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While I consider Let Mortal Heroes Sing Your Fame Summoning's one true masterwork, I constantly find other Tolkien diehards shoving Oath Bound in my face, purporting it to be the pinnacle of the Austrian duo's grand output. While this record can indeed be judged in the same light as all of the band's output post-Minas Morgul, the massive sonic scope the band continued to test the limits of begins to decay noticeably here. The once-vaunted halls that Silenius and Protector so proudly occupy have found themselves on shaky foundation, and the war drums are drawing near...
The frustrating thing is, Summoning hits it right out of the park with the intro, "Bauglir". The atmosphere is foreboding and ripe, with the tribal drums and mesmerizing chants building into a monumental crescendo; and then "Across the Streaming Tide" flops out of the gates like it took a premature arrow to the knee. Even for a band like Summoning, who lives and dies by the repetitious nature of the compositions, this one is a patience-tester. The melodies hint at something grand and optimistic, yet never truly build into the epoch-making splendor they really want to embody. It certainly doesn't help that the band seesaws back and forth between two droning passages, only taking a break near the middle of the song to let the cavernous drums do their thing.
This is where I normally come in and dismiss the worst track as a one-off fluke, but much of Oath Bound repeatedly stumbles down pitfalls as dank and bottomless as the one under the bridge of Khazad-dûm. On Let Mortal Heroes Sing Your Fame the individual songs each had a unique identity, with "Runes of Power", "In Hollow Halls Beneath the Fells", and especially "Farewell" all ricocheting into the deepest reaches of your memory. Oath Bound's excessively hazy, dour scope only serves to muddy the creative waters and blur many of these songs together. Nearly every aesthetic becomes too expected and stock, even by eclectic Summoning standards. It doesn't necessarily reek of the band phoning it in, but one can almost sense that Summoning aimed for nine minute-plus track lengths and simply looped enough melodies to reach said goal - no matter what the compositional cost.
Brilliance still lurks in the shadows, as moonlight drowns out all but the brightest stars. Just like "Bauglir" before them, "Might and Glory", "Land of the Dead", and to a lesser extent "Menegroth" all deliver the band's archaic appeal in spades. "Might and Glory" is the true masterpiece of the album, embodying the second coming of "In Hollow Halls Beneath the Fells", rumbling percussion and all. The flute melodies on this one are entrancingly sublime, and even Protector's normally passive vocals contribute to the appeal. The key to enjoying Summoning vocals is not to focus on the croaking approach, or even the lyrics. The vocal patterns are the true appeal, as Protector mixes his harsh rasp with seemingly random sound effects, which eventually add another hypnotizing layer to the proceedings. The always welcome group chorus from "Farewell" makes an appearance as well; it's all here.
The most impressive feather Oath Bound can stick in it's travel-worn cap is the fact that it picks up nicely as it reaches it's conclusion. "Land of the Dead" seems to be most individuals' favorite single Summoning song, and I can't say that I really disagree. Interesting that the song with the most heartwarming, affecting melodies turns out to be one of the most potent. The atmosphere on this one is so austere and solemn; you feel like you just want to give the song a hug. Four minutes longer than "Northward" or "Across the Streaming Tide", and a million times more appealing. "Menegroth" is also decent enough, showcasing Silenius' more tortured, rasping screams.
As with all Summoning albums, critiquing the production values is a lost cause. The band certainly achieved what they set out to accomplish here, with layer upon layer of droning chords and throbbing synths. I always get a kick out of how the band uses the cheapest keyboards available, yet through some pact with unseen forces manage to hone the delivery into a very convincing aural narrative. Trying to dissect individual riffs is almost always in vain, but "Might and Glory" certainly gets cooking when it feels like it, with the particular riff right before the eight minute mark being a massive highlight. Protector has certainly carved out his own unique style, with laid-back arpeggio patterns sprinkled alongside murmuring open notes.
As great as individual sections may be, Oath Bound still goes wide of the band's perceived target. The formula is clearly beginning to reach it's limits; the walls are closing in on the Austrian duo. Having to follow up a masterpiece certainly doesn't help. I honestly thought the band was finished after this one, but with Old Mornings Dawn the horn of Summoning sounds yet again in the deep. For the last time?