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It's actually quite rare that a band peaks later in their career. Sure, one would think that it would be the most common path as artists grow, but inevitably, as popularity increases, so does the temptation to streamline one's sound to appeal to a wider majority of people. Summoning were never really the kind of band that had to worry about that sort of thing, though- since their style is sort of built to garner a rabid cult fanbase that will buy exactly what they're selling coupled with the fact that they refrain from playing live shows and focus all of their free time composing music as a hobby instead allows for a much more natural evolution of style and technique. It is at the turn of the century that all of the elements at play for Summoning had been fully realized- the guitars had perfected their fluid, relaxed arpeggiated riff style, the keyboards had already long mastered the art of the entrancing, medieval narrative, and at long last, the right balance has been found and Summoning have come out with one of my favorite albums of all time.
Through all of metal's expression of the darker emotions: sorrow, loss, anger, hatred and misanthropy, one can often forget that even in some of man's most harrowing and terrifying battles, we sometimes emerge victorious. Sometimes, life can bring us that feeling of overwhelming satisfaction, the knowledge that life threw all the shit that it could at you and you fucking won. It gives you the strength and the passion it gives you to overcome any subsequent obstacle. Few metal albums can really capture that pure essence of victory, mostly because that essence is diluted by something else in the music. Black metal has this feeling to an extent, but it is arrived at via dwelling in the negatives and reviling in everything deemed sick and wrong in the world. Power metal can certainly create a euphoric fantasy that carries you away from yourself, but due to its inherent adherence to some rock tropes it stays rooted in fantasy. Folk metal is the same kind of thing- tied to the cultural land it attempts to portray. Summoning, however, is none of those three genres entirely. After four albums of preparing themselves for the battle, on Let Mortal Heroes Sing Your Fame, it is as though Summoning has stumbled upon the music they always wanted to create for themselves. The title seems almost indicative of that- it is as if I must sing the absolute praises of this album and let the world know what it offers beyond not only other Summoning albums, but beyond most music.
There are a few metalheads who do not like, and probably will not ever like this album one bit: All I can really do is feel really sorry for them not being able to enjoy this, but, as I have done with most other albums in this review series, I tried comparing it to their past albums to try and see what made this album one of the more talked-about and to an extent polarizing releases. The one thing, at its core that really changed from this point on in was that the sense of urgency prevalent in the more metallic side of Summoning's sound has completely disappeared at this point. Usually, tension is built in tremolo, that's like the main feature of black metal, but the tremolo riff backing on Let Mortal Heroes Sing Your Fame don't string you along a rope, they lift you up into the sky. They're much more harmonious, perhaps one could say that they used a much "warmer" melodic style than they did even on their previous albums, and so for an outsider looking in this could be a really weird album in which the electronic/ambient musical influences in the album completely dominate. This is not to say that the riffs take a backseat- yes, they're obviously less of a feature than they were on Stronghold, but they're given as big a role in the music as anything else- the problem is, they are not overtly favored over the symphonics, and this might prove a hurdle for some to get into this time around. But oh, my, can they ever riff! Their distinct, arpeggiated style that they had been cultivating since Dol Guldur is at its peak here- "Runes of Power" is the song I show to people when they start asking me what the fuck I'm talking about when I'm saying a riff can fly you away on a dragon. (Usually they just stare at me in further confusion, but that's for another day.) "Ours Foes Shall Fall" contains a great riff of a similar nature, as well- now that the music has lost its immediacy, riffs like this are free to wander about in their own joy and delight, and the music is all the better for it for those who knew what Summoning was trying to capture. As always, the free, marching nature of the programmed drumkit gives the riffs an open sandbox to wander on- the drumming is rarely a heavily showy or noticeable element but the music would seem ill-fitting to any other drum style, nor would the drumming here truly be compatible with a lot else other than this.
This is not an album with highs and lows. You will have your highlights of the album, but it is structured to lift you up and up into the embrace of energy, joy and power. The keyboards have been altered to just the right balance with the guitars- everpresent but always merely on the periphery of your mind. This is also a somewhat radical change in the keyboards' position in the music that a lot of metalheads may not be used to- in black metal, even in the styles they were more of a feature in, that feature served as a juxtaposition of the actual metal that was still the driving force of the music, but on Let Mortal Heroes Sing Your Fame the two work in perfect symbiosis with each other, with each taking turns bleeding into and out of your attention and creating more memorable songs because of it.
Even the intro is done a little better than in the past and it gives us a little glimpse into what's really going on here: there's layers. Multiple layers of keyboards, sometimes going against each other's grain to create dense harmonies, and sometimes coming together- creating harmonies and little melodic patterns that may or may not just be your brain playing tricks on you, but even in "A New Power is Rising" we see the keyboards stack on to each other, creating one of the best intros around and one of the few in metal that actually does what it's fucking supposed to- builds into the album and gives a little, y'know, introduction to what you're in for. God, am I ever sick of bands just putting a bunch of ominous sounds or an acoustic guitar wank or some shit at the beginning of the album. We get it, you're artistic, I figured that was evident by virtue of the fact you're fucking making music, moving on. Each song has its owns standout traits thanks to this careful blending of influences. Every. Single. Track. "South Away" has its meaty opening riff that is perhaps one of the most metallic of the album, that brags with a courage and bravado, "hit me motherfucker". "In Hollow Halls Beneath the Fells" has this great sort of adventure-film-score feel to it, "Our Foes Shall Fall", besides the great aforementioned riff has a keyboard break at about 3 minutes in that is absolutely sublime and puts you in a completely different place for when the main riff returns. "The Mountain King's Return" is the song that shows the closest resemblance to what Summoning was doing in the past, and the overwhelming sappiness and positivity emanating from it shows in a lot of the ways they've changed. Minimalism is used to great effect- the slower, more focused songs like this one tend to be even stronger and more all-encompassing in the glory they express. The sparse keyboard breaks that dot the album literally always work and they know exactly where to put them. "Runes of Power" has my personal favorite Summoning riff, "Ashen Gold" builds on the same mood as "Runes of Power", almost being a part two to that song, and then...there's "Farewell".
Talking about what makes "Farewell" so good requires a little elaboration on the final piece of the puzzle that was somewhat unnoticeably lacking on previous efforts: the vocals. They're the weak link in most bands, and for the majority of Summoning's career, that is indeed the case; they existed more as a static element of rhythm not really meant to be paid a whole lot of attention to. The always seemed to exist more so the music could retain its metal aesthetic, but on Let Mortal Heroes Sing Your Fame, they can finally hold their own. Maybe it's just because I've been some kind of a hip-hop fiend over the past year or so, but Silenius (on "South Away", The Mountain King's Return" and "Farewell") and Protector (on "In Hollow Halls...", "Our Foes Shall Fall", "Runes of Power and "Ashen Gold") seem much more rhythmically on point than they were before, less hazy and static and more of a controlled, triumphant chant. They do dip into some actual chanting sections that are downright terrific (most notably on "South Away"), and then, on Farewell...they sing. Goregeously. Obviously without any sort of formal training, the chorus is chock full of pomp and cheese, but in typical Summoning closer style, the overblown grandiose nature of the entire song (even the sappiest moments earlier in the album can barely compare to this) works to their benefit, and the slow, dramatic composition setting up the clean vocal chorus makes it one of Summoning's best tracks. Truly, though, a majority of the best and most memorable moments of Summoning can be found on this album. Everything has finally come together for them, and this album is a victory in every sense it can possibly be. I have no doubt a good load of atmospheric black metal drew a lot of its influences from this album specifically- the riffs and the inimitable feeling bear too much similarity to a lot of second-string imitators for it not to be true. I feel like this is a somewhat revolutionary album, but it will take some time for a lot of people to retrospectively determine that- but this album was released a year after Dead as Dreams. Let's keep that in mind, considering post-black metal inevitably ends up sounding more like this than it ever did Weakling. The pinnacle of Summoning. This is not like anything else you have heard before, and you owe it to yourself to give it at least a fair shot.
This is not music for those that want to be pummeled by riffs, nor for those who need music that immediately grabs their attention. This is the music for those that wander and dance in the forest of delight- though our motives are strange and confusing, we know in our hearts that in our celebration and exploration of joy for the sake of it, we are the ones who will emerge victorious in the end.