Monday, April 11, 2011

Pagan Music

While some people know me for Horned God lectures and dick jokes, there's another group of people who know me because of "Rock and Roll" lectures and (Morrison) rituals. Because of my obsessive interest in music I often get asked about "Pagan Music" and what "Pagan" bands I listen to. The short answer is that I don't really listen to "Pagan Music," I tend to listen to "Music that makes me feel Pagan." I gave up caring about people's beliefs a long time ago, I'm far more interested in where the music takes me.

There are some hard "Pagan" performers that I enjoy, and never miss when I'm at a festival. Most everyone who knows me knows that Kenny Klein and I participate in a mutual admiration society, but I like Kenny for his talent, not just for the shout-outs directed my way. The guy plays Renaissance fairs, and bars in New Orleans . . . he's a skilled musician and many of his songs are witty and a lot of fun. His "Pagan Bluegrass" CD ("Meet Me in the Shade of the Maple Tree") is a favorite. He's also 100% devoted to the gods, and it comes through in song.

I'll probably never be a huge fan of "just drums" music, but occasionally there are groups who use just drums that rise above the limits of that sound, the Dragon Ritual Drummers are one of those groups. I love the Dragon Ritual Drummers, and in concert, they are one of those few Pagan groups whose music has that little hint of transcendence. I'd love to see them out here on the West Coast sometime. They really are great, just a real primal and powerful sound. I'm glad to call them friends.

At Starwood last year I saw a band I really enjoyed called Coyote Run. They were a solid group, good songs, great musicianship, they tour in England and play Renaissance Festivals, usually a good sign with a band. I had never seen them at a festival before so I'm not sure how often they play Pagan events, but if you get the chance check them out.

And that's my entire short list of "Pagan" performers that I might listen to at home and that I make a point of seeing when I'm on the road. Now that doesn't mean I hate all other forms of Pagan music, there have been other artists I'm sure I've enjoyed over the years*, but it wasn't overly memorable, and a lot of that is certainly me. I have my own tastes and likes, and I'm also very open about them. There have been Pagan artists I've wanted to like, but for whatever reason their music didn't resonate with me.

A lot of my Pagan friends rant and rave about Wendy Rule from Australia, but it didn't do much for me. That doesn't mean she's not gifted, she certainly is, it just isn't my bag of tea. Maybe I'll dust it off again in a few years and give it another go.

There are artists who don't claim to be Pagan who have made some amazing "Pagan" music over the years. I have no idea what Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders believes spiritually, but her recording of "Hymn to Her" is an amazing Pagan moment. I also like "Brass in Pocket" and "Chain Gang" is required summer listening.

My favorite one-off type Pagan song is Dar Williams "The Christians and the Pagans," and some of her other songs have Pagan type lyrics from time to time. I'm a huge Dar fan, but I don't find the music transformative in the way that I do the Dragon Ritual Drummers. It's well crafted folk-pop, I can't see using it during ritual very often.

Since this post is obviously pretty long, there has to be a whole list of other artists that make (or have made) "Music that makes me feel Pagan." That's really what "Pagan Music" is about for me, music that I find transformative and that resonates with me. I'm not particularly concerned if the musicians themselves are "Pagan" or not, I'm concerned with how the music effects me.

The obvious place to start is with Led Zeppelin. No band has had a bigger influence on my spiritual development than Led Zeppelin. While not all of Zep's music has a Pagan vibe, the songs that do have it in abundance. There was the whole Crowley thing with Jimmy Page too, and there were all sorts of little occult in-jokes and hints throughout the album covers, record wax, and songs. Robert Plant had a keen interest in Celtic Mythology and that comes out in the music.

"The Battle of Evermore" is Zep's Pagan masterpiece, weaving together Tolkien and Celtic Myth. Add in Sandy Denny and you've got that whole "Male/Female" balance thing going on to. Speaking of Sandy Denny, early Fairport Convention constantly gets overlooked when people talk about Pagan music. "Come on ye roving minstrels, and together we will try, to rouse the spirit of Earth, and move the rolling sky." Come on! That's not only about as explicitly Pagan as you can get, the music kicks all kinds of serious ass. "Liege and Lief" is a true Pagan classic that should be issued upon dedication.

While Led Zeppelin remains my favorite band of all time, for ritual purposes, fewer artists are better than The Doors. There's a deep, primal, Pagan vibe to The Doors, and the moody atmosphere of it puts me in a spiritual mood faster than anything else. Songs like "The End" or "Not to Touch the Earth" are not Pagan, but they sound it, and can take you to it. That's what great music should do, transform your time and space. Was Jim a bit heavy handed and full of shit sometimes? Absolutely. Were there some "bad" Doors songs? You better believe it, but when the band was on, they were on.

"My Wild Love" sounds like a festival should. The drums, the sing-a-long nature of it, I want to be out under the stars on a warm summer night making music like that. Let me be the shaman leading the folk in song! Being Pagan doesn't mean it has to be a Hymn to the Lady or an Ode to Pan, it just has to hit those spiritual notes inside.

After The Doors, I find Loreena McKennitt to be the most transformative. Some of it is explicitly Pagan, parts of it I just find "witchy," and all of it I find gorgeous. When The Goddess sings to me, she sounds a lot like Loreena McKennitt. McKennitt makes the perfect soundtrack for autumn rituals, no one else even comes close.

"Dark Night of the Soul" is a very un-Pagan McKennitt song, but the atmosphere of it just makes me want to perform ritual, or take that quiet deep breath and think about the gods. That's what great Pagan music should do, take you to that place of your heart that honors deity and the Earth.

XTC were always that one English band that should have made it, but could never quite get over the hump. These days they are probably most well known for the atheist anthem "Dear God," but a lot of their albums have a very obvious Pagan vibe to them. "Skylarking" with it's "Ode to the Seasons" vibe is an easy place to start (it also has "Dear God" on it, originally an outtake), but even better is Apple Venus Volume One with the magnificent "Green Man." Also worth checking out is "Wasp Star (Apple Venus Volume Two)" with "The Wheel and the Maypole." If Loreena is my autumn soundtrack, XTC is my spring one.

Also in that would have, could have, should have been a huge band are The Waterboys. Stuff like "Whole of the Moon" is obviously Pagan, and still sounds great nearly thirty years after it's original release. Besides, Mike Scott (the guy who is really The Waterboys) released a song called "The Pan Within." What's not to love there? They also released an album called "In a Pagan Place." Go out and buy this stuff right now!

I've always been a huge Jethro Tull fan, and I'm always surprised at how little attention they get in Pagan circles. Aren't we all familiar with the legend of "John Barleycorn?" Weirdly enough, despite my huge love of all things Tull, there Pagan output has never been my favorite stuff.

Lately when trying to get my minimum requirement of rock and roll flute in a Pagan context I've been listening to the Canadian band Blood Ceremony. A mix of the prog-rock stylings of Britain's greatest Satanic band ever, Black Widow, and the power riffs of early Black Sabbath, Blood Ceremony is a throwback to 1971. No wonder I'm digging on it a lot right now. There's also the female vocals which I'm always a sucker for, and they've got a few songs about Pan too. Even the production style sounds very 70's, awesome. I can't imagine using this in ritual, but when I'm writing it hits the spot.

Music always seems more Pagan to me when the vocals are female. I'm not trying to be sexist, it just appeals to me. There have been a whole slew of European female fronted metal bands over the past ten years, most of them playing what's come to be known as "orchestral/gothic metal." Think of a movie soundtrack with heavy metal guitars over top of it with ethereal female vocals. Most of it is better suited to be the soundtrack of a fantasy novel than a Pagan ritual, there's still a cool vibe there. The best of these bands is Within Temptation, but also worth checking out are Epica, Leave's Eyes, Delain, Serenia, and Nightwish (and dozens more). Many of them are far more Pagan than Within Temptation, and all are worth exploring.

Europe is a hotbed of Pagan music, and there are all kinds of metal bands in all sorts of metal sub-genres making music with Pagan themes. I don't have nearly enough time to explore it all, but out of what I've listened to a few stand out. Italy's Elvenking is a favorite, imagine Iron Maiden mixed with a Renaissance fair. Somehow it works. The only downside are that I can't really make out the lyrics. I don't know if "Pagan Purity" is a song about nature or ethnic cleansing.

Kind of like Elvenking, but a little more violent with the imagery are Scandinavian bands like Tyr. If you were ever going to put together a ritual with a Viking theme (or perhaps just want to celebrate Marvel's "Thor" movie next month), this is the kind of stuff you'd use. The only thing with the Scandinavian bands is that some of them to be a little bit on the dark side, mixing Norse mythology with Satanism. That pairing makes no sense to me, but I live in a place where it's not dark six months a year.

*I saw Gaelic Storm at Starwood years and years ago, and love them! However they aren't Pagan, and I can't imagine them ever playing another Pagan festival ever again.


  1. Great compilation of songs and artists! I thought I'd toss in a suggestion for another (sadly now defunct) group - the Canadian band The Tea Party. Their first two albums (Splendor Solis and The Edges of Twilight) had some nice occult influences, they had a great sound, and the lead singer had a sort of Morrison/Zeppelin vibe going back then. He's openly spoken about studying the occult and various religions in interviews, with the obvious nod that his current project is entitled something like 'Jeff Martin 777'. After the first couple of albums, sadly, they veered off into a much more mainstream sound that I personally lost interest in - his solo work has recovered a little bit of those earlier roots, but somehow without the original trio it's just not the same.

    Anyway! Long comment over - thanks again for the great suggestions!

  2. Hello, Greetings from Ireland. I agree completely that the best pagan music is not to be found in strictly pagan bands. The Waterboys are a great example though I would disagree that Mike Scott is the Waterboys. They wouldn't have that ethereal sound if it wasn't for Steve Wickhams truly unique fiddle playing. Anyway check out my country, the land of the Tuatha De Danaan for some real pagan soul music. I have many suggestions but try Brian Finnegans 'The Ravishing Genius Of Bones' for starters. The music here has music with over 5000 years of history behind it. The Gods will speak to you directly my friend. When I want to receive inspiration from the Gods of your own Continent Joseph Red Crows 'Red Crow' is a great album. The best music of all, of course, can be found in whats happening as you stand in the wild places within the arms of Ana the mother of all things. May Lughs spear point protect you brother.

  3. Thanks for the suggestions! I'll check them out!

  4. For many paganism is tied in to Satanism, the lines are blurred. Each to their own etc. For me as a recovering catholic paganism means elemental magic but magic that has to be underpinned with goodness not the self seeking bullshit of do what thou wilt....Each to their own but I know what I'm holding out for and it is a vile horned entity.

  5. lol meant to say - not and it is a vile horned human is to err huh.

  6. To be clear - 3rd time lucky!

    Each to their own but I know what I'm holding out for and it isn't a vile horned entity