Usually, we don’t get to post much around St. Patrick’s Day, because we’re too busy dodging drunk hipsters and scarfing down free tacos at SXSW. But we’re skipping the Austin trip this year, which means I finally have a chance to honor the patron saint of Ireland with a discussion of one of my favorite obscure subgenres of heavy music: pagan Celtic folk metal.
1993 was year zero for this stuff. That year, apparently by sheer coincidence, three bands popped up that came to define the sound: Cruachan, Primordial and Waylander. Cruachan is probably the most “traditional” of the three, mixing melodies and instruments swiped from Irish folk music with a classic headbanger sound. Primordial is more of a straight-up black metal band that only sounds Irish if you pay attention to the lyrics. But for my whiskey money, Waylander was and is the coolest of the three, since they sound like a knife fight between Sepultura and the steerage band from Titanic. Tin whistles have never before sounded this awesomely evil.
You might think heavy metal inspired by the music and history of pre-Christian Ireland would be a limited field, but there are actually a shit-ton of bands from all over the world who mix some combination of “pagan,” “Celtic,” “folk” and “shred” into their music. Some of the most Celtic-sounding ones aren’t even from Ireland…take Eluveitie, for example, who are from fucking Switzerland of all places and sound like some kind of horrendous mix of the Chieftains, Evanescence, Enya and your kid brother’s shitty screamo band. Technically, I suppose their clash of styles is even weirder than Waylander’s, but I don’t wanna piss off St. Patrick by picking a non-Irish band for this week’s feature.
Two other Celtic metal bands worth mentioning, just because they’re fucking awesome:
Mael Mórdha have been around almost as long as the O.G. Celtic metal bands, but they describe their sound as “Gaelic doom metal,” which basically means they sound even more evil than Waylander. They once appeared on You’re a Star, which is sort of an Irish version of The X Factor, with predictably sad/funny results: The clueless judges forced them to play a cover of ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” before sending them packing. (It’s immortalized on YouTube, if you’re into watching noble Irish metal bands humiliate themselves before the gods of television.)
Celtachor are the new kids on the Celtic metal block, but I’m gonna go out on a limb here and say they rock the hardest of anyone in the genre yet. Give this track “Rise of Lugh” a spin and tell me it doesn’t lay waste to all before it.
Still, I gotta give the weird props to Waylander this week, for being one of the first bands to come up with this stuff, and for still rocking it nearly 20 years later. As I write this, they’re back in the studio hard at work on their fourth album, Kindred Spirits, which they plan to release later this year. I hope they’ll take a break this Saturday to down a pint of Guinness or five.
Bonus video! Here’s a clip of Waylander’s live show. That guy playing mandolin and tin whistle would probably be wearing a kilt if they made one big enough to cover the gigantic balls it must take to play mandolin and tin whistle in a metal band. Oh, and I guess kilts are Scottish, not Irish. So there’s that, too.