Sound — 6
Given the recent resurgence of the epic-fantasy film genre in the past 4 or so years, it's not surprising that fans and followers have followed suit and pumped out their adoration (no euphemism here folks, keep moving) to express their ideas and thoughts across whatever medium they wish. In the realm of underground black metal, you cannot even begin to imagine how many dedicated worshipers of a certain Mr Tolkien exist in the world. Whether it's simply referencing certain names or places (or just general "things") or dedicating their entire act to a certain lore, franchise or so on, there is no lacking for artists in this field of fantasy-folk black metal.
So here we have the band Summoning, a veteran act who've been around since the days of early New Wave BM (so around 1993-ish) and have consistently kept to their overall theme of epic folk fantasy for the entirety of their career. This is a small two man project, with one guy handling vocals and bass and the other pretty much doing everything else (guitars, more vocals, drum programming, synth programming, writing, so on). This is a factor that plays heavily into the sound of the album.
I'll start with production. Gravelly, muddy and unrefined guitar tone, works with the genre but sounds like it was rushed or dialled in lazily one summer's eve. Surprisingly deep layering of instrumentation, at least it's not lacking in full on sound but I'll be tearing this bit apart later. Slightly confusing drum tone, snare is bathed in several tons of reverb and delay, which in the mix sounds almost deceptive to how much there really is, and the kick drum is very dry and punctual, fitting the music but at odds with most of the drum kit, which sounds even weirder when toms are introduced because they sound incredibly tribal and ethnically removed from this sort of highly westernised fantasy metal. In fact, they sound like the drum sounds used in the soundtrack to a "Call of Duty" game. The bass is there in "feeling," but not there in tone and further perpetuates the stereotype of the bassist being "the guy standing in the back who nobody pays attention to."
The mix is quite dense as mentioned, but has the usual and not-too-interesting strappings of supposedly "epic" black metal: masses of reverb, overall quite loud and lacking in dynamic range... BUT somewhat uniquely in this case, a big consideration to space for instruments. A good thing truth be told, but overshadowed by the second big flaw of this album: Nearly everything is a programmed synth.
I'm not one to bash the use of programming in metal, good albums have been made using drum programs and countless others with synths, so many that it's pretty much a given these days that new metal albums will have MIDI syncing/replacement on the drums. However, the drums on this are just so underdone. The patterns are too simple, the timing too robotically rigid, the spacing of the toms is all over the place, to the point of irritation. The other instrument synths are even worse: aside from being programmed and just as frigidly precise to the tempo as the percussion, the sounds of the orchestral parts are just disarmingly hilarious. Whatever atmosphere is brought on by the slow and hypnotic guitar build up is instantly washed away when even a small trumpet line is introduced. The acoustic guitar (I think, which is also programmed) in some songs and the shamisen (?) in the intro to "Flammifer" is full on hard pluck all the time, with no love for subtlety being apparent. There are some real strings recorded at some points, but they hardly make a real impact alongside the synths. I wouldn't recommend this album for fans of raw-as-burnt-balls black metal production.
When it comes to actual musical composition, there's a lot that works and really doesn't work. The layering shows that there's lots of thought put into what goes where, this is good for an orchestral-ish directed band given that each instrument has a specific role to fill. The guitar riffs just kind of sit there in the mix and stay back like a blanket of fuzzy distortion, which might appear to be a bad thing but it works in the context of letting the layers intermingle with each other. The harmonies employed are what I'd subjectively call "good." They're somewhat exploratory, but not bombastic like a full blown film score and fit the theme well. The songs are somewhat down tempo though, not very energetic.
This is quickly leading to the third main problem of this album: It gets pretty damn tedious. It's just over an hour long, but has 8 songs, 6 of them being longer than 8 minutes and mostly consisting of the same chord loop re-phrased and interspersed with the occasional stripped down break of just a singular instrument and some more quiet McGuffins. The songs written are like large jigsaws, but all the pieces are the same colour with slightly different shades and all the pieces are perfect squares.
Lyrics — 7
Onto vocals, and this is at least a point in this albums favour. The main vocalist (under the name Protector) has a raspy but rather listenable tonal quality to his voice. It doesn't sound like a man painfully distorting his own throat. It also has a nice place in the mix, being very audible and keeping a measure of dissonance amongst the melodic consonance. It's just a shame they decided to bury it in more reverb. There is absolutely no message that can be effectively conveyed through any vocal expression when presented with this sort of scenario. In most extreme metal, it can mostly be accepted to have a vague inkling of what the vocalist is expressing just by listening to what he/she's singing, but doing the reverb thing is illogical. On the plus side, there's an interspersion of real choir every now and then, a full male choir by the sounds of it, somewhat odd compared to the highly un-realistic sound of the album but you take the nuggets when they come. I'd say the choir is a good addition to the sound (or downright epic), it overshadows the poor quality tones of most of the orchestration and it really feels meaty and powerful.
Lyrically, if my first paragraph didn't hint at this enough, these guys just love their Tolkien. Song names like "Caradhras" and "The White Tower" are pretty strong indications of what you can expect to read ("hear" would imply the vocals are clear and un-muddy-reverbed-ish). Some of it is even sung in Tolkien elvish, which... doesn't really do much for the music, but at least keeps to the theme. Not much here that you couldn't already learn from reading the original books.
Overall Impression — 6
I think overall, there's a lot of safety here in this album. It's the sound of an old band doing things a new way, not quite failing but you get the sense that what they tried doing hasn't translated well. Don't get me wrong, it's not like Metallica doing "St. Anger" or something silly, but more of an overeager use of new tech. It's an album that you'd need to "get" I suppose, but the thing with Tolkien is that his written world could appeal to any audience, so give it a go. Personally, I don't find it any more engaging than say, a conversation with your granddad about socks during the "good old days," but that's just me.