‘Folk metal’ is a loaded term that usually means incorporating antique wooden instruments into heavy metal in order to sound like a circle of skipping Vikings. But the genre’s origins are all about exploring a country’s folk history with metal music; that we associate it with Scandinavia is only because it took hold there. But America has its own rich folk history, one filled with blood, smoke, and turmoil, and the band exploring that deepest in 2020 is undoubtedly Wayfarer. With their specialized blend of extreme metal genres, the Coloradan quartet examine the American west’s storied history without ever getting too bogged down in the jokey tourist side of it all.
“It’s so easy for that to cross over into kitsch and gimmick,” says frontman Shane McCarthy. “And sure, it’s like, we love all that stuff, but that is the last thing we want to do. It’s important, when we write this music, that it’s genuine to us, and that it should sound like a cohesive thing. It’s not about the obscene contrast of these two things, so wouldn’t it be crazy if we put them in the same place? It has to make sense. There are other bands that have combined metal with various types of folk or country in the past that will take more the approach of Immortal riff, blastbeats, and then it cuts to polka or whatever. That’s just a very low-hanging-fruit way to approach it.”
Their new album A Romance With Violence certainly draws that line. While opener “The Curtain Pulls Back” begins with some cowboy saloon piany, it’s quickly followed by “The Crimson Rider (Gallows Frontier, Act I),” a scathing epic that makes the listener feel as though they’re galloping across the plains towards their own inevitable death. This is the backbone of Romance — an examination not just of the west’s factual history, but with its picturesque ideal, and how the cowboy archetypes that have become the United States’ most recognizable identity the world over are related to the very stark, harrowing, and often horrific events of this huge country’s past.
With the introduction, that was important from the get-go that we established that vibe, because this album is more about the western as an idea rather than the west itself,” says Shane. “It explores things about history, but it’s almost about the way this has been mythologized and viewed through popular culture. You have these world-famous Italian westerns from the 1969s — everywhere across the world, people know what the Wild West is, even if they’ve never been to America at all much less the western half of it. That’s kind of a cultural export and a way that a lot of people view America, especially where we’re from. The whole record is supposed to play like it’s a big bloody epic western film, all the while peeling back the curtain of, what are these things that we attach to and romanticize? And that’s something that, just like Vikings and black metal, can be translated to every other culture as well. There’s a lot of dirt on those hands.”
As with the frontier saloon vibe of the opening track, was the incorporation of American folk music something you really went for with this album, or has it just worked its way into Wayfarer’s sound over time?”
Shane McCarthy, guitar and vocals: It’s definitely worked in over time. If you go back to our earlier stuff, we’ve always liked the film scores, the Ennio Morricone-type stuff, and the Denver-specific music history of bands like 16 Horsepower, Wovenhand, stuff like that. In the early days, we were starting a metal band and wanted to be a metal band; we liked that stuff, but it would come in in smaller ways. And then over time, it just started happening naturally. We noticed it happening, and felt it becoming a part of our sound, and we felt we should embrace it. Bands are initially more of a product of the things they listen to, and want to be like, and after they do it for a little bit, they start to find their own sound and figure out what they’re doing that feels like something more of their own. As we started doing that, it felt like something we should pursue.
Isaac Faulk, drums: On our first record, 2014’s Children of an Iron Age, it’s pretty clear what our influences were. It was more in the European vein — we were really interested in a lot of the European folkier black metal bands, Primordial and Enslaved, bands like that. There was a little bit of that acknowledging that we were Americans and not Europeans, but over time we started to own our American-ness a little more. Definitely on the album before this one, 2018’s World’s Blood, is where we really went all-in on the idea of being like, We’re an American band, let’s wear that on our sleeve. And this album is taking that to its fullest conclusion.
That’s an interesting separation. 2016’s Old Souls felt more about the mountains, the environment, which feels eternal and therefore separate from folk history. Now, it sounds like the people themselves are more important.
Isaac: Exactly, and I think that just goes into storytelling. We’re big fans of storytelling in whatever form that takes, whether it’s film, music, comics, video games, whatever that is. Storytelling is the root to a lot of that art. So when you’re talking about really good storytelling, you’re talking about people, and the stories of the people that have lived their lives in this land. Colorado, especially where we’re from, is right on the edge of the west, and it’s a place that has a lot of history to it. The first two records, we were like, Ooh, forests and mountains and all this stuff, and that stuff is obviously still important to us. But at the same time, if you drive just an hour east, you’re just right in the plains here as well. It’s taking it not just to the elemental, environmental influence, but just what happened here over time being its own landmark.
Shane: With the last record, that’s where it became cemented, conceptually: it was about being from here. That one was more about the haunted feeling that you pick up on growing up in the American west, because of the blood that’s in the soil. Looking at the concepts of the last record in the context of black metal in particular — black metal is something we use loosely, because we fit somewhere in that umbrella that’s really wide — the Norwegian bands that most people are most familiar with, they do the same thing, where they delve into the history and mythology of where they’re from, which is where you get all this Viking culture from. So it actually makes a lot of sense for us, an American band, to do the same thing, but say, ‘We’re not from Scandinavia, we’re from Colorado. And there’s this history and mythology here that’s kind of grown into the western.’
Was there an aspect of the traditional western that you felt you had to include, or which you wanted to reveal to the world?
Shane: It wasn’t one particular story. It’s mostly about the whole idea of everything that’s portrayed. Each song has a story in and of itself that circles around a trope or a recurring archetype of these stories, to show the things that are always there. You have your mysterious rider, you have your lonesome plains, you have your dream of what a life in a new world could look like. The only one recurring theme from history, including in the album art, is that there are a lot of references to the railroad. I think that’s just something that personified the west and extended it to the rest of the world. That’s the iron horse that’s carrying this spirit of violence out west, and there’s nothing that can be done about it. So there’s a lot of references to that; the album cover is actually a photo of the Transcontinental Railroad being constructed in 1868.
Isaac: And that’s a metaphor, too, in that building the railroad is violent to the environment around it. You have to bomb out mountains. That is a representation of the violence that was brought into the plains and into those mountains, when European settlers came into this country. They created their own society when there was already one there, and displaced an entire race of people. That’s the core of the story of American history: there’s this trajectory of how it was built, which I do think a lot of people are not aware of. The education system in America not withstanding, there are plenty of people who don’t know the story of how America was built, with Chinese immigrants and plenty of other people coming to give their lives for this country. So this album takes all these tropes and then takes a meta look, and sees it from our perspective, and asks, What does it mean to me, as someone who lives in Colorado now? The violence of this, the romance of the violence, that carries on through everything in our culture. It started way back when with the idealization of the outlaw and the hero, cowboys versus Indians, all that — that is carried over into our culture today, with the us-versus-them idea, and the violence that we allow in our society every day.
Is there a lot of that present in Colorado today? Having lived in Denver, I always felt that undercurrent of it being outlaw country.
Isaac: As a kid, I found Colorado history extremely boring. It took me going to college — I actually got my degree in History — to really delve into American history on a different level, not just on that superficial level where it’s like, ‘Oh, and here is where this fort was built.’ That’s the thing about studying history: once you know how things were, you look around at today and think, ‘Oh, this suddenly makes sense.’ When you say Denver and Colorado have that feel, it’s because this place was founded by people who wanted to get away from normal society and build their own off-the-grid life. Especially in the mountain towns of Colorado, there are a lot of people who are trying to stay away from whatever government or people in power. So there is that foundation of where we live.
Shane: There are certain things you run into in the city where that spirit carries over, but a lot of that is more, like, intentional aesthetics. There are a lot of bars in Denver with a western theme, or bullshit cowboys walking around, but they’re all from the city, just like we are. We never try to make any bones about, like, “Oh, we’re authentic frontiersmen,’ this is just something we explore. But like Isaac was saying, if you go into the mountain towns, where people are from there, and have lived there a long time, that does start to feel more like the wild west. There are these places in Wyoming or Colorado where it feels almost like a time capsule, and people carry themselves in a certain way. You run into the Colorado version of Southern hospitality, where people are friendly, but there’s a roguish, roughneck thing about them. This results in some backwards politics that come out of when you remove yourself from society and decide it’s you against the world, this is my house on top of this hill, fuck you if you try to take it from me. People start to think like that, and they grew up watching all these Clint Eastwood movies thinking, ‘That’s me,’ and that carries over into their life.
Wayfarer often get written up as Colorado’s black metal band, but listening to this record, one of my first thoughts was, This isn’t black metal, this is something all its own. Do you ever feel pigeonholed by or shoehorned into that genre?
Isaac: The first thing that came to mind when you were saying that was, ‘Thank you!’ Because that’s a point for us. We don’t ever want to be pigeonholed as one thing, and as someone who is a big-time black metal fan, I would not necessarily say that Wayfarer has ever been a straightforward black metal band. I don’t think we ever had any intention to be that. It just happens to be one of the colors in our palette. It’s an influence that is there, but there are many other influences there. We’ve really kind of honed in on those specific things that really make Wayfarer what it is. They’re things that we all share interest in that are cohesive in one idea. And I actually think that this album is the first time these things all came together in a way that works more than it ever has. We’ve always done stuff with different genres, but I think this is the first time that we did it intentionally, from the get-go. We really combed over everything. This band is never intended as an homage to one thing. A lot of the bands I love transcend genre and just have their own sound. Opeth is Opeth, Enslaved is Enslaved — I hope at some point we just have the Wayfarer sound.
Shane: All four of us in this band are big music nerds, who really love to not just listen to stuff, but dive into and pore over music in general. I think the mentality that all of us have in this band is that we can all take this stuff in, and be really amazed by all these different musicians, but the thing that unites us in our appreciation r is that somebody made something of their own and explored this whole new world. People have struggled with labeling us for a while, and that’s a great compliment. It means you’ve done something that doesn’t fit into X and X categories that people have made before. That’s something we’ve taken pride in, and as the records have gone on, we’ve zeroed in on what we want to do. Life is too short to play something that already exists.
Wayfarer’s A Romance With Violence comes out October 16th via Profound Lore Records, and is available for preorder.
Words by Chris Krovatin