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Outstanding on all counts - 97%

MaDTransilvanian, June 11th, 2010

Though preceded by the purchase of the ambient-laden Oath Bound, the acquisition of Sounds of Middle-Earth was the true beginning of my understanding the extent of Summoning’s musical intricacy and career evolution. This box set, containing the band’s first three albums, is a true treasure cove of excellent music and of the band’s history.

First of all, it’s time for a brief word on the external content of this box (the package itself, not the music within). This is the highest quality vinyl box set I’ve ever laid my hands upon, and Temple of Darkness records deserve a lot of credit for the excellent work done in that department. This box set is great because, first of all, it contains five picture LPs, one for Lugburz and two for each of the other albums. The artwork on the picture discs is simply amazing; the covers of the albums are full-size and, in the case of Lugburz and Minas Morgul, these covers are pure epic works of art. The other sides of the discs usually have dark-themed band pictures and similar secondary features, partly replacing your usual CD’s booklet pictures but on a larger scale. Finally, there’s the actual full-size 12-page lyric booklet, containing all available lyrics for these albums (some stuff was apparently lost since 1995), band pictures, full track listing for the albums included here and a detailed band discography at the end.

Now, let’s get to the actual music. The content of this box set can be divided into two separate sections. First of all, there’s the standalone Lugburz album which makes up what can be called early Summoning, that is to say, Summoning before they adopted their trademark, ultra-epic semi-ambient black metal sound that they’ve been doing ever since. Lugburz is a very curious entity: it’s black metal, but it doesn’t allow itself to remain just that. The sound has a very dynamic aspect to it all, breaking completely with the band’s more slow-paced future works, the only actual similarities being in the extremely rare keyboard-rich portions, such as on Flight of the Nazgul and especially the borderline-cheesy synths of Dragons of Time.

However, the main characteristics of the music begin with a thoroughly raw guitar sound, featuring riffs that are quite memorable at times but overall buried in the mix and hard to actually perceive. Then comes the drumming, and in many ways it defines the sound of Lugburz. The drumming is quite loud and prominent in the mix, having about it a very unique boxy and sometimes a kind of flat sound. It takes a while to get used to but makes the album very easy to recognize. The patterns are relatively repetitive but variation is certainly not unheard of. Also worth noting is the fact that this album is the last Summoning recording with third member Trifixion on drums; his departure marks the appearance of a drum machine in the band’s sound. The final important element here is the vocals, which are jointly handled by both Silenius and Protector. Their vocals are this kind of relatively high-pitched rasp which sometimes resembles a croak, being a bit reminiscent of the inexorable Abbath of Immortal. This period is like the primordial Summoning, showing the band whose sound was beginning to sound theirs at the time without having much in common with the well-known Summoning of today. From a lyrical standpoint, not much can be said of this period: according to the booklet, about 80% of the album’s lyrics have been lost, but what is still there tells tales of fantasy lands, with battles, dragons and witchcraft being the norm. There are no overt Lord of the Rings references in the lyrics themselves, but then again there are the tracks Raising with the Battle-Orcs and Flight of the Nazgul, direct references to Tolkien’s universe whose lyrics are among those lost.

From here on out we get to the Summoning almost everyone knows of today. The transition from primordial Summoning to mainline Summoning is extremely direct and short, having occurred right between the creation of Lugburz and Minas Morgul. Indeed, Minas Morgul is already about 85% into the new Summoning sound, as the last vestiges of the old sound are almost completely swept away. The primary remnant is the Lugburz song itself, which, despite being slower and more ambient than its eponymous album, contains two gradually built-up fast-action sections which are highly reminiscent of it, though a bit more polished and primarily dependent on one of the most competent uses of a drum machine I’ve ever heard. The sound on Minas Morgul has much more in common with its successor, Dol Guldur, than with its unique predecessor. The ambient black metal is in its first years here but already the band, now working as a duo, shows great talent with their newly adopted style.

There are several very important changes which occurred to make place for the new Summoning sound. First of all, keyboards began appearing on a very regular basis within the music. The melodies are relatively similar to those found in lesser quantity on the debut album, but they seem to be more focused and thought-out. This makes them less cheesy than before (they’re still a bit cheesy at times) and allows them to be much better integrated within a musical approach that suits them better anyway, creating a full, epic sound. Furthermore, there’s the drum machine. It’s programmed extremely well in that, though it certainly doesn’t sound natural, it can be very intense and powerful (the Lugburz song) in a few spots but generally tends to stay subtle and out of the way, or at least accompanying the music effectively and not excessively. The guitars also take on a more important role (primarily due to the fact that this time around, the production allows for them to be heard) as drivers of the music, along with the very important keyboards. Finally, the vocals take on a more effective tone. The two members (both still share vocal duties) have learned to make stronger rasps, which truly work well to form an antithesis to the sugary beautiful melodies, in the way which melodic keyboard-laden black metal does in order to be truly great.

Another apparent change with these newer Summoning albums is the more overt Tolkien inspiration within the lyrics, which are thankfully fully present this time around. The fantasy elements taken on a full role here, completely immersed in the Lord of the Rings universe. What moderate mentions used to appear before do so constantly here, giving the band their complete identity as ambient black metal Tolkien worship. The epic nature of the music is extremely well suited to the mythology-laden fantastic universe created by Tolkien.

Sounds of Middle-Earth is a perfectly put-together box set, featuring three albums which are excellently packaged and which are excellent themselves. Sure Lugburz is a little bizarre, and fits in strangely with the other two (and the rest of later Summoning for that matter) but it’s still a very good album. The other two are simply unstoppable. Together they form a very solid triptych of old Summoning albums that were quite innovative for their time (they even are so now) and which are worth hearing by any and all interested in this genre. Need I even mention that this set is mandatory for all true Summoning fans?