Why do people listen to folk metal? For that matter, why do I listen to folk metal? There are many plausible answers to this strangest of questions, beginning with “power metal and Vikings are a great combination,” and spanning all the way to “flutes are cool, man.” Truthfully, I think “folk metal” is too broad a term. When I first stumbled across Oyka!, the fourth full-length from Croatian folk metal band Manntra, I was intrigued by the “folk metal” tag the band carried, but also brought with me the usual trepidation of not really knowing what to expect. Ensiferum folk metal and Eluveitie folk metal are, after all, very different metals, but both fall under the same basic tag. So to return to my original and absolutely rhetorical question, I’m going to offer my own personal answer: folk metal, above all, should be fun.
And Oyka! is a fun album. You can tell by the exclamation point in the title, or alternatively by picking a song at absolute random and playing it at full blast for your friends, family, and neighbors. Trust me, they won’t mind.1 No song on Oyka! is longer than four minutes, and every single one is imbued with a sense of cultural pride, filled with catchy, folky hooks (largely courtesy of Boris Kolarić’s mandolin and bagpiping), and, of all things, cheek. This is an album that is both well-thought-out and refuses to take itself too seriously. It’s basically a more serious, Croatian Alestorm. Musically, I like to imagine Manntra as being a sort of blend between Týr and Tanzwut, with vocalist Marko Sekul’s friendly, gruff delivery reminding me especially of the latter’s Teufel.
Highlights across Oyka! are plentiful. Every song is direct and to the point, and Manntra can absolutely write catchy folk music. The singsong chanting that decorates “In The Shadows” shouldn’t work at all but does, while “Everlasting” stands out for its earnest storytelling delivery, a power “ballad” that works exceptionally well. “Fire in the Sky” reminds me of nothing so much as Amorphis’s Skyforger album. On “Yelena,” the bagpipes shine, and the list goes on and on. Even in the less-than-stellar songs—seriously, the lyrics on “Rakhia” are cringe-inducing at best, though I do understand what the band was going for—you can count on a hook, a moment of catchiness to be swept up in. There is no moment in Oyka! that isn’t fun.
From a production standpoint, I have few complaints. You can hear every element of Manntra’s sound clearly, and I appreciate the way the mix highlights the folk elements of the album. You see, the metal aspects of Oyka! aren’t exactly a highlight. In particular, the guitars, both in production and style, strike me as distinctly Nightwishian, which is to say that there isn’t much going on with them. This isn’t true throughout the entire album—I love what they’re doing in “Fire in the Sky”—but for the most part, Oyka! is treated as a folk album before a metal album, giving preference in the mix and songwriting to that side of the sound. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as the guitars still provide a much-needed backdrop of energetic heaviness, but it does feel a bit like a missed opportunity.
Still, Oyka! is probably the most fun I’ve had listening to metal in a little while. Manntra absolutely nail the cultural, folky, and earnest side to their style. This album is straightforward, enjoyable, and makes for a welcome break from the rather bleak projects I’ve been sampling lately. This is far from the thought-provoking, feel-inducing, longer-form metal I’ve grown accustomed to. But I’ve greatly enjoyed the cultural and musical offerings from the land of Oyka!, and I already know I’ll be coming back to this one often and soon.