Last week, what promises to be one of the biggest albums of the year—Old Crow Medicine Show’s Remedy—was released. Its sure success stems from two facts. First, the band’s 2004 reworking of an old Bob Dylan song fragment, “Wagon Wheel,” is a platinum-selling single that still can be heard in every corner of America on an hourly basis; second, Old Crow Medicine Show is part of a wave of American groups (including The Lumineers and Edward Sharpe And The Magnetic Zeros) that have spun the rustic sound of folk into pop gold in the new millennium.
The reason is simple: Their music is comforting. In a miasma of mass shootings, terrorist attacks, and an increasingly splintered cultural landscape, folk is an anchor. It taps into an idealized vision America has of its own past, all sepia tones and hospitable twang, an image patly bracketed by two otherwise excellent Coen brothers films, 2000’s O Brother, Where Art Thou? and 2013’s Inside Llewyn Davis. For those who live in cities and suburbs—that is, the majority of Americans—folk music even serves as a form of homegrown exotica. Strange, in a stereotypically backwoods kind of way, but not too strange.
But folk can be strange. It can be challenging. It can be discomforting. And—even when played softly on acoustic guitars—it can be heavy. The year is only halfway over, but 2014 has already proven itself fertile ground for a darker crop of folk. One of the most captivating albums of the past few months, Barren Harvest’s Subtle Cruelties, doesn’t even dwell in the same dimension as “Wagon Wheel.” But in its blackened heart, it’s folk. Plucked guitars and a madrigal-like melody ring throughout mists of transcendental drones. The harmonies are haunted. And unlike the spry, bluegrass-injected gallop of so much pop-folk, the pace is as slow as the process of fossilization.
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“Folk is a sonic ‘shabby chic’ that contains elements of the uncanny and eerie, as well as an antique veneer,” writes Rob Young in his superb book about folk music, Electric Eden. From its name to its sound, Barren Harvest gets it. Instead of antique, it’s decayed. The eeriness that Young speaks of is summoned then echoed. Folk music is earthy by nature, but the earth itself—no matter how much we think we’ve made it our playground or pet—is still a deadly, mysterious entity worthy of awe.
That pagan view of folk music runs deep. The neofolk movement of the past three decades—one that began in earnest with occult-leaning, post-punk folk experimentalists like Death In June and Current 93—is being passionately maintained by new groups like Blood And Sun and Noctooa. Both have released albums in 2014 (White Storms Fall and Adaptation, respectively, courtesy of the Pesanta Urfolk label) that feel more forceful and aggressive than Barren Harvest’s atmospheric sprawl. “Cast the runes / Of what will be / Blindly turn on destiny,” intones Blood And Sun’s Luke Tromiczak on “Cedar Smoke,” on of White Storms Fall’s most quietly thunderous tracks. Like a tribal rite synched to a lurching folk strum, the album is a particularly strong example of neofolk circa 2014: mournful yet meditative, attuned to the turning of death into life and back again.
Ritualism plays a huge part in the heaviness that folk has been conjuring lately. Folk is a collective endeavor, a continuum that spans centuries. Playing and listening to folk is a way to connect, exult, and acknowledge the gravity of tradition and repetition. Accordingly, many of the new folk bands sing far less about their own lives. Storytelling and the poetry of myths are valued over love songs or heart-on-sleeve confessions. That approach often lends itself to the breakdown of conventional pop structures; forms bleed into each other instead of hewing to verses and choruses, and sweeping conceptual arcs replace the skip-friendly sequencing of most contemporary albums.
Oblivion Songs, the new album by Divine Circles—the brainchild of North Carolina’s Meghan Mulhearn, who also plays violin in the psychedelic metal band USX—ebbs and flows thanks to mantra-like tracks such as “The Prayer” and “Hymn.” They weave in and out of more narrative-based songs like “Midwest,” which tells the tale of lovers parting in a cornfield, embodying a divide not only of flesh, but of the soil on which they stand. On the surface, it’s a love song. But delivered in Mulhearn’s forlorn voice over a throbbing, seismic rhythm, it becomes a murder ballad lamenting the memory of a departed moment, finished off then buried under the cornstalks.
Divine Circles isn’t the only heavy, current folk outfit that has roots in the metal scene. The members of Barren Harvest also serve time in the metal groups Atriarch and Worm Ouroboros. Singer-songwriter Marissa Nadler—whose new album July is an apparition of twanging, gothic Americana—has contributed to the shadow-shrouded black-metal project Xasthur. Veteran metal outfit Agalloch’s new full-length, The Serpent & The Sphere, features contributions from the instrumental, chamber-folk trio Musk Ox; meanwhile Musk Ox has released a stunning new album of its own, Woodfall, that doesn’t need vocals to evoke the shady otherworldliness of the forest. Played with classical virtuosity on guitar, violin, and cello, it couldn’t be further from a fiddle-fueled, front-porch hootenanny. The essence, though, is the same—only infused with an air of grace and grandeur.
Scandinavian black-metal bands have long incorporated passages of folk into their music, but one of this year’s best uses of that dynamic is by an American one: Panopticon. Rather than feeling like superfluous interludes, the Kentucky group’s uses of Appalachian folk on its new album Roads To The North are beautifully woven into its more bloodcurdling passages. Better yet, they feel like incarnations of the same primal force: a spirit of the hillside that shimmers with ancient energy.
Not all metal musicians trying their hand at folk this year are doing so with such a straight face. Buzz “King Buzzo” Osborne, leader of the pioneering proto-grunge trio The Melvins, put out his debut solo album last month, This Machine Kills Artists, the name being a playful swipe at folk legend Woody Guthrie’s famous motto, “This machine kills fascists.” Even unplugged, Osborne’s churning, metallic undertow is inescapable; he fashions folk into just another vessel for his stentorian, surreal sludge-craft.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Emma Ruth Rundle—guitarist of the post-metal outfit Red Sparowes—uses her new solo album Some Heavy Ocean to practically drown her careworn, heart-heavy folk dirges in waves of primordial gloom. “It’s fear of open spaces I have traveled in / Come so far, dragged myself on this phantom limb,” she sings on “Arms I Know So Well,” a paean to days past and dreams lost. If folk is the music of the land, Rundle’s home turf is Pangaea.
Metal itself is having a great 2014 as well, from the aforementioned new Agalloch album to upcoming year-end-list contenders by everyone from Pallbearer to Bastard Sapling. What makes folk even heavier, however, is how much harder it has to work. Volume can be a crutch, and the back-to-basics ethic of folk isn’t anti-technology so much as it’s a reconnection to an older source of power. Without amplifiers cranked to 11, bands like Barren Harvest, Blood And Sun, and Musk Ox carry a different kind of weight: a heaviness of subject, a heaviness of scope, and a heaviness of intensity. More than that, they break free of the pseudo-hillbilly preciousness that folk has been reduced to in this post-O Brother, Where Art Thou? century. That contrast alone is both crushing and liberating.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with music that’s as cuddly as a homemade quilt. But when folk becomes shorthand for nothing more than grinning, knee-slapping, semi-acoustic pop, it gets estranged from one of the sources of its own enduring resonance: the confrontation of fears and forces larger than us rather than just an escape from them. As Young explains in Electric Eden, “Folk music derives its power from its connection with universals—the cyclic revolve of the seasons and the ritual year—and from archetypes that can be discovered again and again across the world’s legends.” Thanks to the impressive number of artists who have released heavy folk records so far in 2014, those universals and archetypes are being reinterpreted for a world that still needs them. And so the cycle continues—one that’s far more vast than a wagon wheel.