Arch Summoning impersonators Emyn Muil return with their third full length ‘Afar Angathfark’. Unlike other projects that borrow liberally from the Austrian masters of Tolkien metal, Emyn Muil seem intent on making music completely indistinguishable from them. It raises many interesting questions about the nature of imitation; namely how a near perfect imitation could affect the metrics we use to judge quality. Can we critique a project like Emyn Muil without mentioning Summoning (a prima facie impossibility)? Is there anything to be gained from that? The unavoidable fact is that this is no cheap rip off. There is craft, care, and imagination applied to these tracks, as with every Emyn Muil album. But listening to it with foreknowledge of the kind of music we can expect from this project, one cannot help but wonder what the intention was, and second guessing said intention leads to a distracting listen to say the least. The short answer to the riddle of Emyn Muil is that for those after some extra Summoning material, there’s now three quality albums right here to tuck into. The longer answer is spun out in the ramblings below, because the history of Emyn Muil is rooted in the history of Summoning.
Firstly, ‘Lugburz’ (1995) the outlier aside, it’s important to distinguish two facets to the Summoning formula. One is defined by (but not limited to) the earlier efforts ‘Minus Morgul’ (1995), ‘Dol Guldor’ (1997), and ‘Nightshade Forests’ (1997). The keyboards are cheaper, the mix a bit rougher, it’s technically clunkier. But transcending these limitations they crafted a whole new approach to black metal as a new form of program music, making Tolkien’s world the ideal backdrop to this. Simple cyclical melodies were layered on top of one another, articulated increasingly through keyboards, with guitars merely providing texture. Drums were defined by a militaristic tribalism of sorts; as ponderous, slow rhythms centred around the toms and snare, with only the most minimal cymbals coming into play. Vocals stuck to the black metal framework. Everything sounded cheap, from the keyboard patches to the drums to the samples, but this only added to the character. Much like Tolkien’s work themselves, a unique and entirely modern form of folk expression was coming to life, an approach and influence that went well beyond the music itself.
The break with this formula began from ‘Stronghold’ (1999) onwards, although ‘Let Mortal Heroes Sing Your Fame’ (2001) saw them take a more commercial approach to the older format. In fact these two albums always felt out of order in the discography, with later releases returning to the atmospheric, ethereal direction of ‘Stronghold’ and shedding the bombastic confidence of LMHSYF. Setting aside this glitch in the matrix, after 2001, the approach became fluid, dynamic, the keyboards defined more by layers than cycles, clean vocals became a regular feature; it behaved more like one’s idea of what a traditional fantasy score should sound like. ‘Oath Bound’ (2006) and ‘Old Morning’s Dawn’ (2013) typified this approach. But in attempting to modernise the production values, the unique charm to this music was lost. ‘Oath Bound’ may have succeeded regardless as the power of Summoning’s melodic sensibilities and storytelling through music shined through regardless. But it was an attempt from Summoning to be something they were not: a soundtrack to a narrative, and not the narrative itself. Older Summoning, for all its technical shortcomings, existed for its own sake and beyond its own ontological limitations. Later these limitations were shed, but the philosophical aspirations suffered as a result. However, enough of that, we’ll save it for the book of Summoning lore that I’ll definitely get around to writing.
Emyn Muil up to this point have drawn on the second era of Summoning outlined above. But on their latest offering ‘Afar Angathfark’ they take a much wider survey of their Austrian forebear’s career, calling all the way back to ‘Minus Morgul’ for inspiration; and the lengthy runtime reflects this wider scope. ‘Old Morning’s Dawn’ is probably the most prevalent influence; not least on the spoken word finale to ‘Noldomire’ (seriously, is that the same bloke). But more fundamentally in the way the keyboards – through subtle organ and string tones – flow with the pulse of the drums as opposed to providing sharp, staccato melodies that cut across the graceful tom rolls. They essentially take up the post of rhythm guitar, leaving the guitars themselves to do what keyboards would normally do on atmospheric black metal, namely providing texture and depth. The track ‘Heading Eastward’ points to how LMHSYF began this morphing process, transitioning from old to new, with strings and guitars trading riffs as they are carried along by the marching drums. There are many other moments throughout ‘Afar Angathfark’ that mirror key moments in Summoning’s career in miniature, and illustrate how their sound has progressed over the years. The chief shortfall as far as Emyn Muil are concerned being a lack of forward direction. No clue or hint is offered as to where these ideas could be taken. This is a shortfall that both artists have in common however.
So in one sense, you could dismiss ‘Afar Angathfark’ as a competent survey of Summoning’s career, and nothing more to add. But there is more to be said in answer to the riddle of Emyn Muil. If one is to make an academic study of Summoning’s career – a worthy pursuit given their body of work and its unique standing in extreme metal – then Emyn Muil are a useful fount of secondary source material. This musician has clearly studied Summoning’s music closer than most, and become not so much a tribute act as an alternative timeline. But as expanded on above, the Summoning “sound” is not a static object to draw ideas from, it has developed, changed, and grown over time. It’s a living object. Emyn Muil, in taking a broader survey of their career, are able illuminate important moments in this timeline, the factors that defined their style at certain points, and in doing so elucidate on the heart of this simple yet endlessly complex sonic mythology. Even taken on its own then, Emyn Muil are at least academically valuable. But artistically, it has not yet found (or even shown signs of wanting to find) the next step forward. Musical ideas, like any other ideas, grow and change as they possess people, infectious ideas become movements, movements become establishments, establishments become part of history, history becomes a body of traditions. ‘Afar Angathfark’ is an analysis of an idea, but it offers no path to turning this idea into a movement.
Take one swing at Kill the Idealist’s debut EP ‘The Unholy One’ and it’s a pleasing slab of Swedish style melodic death metal. Rooted in the child friendly thrash that informed At the Gates by the mid-90s, it uses this as a solid foundation to build in the catchy licks and harmonies that fooled kids the world over into thinking this was something more than juiced up hard rock. But take a second and third swing at ‘The Unholy One’ and we’re gonna have to dial back this dismissive assessment. By the time the title track kicks in, it’s clear that Kill the Idealist have set their sites on something a little more ambitious.
The production seems to reflect these priorities. The rhythm guitar dominates the energy and direction of these tracks, with drums – despite offering a tight and consistent performance – seemingly guided by the rhythmic priorities of the guitars. That being said, the steady percussive thumping cuts through the meaty guitar tone regardless, with a clear and crisp attack to the kick and snare.
All this is with a view to creating a solid as fuck foundation for the lead guitars to work their magic. Beneath the steady, consistent thrash grooves of the rhythm section they have smuggled in some pretty interesting guitar work that leans into the neoclassical, reminiscent of NWOBHM and Mercyful Fate at their most heady. In sticking to fairly common time signatures, this rock-solid rhythmic foundation allows the lead guitars the freedom to explore their full melodic potential. It’s in this interaction and counterpoint between the guitar lines that the real joy of these tracks is to be found, as driving melodies are carried along by the energetic rhythms. The soloing sways from competent if generic to hints at Bach counterpoint as it elevates this EP into metal that transcends the limitations of genre. This is an artist intent on shedding the clichés of a style that has for too long been limited by the demands of commercial success in the likes of Arch Enemy and In Flames. ‘The Unholy One’ is a catchy listen with many layers to unpack beneath this surface veneer, a reminder that entry level credentials are by no means are mark of poor quality.
In using the percussive tendencies of death metal as a rudimentary means to an end only, Kill the Idealist have positioned themselves as a product very much of Northern Europe, despite hailing from Ohio. The only thing about this EP that is quintessentially American is the vocals, which stick to a style more common to brutal death metal. But they are granted new emotional context in contrast to the fairly dynamic melodic progression of the music. ‘The Unholy One’ is a tightly packed EP of melodic death metal that seeks to elevate the genre’s neoclassical ambitions, as opposed to appealing to the poppy elements that came to dominate the airwaves in the late 1990s.
Steaming in with a title longer than the album itself, Chile’s Indoctrinate offer a refreshingly minimal take on chasmic death metal in the Incantation tradition. By dispensing with the doom aspects of this approach they have actually tapped into a more oppressive vibe than many in the caverncore camp. This is a stripped down, riff-fest of raw death metal that nevertheless retains rich and dark corridors of space that open out before us as the album unfolds.
Music is sometimes at its best when it supresses its most notable characteristics beneath more pedestrian tendencies. The presentation on ‘Antilogos: Arcane Transmutation in the Temple of Flesh’ behaves like a run of the mill caverncore release. The vocals are deep and covered in reverb. The guitars walk the line between size and clarity in order to service the requirements of both doom and speed, but still end up creating an overwhelming fudge of pleasing noise. The drums are raw and organic, with plenty of reverb applied to the snare, but not so much that it doesn’t cut through the mix when it counts. So far, so yawn.
But beneath this veneer that we’ve all heard a hundred times before, is a work of sophisticated death metal in the tradition of classic Incantation via the atonality of Slayer. On this basic foundation a complex array of sonic rooms are built, made up of riffs that feed off each other’s energy, constantly interrupting one another, only granted context by frequent guitar leads that jump out to provide meta-narrative signposts. The result is a work that seems to fight against its own sophistication. The production choices are in line with a trend of albums lately intent on providing one very specific mood; dictated by mixing choices that both limit compositional breadth and create a monotonous slog if drawn out for too long (which they invariably are).
But the actual music on ‘Antilogos: Arcane Transmutation in the Temple of Flesh’ tells a very different story. The name of the game here is brevity. Indoctrinate pack a punch of intensity when needed, but some ideas are stretched out with tension and release, oppression or aggression, triumphalism or despair. Yet the whole retains a marked degree of focus. The efficiency of the riffcraft, underpinned by precision drumming that follows in their wake, tells a story that stretches well beyond the physical scope of the riffs themselves. Through this they have smuggled more ideas and musical information under the caverncore radar than is first apparent. But this by no means a breakneck get-in get-out punch to the gut. It feels patient, multi-layered, indeed diverse, not at all like an album that’s less than half an hour in length. There are many little pockets throughout, providing the music room to breath and the listener to dwell on a mood. But then again, none of the ideas are flaunted past their shelf life, tracks that build to a clear finale are done so with a rigour and efficiency that catches one off guard. A non-referential album that stands on its own merits and achieves its goals in a refreshingly short stretch of time.