Metal’s relationship with Tolkien has a long and proud history. The more ambitious offerings from the likes of Cirith Ungol from the 1980s created the perfect backdrop for lyrics that to drew from sword and sorcery novels for inspiration. Although thrash and death metal tended to more violent, base themes; black metal, with its yearning for an imagined past, its reverence for nature, and an infatuation with mysticism, all meant that the Tolkien boot seemed tailor made for this foot. But setting aside the clutch of bands that drew their names and lyrics from the works of Tolkien, things really came to a head with Summoning. Their gradually evolving sound was defined by a very idiosyncratic (and distinctively synthetic) approach to repeated folk melodies, layering of simple refrains, slower but purposeful tempos, and positioning the keyboards as the melodic centre of the music, with guitars merely providing texture. Despite their career being one of the seven wonders of the black metal world, it is a fairly limited approach to Tolkienist metal, from both a musical and an aesthetic perspective. It seems bizarre then that some would take Summoning’s musical limitations to heart rather than their philosophy, and ape off them in a way that seems to exacerbate their weakest attributes.
Norway’s Eldamar are a perfect example of a bargain basement Summoning. Their first LP ‘Force of the Ancient Land’ released in 2016 is – in the words of my boy Bilbo – like ‘butter spread over too much bread’. There is butter here, but it’s stretched across a slice of an album approaching an hour and a quarter in length, and what butter there is has a synthetic, recycled aftertaste. But before this devolves into a verbal hand-job-by-metaphor review, let’s turn to the music itself. The meat and bones of this album is laid back, atmospheric black metal consisting of simple keyboard harmonies on an electric piano, a sprinkling of strings, plenty of choral tones, and the most basic of melodic guitar riffs. Drums – despite being fairly beefed up in the mix with plenty of pounding bass – are really just there to contextualise the music.
Black metal and minimalism have a long-standing relationship. So why is it just not gelling on ‘Force of the Ancient Land’? Many of the simple keyboard arpeggios backed up by those choral tones and the wash of guitars work well. They have a dreamy, fairy tale like quality to them that harkens to much ambient black metal of this kind. The problem is not so much the style of the components but in their assembly. Summoning were no strangers to extended periods of repetition, but they would rarely repeat the exact same passage more than twice through. They would always add another layer of looped keyboards, percussion, vocals, or even augment it by removing an element. By comparison, Eldamar are giving us very little to work with here, especially considering that these are ideas that remain all but static throughout tracks that often extend well beyond ten minutes.
Which leads us to the other possible defence of this album: ‘it’s just background music’. All music is background music if you don’t pay attention to it. The problem with this argument is that it misses the point of minimalism. In restraining oneself musically, it presents a challenge to the artist to make the music engaging on some level, be it emotional or intellectual. And even music that indulges in excessive repetition usually does so for a reason. Take Burzum’s ‘Rundtgåing av den transcendentale egenhetens støtte’ as an example. Twenty-five minutes of the same repeated keyboard line, with only the subtlest variants and backing applied here and there. But the end product is meditative, other-worldly, mesmerising; it’s not background music. Eldamar have produced black metal’s elevator jazz album, by applying just enough tension to imply that this is intended to be engaged with, but not nearly enough to elevate this into an ‘exciting’ – or even a diverting – experience. Pluck two or three of the best ideas from each track and you may have half an hour’s worth of charming (if a little generic) atmospheric black metal.
Sojourner are another fantasy black metal project that has sprung up in the last few years, made up of members gathered from many lands. Their first LP ‘Empires of Ash’ released in 2016 can only loosely be linked to black metal, and that’s largely down to the vocal style. Yes, there’s plenty of blast-beats and tremolo picked riffage going on, but the guitar leads that dominate most of the full-on metal passages of this album are more akin to juiced up power metal with the over blown solos stripped back. Much of the interaction between the rhythm guitars and drums follows a very post-2000 heavy rock framework, largely informed by emo if anything. It’s all buried in a wash of compression and chorus which morphs the music into a homogeneous blob of sentiment and aesthetics, burying whatever compositions there were beneath layers of candyfloss.
Operatic/symphonic metal is the other major undercurrent in this music. Whilst it is possible to get a good album out of this genre every once in a while, it tends to be overly stylised, bent on showcasing every talent of the musicians and their writing/arranging abilities at the expense of intelligent music. Sojourner are hardly the worst offenders in this regard, but there is a sense in which it has hamstrung them some. Where this album really shines is in the intros and interludes. There are some decent (if unoriginal) folk melodies, some nifty layered keyboards and haunting vocals, but these ideas are forced through the aforementioned rock blender of chugging guitars, and further washed out by layer upon layer of sounds that follow the same pattern to compensate for lack of direction. The latent idea is now buried beneath an undeserved crescendo or finale that is typical of the contrived sense of the epic that symphonic metal so often falls into.
With a more nuanced mix they would have space to better layer their melodies, and hang the music upon this as a way to engage the listener. Instead we are left with individual ideas separated by a wash of meaningless dirge that feels like the musical equivalent of a twelve year old’s fan fiction of The Lord of the Rings. It requires a mind more disciplined to draw what good ideas are here into a more sophisticated work of epic metal.
In one sense it seems we have an album from an artist so unjustifiably confident in their own music that they didn’t actually write all that much of it for an album of such bloated length. And then we have an artist with no shortage of ideas that seems all too willing to chuck it all at the listener at once without even a nod to tension, build, structure, or contrast. I believe in judging artists in their own rite (hard as that may be sometimes). So I maintain that it may be unfair to benchmark these two against Summoning, despite the obvious monolithic Austrian shadow over both these releases. But in terms of innocent fantasy metal whose only aim is to invoke a dreamlike, fairy tale world in the mind of the listener it is not enough to simply start an idea and phone it in for the rest until an album’s worth of material appears. Good fantasy is – after all – about storytelling, and planting ideas in the mind of the reader via the narrative. This music does neither. Scattered suggestions abound, but nothing links up. Sojourner is my pick of the weak and for this review it really is all about the numbers. The quantity of passable riffs and melodies they manage throughout the course of ‘Empires of Ash’ is just that bit higher than Eldamar on ‘Force of the Ancient Lands’. But it’s telling of the music if the assessment must rest on such trivial metrics to determine worth.