tune, with intimations of loneliness and the grave, and Dalton's broken attack intensifies the uncanny sense of isolation and despair. The last track of The Haunted House, "Wanderer Death March," is similarly forlorn, though it achieves that effect not with unpredictable stumbles but with a monotonous trudge. With its repetitive, buzzing cymbals, increasingly strained synth washes, and throat-shredding howls, it's a soundtrack for armageddon—a slow camera pan across clashing armies as they're devoured alive by mechanical insects. Like the rest of the record, it's intended as an antiwar statement, but it isn't exactly a protest. It's a bitter surrender to the crushing power of violence.

Folk and metal—and the cold northern European cultures from which they arose—share a fascination with death that informs their notions about authenticity and art. In punk, realness tends to mean rawness and directness; in jazz and hip-hop it means invention and elan; in blues and gospel it's emotional depth. The music is about the performer's skill and charisma, and so about life. In folk and metal, on the other hand, the demands of the form tend to obliterate personality. You become authentic by being hollowed out.

In true mountain tradition, Dalton's singing is almost entirely without affect; when she says "they call me Katie Cruel" she sounds exactly as heartless as she claims to be. Pyha's individuality is effaced by production effects: snippets of taped ephemera, muffled bellowing, some poor soul gasping its last in a crackling fire. His own voice, everywhere and nowhere, is neutered by its multiplicity. To be authentic is, for both Dalton and Pyha, to be nobody. You show your commitment to the material by letting it consume you. Folk and metal are about surrendering to death—about the cold joy in self-immolation that links Protestants and Norsemen.

Neither Dalton nor Pyha come from northern Europe, of course. But their distance only reinforces the point. The form is as implacable as it is imperial; death doesn't care if you're folk, volk, or other. Whether you're cavorting with the fairies in Stonehenge, torching churches in Norway, or wandering somewhat further afield, a dirge is a dirge. Dalton's keening and Pyha's buzz are part of the same sexless drone, swallowing them both in the abject ecstasy of annihilation.v

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