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Hulkoff’s ‘Pansarfolk’ is Frenetic Folk Metal Brilliance
October 6, 2020 — Back in 2017, Swedish composer and metal extraordinaire Pär Hulkoff embarked on his first solo musical odyssey. Worlds away from the staccato-industrial metal stylings of Raubtier (a highly successful band he created in 2008 and has fronted ever since) and the sunshine-and-Western-soaked vibes of his country music project Bourbon Boys, Hulkoff inhabited the rather fertile sonic landscape between the worlds of power and folk metal. Now, he’s back with album #2, Pansarfolk, (quite literally) doubling down on both the rich Norse mythology and history that colors the lyrical content of the project, but also the folk instrumentation deployed throughout the record.
On his 2017 solo debut, KVEN, Hulkoff largely took a more subtle approach to his folk stylings — as much as you can with enormous arena-conquering power metal bombast behind you — the music sounding somewhat reminiscent of the historically-inclined Swedes in Sabaton. Pansarfolk flips that balance completely, going full-tilt on the ‘folk’ aspects of metal to evoke memories of genre conquerors Equilibrium and Korpiklaani. ‘Martial’ drops the listener right into the midst of a lively Viking banquet worthy of Valhalla, stripping away the majestic gravitas of its predecessor in favor of more eclectic, electric energy that somehow manages to feel more colossal and powerful than ever.
Ambition is in no short supply where Hulkoff is concerned and Pansarfolk is a prime example of the artist not holding back and putting on a bloody good time while he’s at it. Released as a double album, the songs are split between English and Swedish language vocals. The language editions are titled Svitjod (the Old Norse name of Sweden) and Vinland (the area of North America explored by Norse Vikings) through which the listener is afforded the opportunity to choose between enjoying the music in its more traditional form, and also in a way that allows worldwide fans to fully appreciate the compelling lyrics and ancient tales on display.
“I had a rather clear vision of how I wanted Pansarfolk to sound. Usually, the end result turns out a bit different from the original intention, but Pansarfolk is exactly as earthy as I wanted it to be. Also, the musicians who lent their talent to this project are second to none.”
— Pär Hulkoff
This balance of lyrical content and stirring musicianship provides a robust backbone for everything Hulkoff does. Each song feels like an assault on the senses, you can practically sense myth and legend coming alive (and perhaps even smell the mead) with the frenetic folk metal which is sheer brilliance. It doesn’t hurt that the music itself sounds more robust and diverse than what folk metal fans will be used to. Of course, the familiar fiddle/violin combos play a huge part in the music, but their deployment seems to harken towards Hulkoff’s own flirtations with country music. The frenzied fiddling of the highly capable Thomas Von Wachenfeldt on the album’s opening track feels like a sonic descendant of Charlie Daniels’ “The Devil Went Down To Georgia,” suggesting pools of influence far removed from the standard well of inspiration. That aside, there is a distinct Scandinavian flair to all tracks that cannot be mistaken.
Much as the tribes that made up Viking culture recognized no borders in their conquest, neither does Hulkoff in his adoption of differing musical boundaries. Within folk metal, the inclination is often to focus on the geographical stylings of a particular territory (Finland, Norway, Estonia — etc.), but this isn’t the case on Pansarfolk. Whilst tracks like “Lone Wolf” give us Scandinavian folk through the country stylings of the USA’s deep south, songs like “Ingvar” and “Over Dead Man” seemingly embark for the frozen fields of the north, with an approach that adds a pinch of Eastern European musical tradition — think Russkaja soundtracking a Viking rowing ship.
By switching things up continuously throughout the record, Hulkoff is able to create that rarest of creatures — a piece of work both expansive and thrilling. More frenetic fare like “King Wada” (an interesting myth in itself worth looking into) is set against percussive efforts like “Hamingja” to provide tonal variety between tracks, building to a colossal, wonderfully thrashy close on “Varangian” — easily the record’s most metallic track. The true MVP of Pansarfolk is just how much is achieved within the instrumentation itself. Pulling in players and guests including Thomas Van Wachenfeldt (Wachenfeldt, most recently of Wombbath), Anders Johansson (ex-HammerFall/Yngwie Malmsteen), Erik Grawsiö (Månegarm), and Karl the Darkness, Hulkoff has amassed some immense talent for his second solo outing.
Each and every song features breakout instrumental moments where the musicians go hell for leather, lending the overall piece a sense of manic energy more akin to a live show or pitched battle than the usual sterile studio environment. In turn, this also serves to expand beyond the usual kitsch inherent to folk metal. The use of traditional instrumentation (including a Viking Age horsehair lyre played by Hulkoff himself, also known as talharpa or jouhikko) feels more akin to the use of an orchestra in symphonic metal — underpinning and elevating the music to deliver a greater sense of grandeur worthy of cross-continental acclaim.
The proliferation of Norse mythology in modern pop culture has seen a dramatic increase in the interest around such subjects, with everything from TV to film and literature dedicated to exploring the Nordic pantheon. Where acts like Myrkur and Heilung have earned acclaim for taking a decidedly traditional approach to the subject, Hulkoff goes completely in the opposite direction — Pansarfolk lives up to folk metal’s headiest excesses, reveling in its inherent ludicrousness while delivering an excellently fun heavy metal release — with some seriously thoughtful lyrics. In 2020, sincere fun with a meaningful yet entertaining message is exactly what the doctor ordered.