Pretty sure it was J.R.R. Tolkien who said, “Welcome to the back half of winter, suckers—just one damn day after another.”
In the northern latitudes especially, the terrain stretches into a gray, salty deathscape wrapped in a shroud of cloud. All the good holidays and year-end best-of lists are faded memories; the only hope is an uncertain promise of a distant spring. The movie choices suck. Even to those granted the fortune of excellent serotonin regulation, winter feels like an endurance trial created by a distant god who subsequently got distracted by a Fast N’ Loud marathon, leaving his children evermore to trudge. Tolkien understood all this. Well, either him or George R.R. Martin. Definitely one of the two.
You know who’d be able to clear that up? The black metal band Summoning, a pair of Viennese Lord of the Rings fans whose eighth album, With Doom We Come, recently came out on Napalm Records. At least since Zep’s “Ramble On,” plenty of bands have made their “Tolkien song” or “Tolkien album,” but Summoning has forged—as in the unquenchable fires of Orodruin—a Tolkien career. Every year or five, the men known to metaldom as Protector and Silenius release an album of stately guitar-and-keyboard epics, over which they hiss out lyrics found by rifling through endless volumes of Middle Earth-related texts. This album’s title, for instance, comes from the song the Ents sang when they went marching off to Isengard. Everybody knows that.
If you didn’t, rest assured the band’s lyrics are the last piece of their musical puzzle. Silenius has said, “When we compose music for Summoning the lyrics play no role at all,” and I take him at his word. The lyrics for new song "Carcharoth," for example, concern the greatest and most powerful wolf who ever lived, “fed with elvish and mannish flesh by Morgoth himself” (I gather), but the synth trumpets make it sound like armies going to war, and the mid-song breakdown creates a thunderstorm from ruminative guitar picking and nature sound effects. The band’s most salient quality is also their most accessible: Their music is beautiful.
For Summoning, beauty is a matter of layering and immersion. Protector and Silenius handle nearly every aspect of the music themselves, from composition to performance, recording to mixing. (They insist Summoning will never play live.) Recordings begin with the keyboard parts, full of flutes, horns, chimes, and somewhat boxy drum sounds, although the fake timpani on “Silvertine” pack a punch. Simple yet unexpected melodic lines slowly collect into a heap. The men multitrack their voices into a background choir, joined on two songs by the album’s sole outside musician, Hungarian singer Erika Szűcs. Lead vocals alternate between the two: Silenius sounds like he’s belching fire, and Protector’s melodic rasp could be the guy from Filter. If not for all the growling and additional layers of sick guitar buzz, Summoning might fit smoothly onto a Pure Moods collection.
Of course, “mood,” like “atmosphere” or “ambience,” is a nebulous concept. Little remembered is how Pure Moods brought the grooves, and in the groove department, Summoning does not disappoint. All that layering of tone colors and countermelodies adds up to majestic, body-swaying polyrhythms. Even Silenius’s inscrutable demon sighs make sense at a musical level, tugging against the beats or reinforcing them. These songs are built around midtempo backbeats—except for the brief “Barrow-downs,” the duo avoids the Ren Faire triple meters of previous albums—but within each groove is nestled a wealth of variety.
This unexpected variety within a monolithic context recalls, of all people, minimalist composer Morton Feldman, whose long, atonal streaks of sound also make for ideal wintertime listening. After Feldman’s death, Kyle Gann wrote perceptively and hilariously about (what else?) the composer’s beats. “Those who think Feldman repeated himself don’t understand his contribution to rhythm,” Gann wrote, going on to contrast Feldman inventions like “rhythm of extremely slow beats” with “precisely measured long durations.” The distinctions among these eight Summoning tales aren’t so subtle, but as with Feldman, the band’s saminess rewards listeners’ patience. Their long songs invite luxurious reflection; they do not demand that we react to them; their music is itself a shroud, and it reminds us that shrouds can be not only bearable but lovely.