Burial Grounds, Dead Languages and Folk Horror: A Profile of Astral Folk

Roughly a year ago, we put together a list of “Astral Pop” artists, the intention behind to introduce some of our metalhead readers to music that may be of interest to them despite being in a genre they may not be overly familiar with. In this piece, we aim to do something similar, using the infinitely vague term of “folk” to explore artists whose music may not be “heavy” in the traditional sense, but who are capable of creating something just as powerful and cathartic as metal without any of the sonic hallmarks.

As exciting and cathartic as metal can be, even the most diehard fan can’t sustain themselves on a diet of nothing but riffs all day every day, and the broad folk umbrella entails a wide array of styles to suit whatever sonic nourishment your ears are craving. So this list aims to bring you a collection of folk (and folk-adjacent) artists that may be of interest to our regular readers.

Wilderness Hymnal

Whether this is folk or not is up for debate, but then there isn’t much out there that sounds anything like the experimental musings penned by British-Venezuelan musician, producer and visual artist Javier G. Wallis, which come off like a bizarre collaboration of unnerving post-rock, expressive piano passages and drone-ridden psychedelia. 2018 album Anthropocene is a must, but most recently Wallis has teamed up with Lisa O Piu for an enchanting and serene cover of Björk’s ‘Unravel’. Recorded separately due to the pandemic, the track is a small sign of the connections we still share in this time of isolation.


Many were introduced to Mohammad (stylised as MMMD) through their breathtaking score for cult folk horror hit Hagazussa, but the duo have been crafting unsettling soundscapes for a decade now, and have built an impressive discography over the years. The band’s sound is folk only in part, but there’s an unmistakably earthy feel to their deep drones, sweeping synths and the rustic yet sinister tones of their custom-made bowed instruments. This is a project capable of warping your very notion of what “heavy” means, with a sound far more daunting than any metal band.


We at Astral Noize have spent a lot of time talking at length about artists who experiment with noise to make impossibly heavy new forms of metal, but what about those who funnel their sonic eccentricities into the relaxing side of music? Sydney-based songwriter Bonniesongs is a master of this, weaving vast soundscapes that are often spearheaded by her own elegant vocals. Her dreamy music can loosely be described as art-folk, but touches on progressive pop, indie rock and more whilst telling vivid tales of everything from treehouses and flying to video games and ice cream.


Despite a name more suited to caveman riffs and guttural shouts, the debut EP from Los Angeles-based musician Helen Ballentine is soft, serene and subtle. The singer-songwriter’s intimate brand of indie folk is bolstered by ambient experimentation and a brooding atmosphere, making her music feel at once stark and vulnerable whilst also offering broad soundscapes to get lost in.


Irish folk might seem about as far removed from heavy music as you could get, but dive a little deeper into Lankum’s captivating music and an intriguing inclination towards the realms of doomy drone and ominous ambient music creep into earshot. The band’s latest album, The Livelong Day, is opened by a rendition of the normally rousing drinking song ‘The Wild Rover’, which the band reimagines with scraped strings and restrained croons – this is no normal folk band.

Phoebe Bridgers

Unless you spent 2020 living under a rock (which would have been fair enough tbh), you’ve probably heard of LA singer-songwriter Phoebe Bridgers and her sophomore album Punisher. And for good reason. Perhaps the most impressive thing about Punisher is how it innovates so thoroughly and yet so subtly, managing to slyly mix in bouts of psychedelia, ambient music, atmospheric pop and more whilst staying at least vaguely rooted in the realm of indie folk. In a genre that is often downbeat and monotone, Bridgers injects an uneasy, anxious aura through this loose experimentation. It is a record that was rightfully lauded as one of 2020’s standouts.


The career of Seattle’s Mammifer has thus far been a gradual step from darkness into the light – the sinister drone, understated doom and downtempo minimalism of the project’s early work gradually replaced by tender post-rock atmospherics and the rustic charm of ethereal folk. Latest album The Brilliant Tabernacle is perhaps the biggest leap in this process, as Faith Coloccia, often collaborating with husband Aaron Taylor (Isis, SUMAC), dives headfirst into serene songs powered primarily by her soaring vocals and delicate pianowork.

Izzy’s Daughter

As the mastermind behind Izzy’s Daughter, UK musician Michelle Nichols has created something truly special. The project boasts a truly unique strain of dark folk with an enigmatic Celtic undertone, driven by poignant piano melodies, gothic croons and elegiac strings. The beautifully bleak aesthetic and subtly infectious nature are enough to lure you into a place where it feels safe to bare your soul and experience true catharsis. I recommend listening to 2017’s Luna on a solo hike amongst nature, where the flowing melodies seem to almost drift on the wind and the limitless vocals seem to emanate up into the sky.


Pop star or cult favourite? Faroese singer-songwriter Eivør Pálsdóttir can seemingly do both, with a multifaceted discography spanning chamber pop, classical, jazz, electronic and traditional Nordic instrumentation. Pálsdóttir’s songwriting prowess and versatile vocal range has garnered some well-earned commercial success in recent years, with the musician lending her skills to esteemed soundtracks for film/TV (Game Of Thrones, The Last Kingdom) and video games (God Of War, Metal Gear Solid) as well as appearing on the esteemed BBC show Later…With Jools Holland. Despite this, she remains a somewhat underappreciated gem.

Fool’s Ghost

Though there have certainly been studies proving this fact, it doesn’t take a scientist to recognise that music has therapeutic value, and on some records, you can almost feel the catharsis along with the performers. For Fool’s Ghost, the desolate vistas conjured up by their unique strain of introspective music are directly inspired by real-world pain. That feeling of loss and grief is palpable in their music’s stark soundscapes and vulnerable vocals, which come together to lament whilst searching for hints of hope. It’s both vastly cinematic and quietly introspective, making for a release that whilst not sonically heavy in the traditional sense, takes its toll on an atmospheric level. No wonder the duo’s debut album was picked up by Prosthetic Records.

A.A. Williams

The stunning combination of forlorn guitar, soaring strings and melancholy piano used by UK artist A.A. Williams is breathtakingly impressive even after you learn that the singer-songwriter is a classically-trained multi-instrumentalist, but it is her celestial croons that take centre stage. Driven by desolate lyrics, her vocals are achingly evocative, capable of expressing the kind of deep sadness that can be uniquely comforting and uplifting despite an innately bleak aura. Her 2020 debut Forever Blue effortlessly operates in the elusive middle-ground between beauty and gloom that countless bands have been striving to attain for decades is exemplary of its power.

Gia Margaret

The two albums released by Chicago singer-songwriter Gia Margaret each offer something quite different. Her first, 2018’s There’s Always Glimmer, is an introspective record, yearning for hope in a bleak world. The vocals were soft, almost hushed, the music light and shoegazy like a lullaby. By contrast, last year’s Mia Gargaret is instrumental, owing to an illness that meant Margaret was unable to sing. Whilst recovering, the artist acclimatised by composing synthesiser-based tracks that she states helped her hold on to her identity as a songwriter. During a tough time the songwriter crafted something achingly poignant but with a shining beam of hope running right through its centre.


Finland’s Hexvessel may dub themselves a “psychedelic forest folk-rock” outfit, but they’re not averse to going full folk. Indeed, one of their most captivating albums thus far is the splendid All Tree, an intimate yet otherworldly affair that seemed to shed away some of the more ambitious experimentation the band have gone through over the years in favour of a stripped-back approach. Despite this seeming like a less ambitious move, the record in truth feels more boundless than ever. Wyrd folk of the highest calibre.


Folk has been a space for performers to wear their heart on their sleeve for centuries, and yet there still seems to be something uniquely intimate about Ghostwriter, the goth-folk project of Mors Certa’s Kalee Beals. On debut record Burial Grounds, Beals puts the struggle of self-sense under the microscope and explores her complicated relationship with religion. The songs are often hauntingly bleak, but a sense of hope shines through in spots, too. For more, check out our interview with Beals here.

Harvestman/Steve Von Till

Both his solo work and his music under the Harvestman moniker takes heavy influence from the folk that inspires him, and yet Neurosis’ Steve Von Till never conforms to one distinct style. In truth, Harvestman can be more accurately described as drone, but the vast soundscapes are as inspired by Von Till’s love of European folk music as they are krautrock, psychedelia and ambient music. “In Harvestman I use folk music sounds,” he tells The Quietus. “But I’m not a traditional folk player.” The result is a kind of ethereal drone with nods to traditional folk – ancient mystical themes filtered through a modern approach to songcraft.

Julia Jacklin

Surely one of the world’s most talented songwriters, Australian singer-songwriter Julia Jackson released Crushing in 2019 to widespread critical acclaim, and it’s not hard to see why it received such adoration. Not only is the music a tender blend of grunge-soaked indie pop and ghostly americana, but the lyrics showcase an intense degree of self-discovery, with Jackson mining past experiences with life and love for all their worth. She often turns these musings into infectious couplets, somehow turning the complexities of life that we all struggle to articulate into memorable soundbites that will swirl around inside your head long after the album’s conclusion. There’s an understated sense of scope here too – as these tracks simmer, Jackson’s stripped-back approach often soon reveals something far grander.


Some of the artists on this list are proponents of a very modern form of folk, but Einar Selvik’s Wardruna have made a point of looking back with their music. Using traditional nordic instrumentation and the Old Norse language, the band’s music is remarkably effective at conjuring an immersive atmosphere, irregardless of how successful it is in its goal of recreating the lost music of a now distant era. You can almost feel the icy breeze sifting through the fjords or the ruminative hum of the earth below your feet as a fire crackles softly beside you.

Marissa Nadler

Heaviness in music does not have to stem solely from dissonance and distortion – it can also dwell in the intense darkness or all-consuming poignancy of a piece of music. Indeed, Marissa Nadler’s mournful tunes are so captivating that you’d have to be the most diehard worshipper of blastbeats to not find something to love. Nadler is an artist who recognises the mundanity of life, but instead of wallowing within it, she finds nuggets of poetry in the humdrum of everyday existence, turning doom and gloom into something ethereal.

Jonathan Hultén

You may already be familiar with Jonathan Hultén as the guitarist for Tribulation, but it is his enchanting solo work that earns the musician a place on this list. Swapping punishing riffs for something more introspective, his music takes the listener on a gripping acoustic journey through dreamy landscapes elegantly built off a simple backdrop of guitar and vocals. Last year’s Chants From Another Place is a stripped-back affair but one that feels grander than the sum of its parts, with ghostly harmonies, delicate guitarwork and tracks that keep driving forward instead of lingering on one idea for longer than necessary.

Cinder Well

California-born songwriter Amelia Baker moved to County Clare to study Irish music after touring with Lankum, and subsequently released her finest album yet in last year’s No Summer. Comparisons to Lankum are apt, particularly with the mere hints of drone present on Cinder Well’s music, but they don’t tell the full picture by any stretch. Baker’s music benefits from its solo nature, feeling lonely and austere but never devoid of hope – if anything, it’s a much-needed testament to resilience in a time that has tested us all.

Osi And The Jupiter

Renowned as one of the finest examples of neofolk currently going, Osi And The Jupiter weave a rather radiant spell through their music, with minimalist compositions that manage to feel gloomy whilst also offering a somewhat comforting rustic atmosphere. Across their discography, comparisons as widespread as Wardruna, Sunn O))), Agalloch and Ulver have been made, but they’ve nevertheless created something that’s distinctly their own, with music that’s cinematic in scope but never overly complex.


The music of Portland (OR) doom-folk outfit Strangeweather is as gloomy and ethereal as you may expect from a band of their type, but as much as they have the innate ability to build atmospheric soundscapes that slowly wash over the listener, their music stands out for its ability to also go on the attack, with weighty guitar and bass backing up some percussion that’s fairly heavy at times. Shades of post-punk and chamber pop also appear, ensuring that the music is unique, dynamic and keeps you guessing.


Nova Scotian neofolk duo Ulvesang pay homage to the genre’s formations, taking heavy influence from nature and folklore, but they blend this with an introspective look inside and at mental health more generally. The band’s latest album, The Hunt, refines the promising sound they displayed on their 2015 self-titled debut, with a simple instrumental approach and soft non-verbal vocals delicately floating behind the heartfelt guitarwork. Their second LP sounds slightly darker in tone on the whole, but nonetheless delivers a powerful message of perseverance in the face of internal struggles.

Sangre De Muerdago

Armed with an enchanting array of musicians and an inherent knack for hitting all the right notes to make your heart bleed, Galician folk outfit Sangre De Muerdago do progressive folk better than anyone. Steve Von Till is a huge fan and even lends his vocals to the title-track of latest record Xuntas, but the band’s music is less otherworldly than this may infer, always bound to the earth even at its most spiritually affecting. As such, there’s something uniquely human about Sangre De Muerdago’s pastoral folk, making it all the more poignant.

Jake Blount

Named after the spider god Anansi of Akan mythology, Jake Blount’s debut album Spider Tales is the product of both research and some truly skilled musicianship. With a clear objective in mind, namely to explore Black and Indigenous Appalachian music and untangle it from the music that has exploited the artistry of these cultures, Blount has created a masterpiece. Blunt and his cohorts’ music is exciting and dynamic, his voice effortlessly enigmatic, creating something that feels celebratory at times but thought-provoking throughout.


Indonesia’s Senyawa merge local folklore and musical traditions with contemporary heavy and experimental music. The result is a sound that’s utterly their own, one that conjures a dense darkness that slowly emanates out and ensnares you as you listen. Check out the doomy Sujud for an introduction – you won’t be disappointed.

Words: George Parr

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