There is a narrative quality to the plucking strings of the Canadian neofolk band Ulvesang, something that binds it to its European folk musical roots and the echoes of a pagan past. Like many of the central European neofolk bands from labels like Prophecy Records, typified by influential projects like Empyrium, Vali, and Neun Welten, Ulvesang brings a more traditionally melodic tone to their music than the industrial influenced neofolk bands so typical of the genre. Vocals echo rather than sit on top of the instrumentation, making it feel like an avalanche of sound, taking you into a memory of a music that feels eerily familiar. Like much of the nature infused neofolk we have covered, Ulvesang is best heard outdoors, with rain tracing an ambient track as an uncredited collaborator.
There is a deep well of power to Ulvesang, which is more heart than historic exercise, which makes it a piece of the vital resurgence of revolutionary neofolk taking place right now. Along with bands like Nevelung and Aradia, they prove there is no contradiction in terms when traditionalist folk revivals meet a liberatory vision: we are here to create a synthesis between pieces of the past and a well crafted future. In that Ulvesang is more than a soundtrack, the cresting guitars beg your attention on each track. This is especially true of their 2018 album The Hunt, which takes up the tradition of forest ritual and let’s the sound rather than lyrics set the tone.
Ulvesang has become a key part of the antifascist neofolk movement, and is working on a split with Ashera. We interviewed Alex from Ulvesang about their musical vision, how folk traditions can be a part of the struggle against oppression, and how they are helping to lead a revolutionary sea change in neofolk.
How did Ulvesang come together? Who were your influences?
We had been part of the same group of friends for a number of years and realized we shared some common musical interests. We ended up talking about starting to jam and write neofolk/darkfolk music together.
Our influences are harder to pin down as we both have similar, but also diverging influences. Overall though, Ulvesang is influenced by SWANS (although it’s arguable that there isn’t much reflection of that in the music), Michael Cashmore’s work with Current 93 and Nature and Organisation, Agalloch, Ulver, Nebelung, and Empyrium (among other bands and genres).
There is almost a cold in the music, a sense of solitary meditation. How does the region you’re in influence your music?
Nova Scotia is a province of extremes in some senses. Outside of Halifax it is quite rural, economically deprived, and encompasses a variety of naturalistic conditions within a fairly small area. There are highlands in Cape Breton, farming valleys approximately an hour outside of where we are, many areas of undeveloped woodland and we’re almost entirely surrounded by ocean. These elements certainly help drive the sense of atmosphere. Some of the more “cold/meditation” vibes you mention are more internal for both of us and probably gets reflected in the music that way.
Melancholy is a full character in your music. How do these emotions play a role in your songwriting?
We both have our struggles with mental illness and are fairly open about that in an effort to reduce stigma. Depression, anxiety, among other issues play a substantial role in our day to day lives and consequently impacts the type of music we write and play. There is not a lot of genuinely “upbeat” music either one of us turns to, particularly if we are not feeling fantastic. Both of us are people who, while easy to get along with, don’t tend to have a lot in common with most other people and we have few genuinely close friends who are from overlapping groups. That sense of isolation is often present when you struggle with mental illness, often just as a symptom of the illness itself really. Late stage capitalism and social media (and COVID-19) also have many ways of isolating people, but that’s a lot to get into here.
What is your writing process like? How do you pull together the layers that end up on the final track? What instruments are involved?
The instruments involved are mostly guitars, bass, synth, samples, and vocals. Then there are some other random instruments we put on the tracks depending on what we want to go for. The writing process usually involves trying to put into music an idea we have in mind, and if that sounds good we try and build upon it. Usually you start off with the foundational riffs and tones and then from there you can move onto some accent notes, harmonization, and additional layers of guitars or vocals, etc.
What role do ancestral traditions and spirituality play in the music?
Difficult to say. When we started Ulvesang I (Alex) was active in a number of occult/spiritual communities. Among them was a lot of work with Northern mystic traditions. I am fond of the iconography of my Celtic background and Ana’s Slavic and Central Asian history.
However, I feel some of those elements have been irreparably damaged by their co-option by right-wing elements and consequently they play very little role in anything we do any longer. I specifically walked away from any open involvement with Norse mysticism because far too many of its adherents are exactly what their critics claim they are, which is a shame because it is a fascinating and functional spiritual tradition and it should never have been poisoned in that way. I lost interest in associating with the broader occult scene for the most part as well. People can strangle life from just about anything, so I’ve since chosen not to associate with any of it.
What was the concept behind your album The Hunt? There is almost a prose sensibility to the music, as if it’s taking the listener into a painfully intimate struggle.
The Hunt was written during a process of personal struggles and hardships. We don’t want to get into too many of the details as they are private to some extent, but we hope listeners can get their own meaning from it or even possibly relate.
How does antifascism drive your music?
Ana and I have always been politically progressive people, but I think when we began as a band, there was less of a direct intention to be involved with formal political affiliation at the time. Our politics over the last handful of years have intensified and become more outwardly and aggressively left. That aside, there was a change in the fringe music scenes we grew up loving a few years back that saw an immense increase in right-wing and fascist aesthetic and intentions (or at least it was more easily detected). It became cool to be a fascist, rather than just flirt with the “edginess” of it (granted, that’s still highly problematic for a lot of reasons). It felt like everything at all times became about rejecting any sense of progressive change and equality and instead was an attempt to use music as a recruitment tool for hate and regression. Not a vague hate like in the sense of rage against religious institutions, or against systems of oppression, but a hate that was manifested on an individual level. People hating each other in a way that was just oppressive in and of itself, and the scene is/was fucking proud of it. Antifascism became a much larger piece of our band identity in the wake of this because we were revolted by these people and the scene’s embrace of right-wing political posturing, or at least refrainment from denouncing it.
What does it mean to take an antifascist stance from within the neofolk scene?
Neofolk, all “post-industrial” music really has always had a touch of traditionalist/fashy aesthetic. There were always bands who were outright fascists or hardcore right-wingers and there were a lot of artists who liked to flirt with the aesthetics for shock value. Or to be transgressive. But transgression has a shelf life. Throbbing Gristle in the 70’s using fascist aesthetics while satirizing the government and religious institutions of the time was transgressive. Some asshole in his basement branding his albums with “cleverly placed” Tiwaz runes and claiming he’s been “mislabeled by the left” in the late 2010s is not transgressive. These people know what they are doing and know what they are affiliated with. Most of the rest of the scene became dominated by the “apolitical” who only ever seemed to have an opinion when “muh speech” seemed to be threatened, generally mocked progressive goals and seemed to have no problem associating with the genuine fascists.
Establishing ourselves as openly, actively Antifascist in this climate lets new listeners, or listeners who are frustrated by the ever present right-wing element, know that there are left-wing bands who oppose fascism while still writing objectively good music. We need more artists involved in these sorts of fringe communities to take that stance. We’re roundly mocked by nazi chuds anytime we openly discuss progressive ideals on our social media, but we just laugh and bully them off. And the more we’ve done that, the more we’re finding our audience is filling up with people who are thrilled to see us doing it and want to be a part of it.
Tell us about the split you are doing with Ashera. How did you come together? What’s the concept behind the collaboration?
We are friends with Ashera and met through antifascist networks among neofolk/darkfolk bands. Due to this shared genre style and values, we thought it might be cool to do a split together. On top of that we have other commonalities as well. It seemed like a good fit.
What’s next for Ulvesang? What other bands would you recommend to antifascist neofolk fans?
We’ve got a couple of small collabs (the split above being one of them) on the go and we are finally in the process of working to record our third album. Executive dysfunction largely erased our capacity to do much of anything outside of work for most of the last couple of years. Some other antifascist neofolk bands are the ones we have actually met online through A Blaze Ansuz and LEFT/FOLK. We can recommend Ashera, Nokken + the Grim, The Serpent and the Light, Autumn Brigade, Sieben, Alsarath, and more.
How can we build an antifascist neofolk scene?
More bands making more music under the banner while not being afraid to hold left wing and antifascist ideals. Our music is largely instrumental and is more emotional than it is anything else… so it’s hard to call our music itself an “obvious” antifascist statement, especially where we don’t usually have lyrics at all. We do that by how we project our personas online and how we interact with our environment and our daily lives, and networking with other like-minded individuals. Complain to your labels if they’re printing fascist or cryptofash material, message bands and hold them accountable or ask them point-blank questions about some iffy content they might be putting out or associating with. Avoid working with fascist artists, research bands and labels, and build up the voices of marginalized people while doing so, especially those who are part of the scene. Promote things that are obviously against right wing ideals, etc. In short, there are a lot of ways to be an antifascist artist without feeling like you have to write covers of “Nazi Punks, Fuck Off!” or something very direct like that. We applaud all of the folks who are not afraid to stand up to Nazis and challenge them, whether it’s something big or small.
Ulvesang was featured in the LEFT/FOLK compilation album and they are included on the Antifascist Neofolk Playlist on Spotify. Check them out on Bandcamp and listen to their track below, embedded from Spotify.