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It’s quite the accomplishment in its own right to maintain a sort of ‘underground’ status in black metal while simultaneously keeping one’s music open and accessible to outsiders of the genre. While the usual suspects for ‘gateway’ black metal tend to bear the vitriol of many a black metal veteran, Summoning are one of those bands I could see someone not only getting into black metal with, but also maintaining a healthy love for their music as they became more accustomed to the more extreme end of things. Although I haven’t always been a fan of the bands largely synthesized sound, by the time “Old Mornings Dawn” came around, I had already begun to see why people were so excited for this long-anticipated album. It’s been seven years now since the release of the predecessor, “Oath Bound”, and though I have not been into the band for nearly as long as some of the fans who have waited this entire time for another slice of their unique atmosphere, I think fans and newcomers alike will find a great deal to like on “Old Mornings Dawn”. Summoning has changed very little in their music since the last time they released something, and while an innovation may have had the album stand out even more, it’s partially that sense of being true to form that makes their latest album work as well as it does.
Although there are arguably as many atmospheric black metal bands going as there are cheeseburgers sold in a day, Summoning have still always managed to stand out. Though they have some bands that have taken directly after them- Spain’s excellent Efflor comes to mind- there’s never been the sense in their music that they seek to make compromises or stray from the predestined path. Black metal it may be, but there’s no sense of aggression, or even malevolence to speak of in Summoning’s music. A half-experienced metal listener would be hard pressed to even call the band’s music ‘heavy’; Summoning are one of the few bands in metal I can think of that give keyboards a greater weight in their music than they do the guitars. The album’s overture “Evernight” expresses this focus on synthesizers from the beginning onward. Thoughtful layers of synthesized orchestration do well to build a sense of the epic within three minutes. The compositions that follow all rest within the 7-10 minute mark and tend to rely on hypnotic, soaring guitar passages, fused with the ever-present synthesized orchestra. Though the arrangement is often dense, the inviting tempo and strict focus on harmony makes sure that “Old Mornings Dawn” never feels overwhelming. Listening to it, there’s a feeling of flying over a windswept mountain range more than anything else.
Although the composition is meticulous and intelligently arranged, it’s surprising that Summoning are able to create such a convincing atmosphere, considering that there is such an emphasis on ‘fake’ instruments. Even the drums are conveyed through the use of a trademark drum machine. Although the longer tracks fuse this with the ‘human aspect’- being vocals and guitars- Summoning make no attempt to hide the artificiality of their sound. These programmed instruments don’t even necessarily sound up to date either, and it can be a little offsetting to hear it at first. There’s no doubt that’s it’s ultimately a testament to the quality of Summoning’s skill with composition that the album succeeds using a style of execution that’s often seen as hollow or kitschy. Although I have no doubt that it would have been more impressive to hear these compositions brought to life with a higher-budget and full cast of human musicians, the artifice of the sound gives it a sort of alien, monolithic atmosphere, distanced from mortals and the temporary. I know the programmed instruments are part of Summoning’s trademark, but I cannot help but feel these compositions would have ultimately benefitted from a more human touch.
The title track and the ‘violin’-lathered “Caradhras” are two of the best tracks the album has to offer. Although they and the rest of the songs stick to a given rhythmic pattern throughout, there’s a thoughtful attention to dynamic. The flow of the compositions never keeps things feeling bombastic for too long; for every epic, sword-in-hand passage, there’s a mellow counterpart waiting shortly thereafter. Individual tracks become journeys of their own, and there’s not a track here that disappoints or hurts the album. As a whole, however, “Old Mornings Dawn” feels as if it overdraws their ideas past the point where it would have been optimal. The tracks become somewhat distinct from one another after a few listens, but there’s the constant sense that Summoning are trying to find new ways of using a small handful of ideas. These ideas are indeed brilliant, but the album somehow ends up feeling longer than an hour normally would. Fans who have been waiting for something like “Old Mornings Dawn” for seven years will likely greet this length with open arms, but there’s certainly a sense of déjà-vu by the time the album has finally wrapped up.
“Old Mornings Dawn” may ultimately cross me as a bit of a mixed success, but there’s no doubt that its strengths overshadow the weaknesses. In whatever aspects of their sound they succeed with, Summoning are at the top of their game. The compositions and lush arrangements are some of the best I’ve heard within this style of black metal, and the atmosphere is such that it may topple kingdoms. When all is said and done though, I feel like Summoning have focused in on an otherwise narrow sense of style. They execute the style with excellence, but there is not the sense that Summoning have upped, or even slightly expanded their game here. There is truth to the expression ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’, and Summoning have held true to that. “Old Mornings Dawn” is not without problems as an album, but the atmosphere is here in droves.