Why is fantasy such a hard pill to swallow? Lord knows reality’s a rotten enough morass to make any sane person long for escapism, right? After all, it’s only mercenaries, cutthroats, and lunatics that thrive in the desert of the real.
The reason that this particular writer sometimes finds fantasy – whether in film, literature, or music – difficult to fully appreciate is that the edges of the artifice often poke through, whether in clunky dialogue, unrealistic characters, overly transparent allegory, or a lack of that most crucial element, a sense of total immersion. Thus, an important reason why Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and its associated mythology remains relevant to both wallflower virgins and litterateurs alike is that Middle Earth is so fully realized. Tolkien did so much work upfront – drawing detailed maps, establishing the mytho-heroic past of his mythical world’s present, and hell, even creating languages – that by the time he wrote The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, it felt like he was merely reporting on a world that already existed, rather than creating it as he went along.
This invocation of Tolkien in the context of a review of the new album by Austria’s foremost (read: only) practitioners of Tolkien-derived epic atmospheric black metal Summoning is not simply by convenience of subject matter: Just like with Tolkien himself, the reason that Summoning succeeds so mightily where other imitators and hangers-on might fail is that the duo of Silenius and Protector commits so fully to its chosen environment. This has the effect of utterly banishing irony. So, fair listener, either enter their world or don’t; but if you do, you won’t find the faintest hint of a wink or a nudge, or any intrusion that acknowledges the existence of any world other than the one created and lived-in by the music itself.
While we’re on the subject of imitators, it seems incumbent on such a word-belchingly verbose review as this one to engage with the release, several months ago, of the debut album from Utah’s Caladan Brood. When Echoes of Battle was released in February, many of us who were (rightfully!) infatuated with it wondered – sometimes aloud, and sometimes only barely whispered in our most secret moments – if these most devoted students had necessarily outstripped their teachers in advance. How could the (then still upcoming) new Summoning album ever hope to compete with the fierce artistry and bombast of these upstarts?
By my (Shire) reckoning, however, the reason Caladan Brood’s Echoes of Battle was – and is – such a triumphant album is that, much like Enforcer’s Death by Fire, it so clearly throws a gauntlet directly at the feet of what inspired it. Echoes of Battle says, “Hey, Summoning, we absolutely love what you do, and we’ve studied it so hard that we think we can do you one better.” And that’s no knock on Caladan Brood, either. If you’ve ever looked much into the breathless origins of some of the nastier subgenres of this heavy metal thing we all hold so dear, you’ll recognize that many of the biggest growth spurts – awkward and gangly though they could be – were a direct result of intentional competition. “We can go faster.” “We can be heavier.” “We can go slower.” “We can be uglier.” “We can be eviler.”
“We will be the best.”
On my reading, then, Caladan Brood said, more or less, “We can be Summoning-er.” Of course they have their differences and points of uniqueness, but I really can’t listen with a straight face to anyone trying to tell me that Caladan Brood is anything other than a brilliant shiny apple that rocketed itself purposefully off the Summoning tree going “LOOK AT WHAT I CAN DO!”
But okay, this review’s about Summoning, yeah? Despite being the band’s first album after a relatively extended dormancy of seven years, Old Mornings Dawn doesn’t feel out to prove itself in the same way a hungry young challenger like Caladan Brood does; the album never seems drawn into a game of one-upmanship. Instead, what Old Mornings Dawn does is radiate with a fiercely dedicated refinement of the band’s core sound, while also striking out in a few limited, but nevertheless notable ways. The album sees a much greater use of clean vocals, several spots where the guitars jut out more prominently, and of course, with a style as detail-heavy as Summoning’s, there are the small things: the uncharacteristically heavy use of shuffling snare drum on “Of Pale White Morns and Darkened Eyes,” or the prepared piano that opens album closer “Earthshine.”
Nevertheless, the core sound is still undeniably Summoning’s own. In fact, engaging in a Summoning binge in the run-up to this new album’s release, the impression that most consistently stuck its impertinent nose in my face was that Summoning’s stylistic take on black metal is something akin to the most finely-honed martial ambient/neofolk band interpreting Emperor’s Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk. Except, of course, with the drama amplified, focused intently on heroism and defeat, triumph and sorrow. Summoning’s drama is of a more patient type than Emperor’s, however, and sometimes speaks with a quieter voice, like with “Flammifer”’s use of that most trusty of sound effects: an eagle shrieking. Meanwhile, the title track itself seems to meditate directly on heroism, but not the heroism of a resounding, glorious victory; instead, the song’s distant, chanted chorus (which, in fair warning, will not leave your head once it’s in there) speaks of a weary, trudging sort of heroism – the long, muddy, bone-tired march home.
There are several moments on Old Mornings Dawn where the guitars reassert themselves more strongly than anything on Summoning’s past few albums, reminding even the most pouty-lipped skeptic that these dudes came up on black metal just like anyone. See, for example, the guitars-only introduction to “The White Tower,” and the beautiful, unaccompanied guitar arpeggios that begin around the four-minute mark of “Caradhras.” All of this is as good a time as ever to recall that the early ‘90s was a time of insane fertility in extreme metal. Not only were the genres of death metal and black metal expanding at an exponential rate, but so too was the number of bands taking their name from Tolkien. But here’s a question that often goes unasked and unanswered: Did most of them earn it?
Burzum (formerly Uruk-Hai, after all), Gorgoroth, Amon Amarth, and anyone else you can think of: the language of Tolkien seems mostly to have been a faddish convenience. (And, of course, despite all the lore and mystique that’s been built up around the decades’-shrouded mist of the early ‘90s, we have to keep in mind that most of these kids were, more or less, socially awkward nerds looking for empowerment just the same as any of us, so Tolkien may have simply been handy source material.) To my ears, though, no band besides Summoning ever filtered every last iota of its sound through a Tolkien prism. Maybe that doesn’t count for much with you, but it does with me. “Caradhras” begins with a simple, mournful synthesized violin melody; the dissipating wash of the guitars perfectly emulates the ferocity of the snows driven by the traitor Saruman to prevent the crossing of the Misty Mountains, forcing the terror of the blind-eyed groping through the doom-hallowed mines of Moria and the reckoning of Durin’s Bane.
In another slight modification from previous Summoning albums, the programmed drums throughout Old Mornings Dawn seem more detailed and meticulous, always sketching a complicated counterpoint to the generally more straightforward synthesizer melodies and creating a neat tension or forward momentum, like clear water tumbling down uneven boulders. Some of the songs see the vocals take a more pronounced rhythmic function, too – see “The White Tower,” in particular. And, really, that might be the primary charm of Summoning: scoff all you want at the band’s choice of timbres – which, after all, is easy enough: tinkly, Casio-sounding synths? Trebly, washed-out guitars? Tinny, echoing, ticky-tacky programmed drums? – but it’s hard to deny the precision of the craft. Protector and Silenius seem committed to (some might say foolishly hell-bent on) not just delivering the most tremendously rich, medieval-inspired melodies, but also cocooning those melodies in a veritable forest of supporting voices. No synth-pad stands alone in Summoning’s universe.
By way of conclusion, it would seem the most pragmatic thing to discuss is, naturally, punctuation. When the album title was first announced a few months back, I did a bit of a apoplectic nerd double-take, thinking that an apostrophe had been omitted:
“AARAGH! Surely our heroes meant to refer to the dawn of a particular old morning, no? HUUAGURAGHNNNNRR…”
*Shatters plastic TMNT juice cup in an iron grip of unfeeling, spasmodic fury, spilling Tahitian Treat all over Captain Planet pajama-bottoms.*
All jokes aside (well, not really, but let’s be genteel and pretend): in the context of the majestic sweep of Old Mornings Dawn, any lingering grammatical doubt is easily assuaged. Old mornings do indeed dawn with this album; all of them, resplendent in amber and haze. Summoning’s music is both generative and locomotive: it both creates a world and then transports the listener to it. The past is not a shadow to be dimly regarded, but another world always on the verge of being accessed.