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Review: Summoning - Stronghold

Label: Napalm Records
Year released: 1999
Duration: 64:21
Tracks: 9
Genre: Black Metal

Rating: 4.25/5

Review online: January 9, 2009
Reviewed by: Brett Buckle
Readers Rating

Rated 4.02/5 (80.48%) (42 Votes)

Summoning are a bit of an enigma in the extreme metal world — their epic keyboard-laden movie score cum Black Metal sound is one of a kind amid a morass of Tolkien-themed Black Metal bands of more traditional sound. Stronghold was the start of a somewhat new direction for Summoning; it has a more epic sound to their earlier masterpieces, more cinematic, yet at the same time it is also their heaviest work, and no doubt also easier to listen to (than Dol Guldur in particular). It is the work that tends to separate the old fans from the new fans, a divide that wouldn't be shored up until the release of Oath Bound in 2006, which largely pleased both camps.

Stronghold begins slowly with a stately military style snare roll under some ominous low keyboards that shortly herald in a floating keyboard melody that gives the feeling of slowly coming in to land after flying over a snow capped mountain range. Summoning then begins the first track proper "Long Lost to Where No Pathway Goes" in their traditional slow building style with a soft keyboard progression. The production is not a huge departure from their earlier works, it is definitely a fuller sound with more bottom end and better able to handle numerous instruments at once. But even ignoring the more polished production you very quickly get the sense that this is a slightly different Summoning album as a quickly picked guitar melody carries the tune forth through the verse and into the first of many enormous choruses, delivered with a powerful sound and Protector's perfectly executed rasps accompanied by a dreamy guitar melody. This pattern largely stands for the albums duration, with most tracks building from a gentle keyboard intro into an uncharacteristically guitar driven sound. Stronghold is easily Summoning's most guitar oriented album taking as much of its sound from Black Metal as from orchestral sources, and the interplay between these two dynamics is truly something to behold, with the guitar melodies expertly weaving through and around grand keyboard movements and progressions. This is also the first album where Summoning made a large departure from more straight ahead drum patterns and began experimenting with more tom-tom driven beats. There are still plenty of examples of more straight ahead beats (see the rumbling double-bass and near blast beats in "The Shadow Lies Frozen on the Hills"), but the new approach that would dominate LMHSYF and Oath Bound are apparent in embryonic form on Stronghold, most notably on "Where Hope and Daylight Die" and "The Shadow Lies Frozen on the Hills".

Personally I have always been partial to Silenius' vocals over Protector's and here on Stronghold he provides some stellar performances. The voice-box shredding "The Rotting Horse on the Deadly Ground" (which fades out to a wonderfully epic guitar melody over a double-bass driven drum beat) and the grandiose chorus of "The Glory Disappears" highlight his bleak and harsh vocals wonderfully. However, both performances are eclipsed by Protector's performance in "Like Some Snow-white Marble Eyes" which has possibly the best Summoning chorus prior to "In Hollow Halls Beneath the Falls". Stronghold delivers another first for Summoning as well with "Where Hope and Daylight Die" being sung exclusively by Tania Borsky from Protector's neo-classical project "Die Verbannten Kinder Evas". Her clean, operatic voice soaring over some somber keyboard passages at the tail of some rolling drum patterns, it is the least guitar oriented track on the album being instead pushed forward largely by the drums. As a one-off it works quite well, but I am always glad when it's over and "Rotting Horse..." comes on.

As is to be expected, the lyrical themes for Stronghold are largely taken from various Tolkien works, most notably from the Books of Last Tales, although some are drawn from other sources; "Like Some Snow-white Marble Eyes" is taken from a poem by Robert Frost called "Stars" and "The Glory Disappears" taken from William Wordsworth's poem "Lines Left upon a Seat in a Yew-Tree", the lyrics for any given track often being taken from more than one source ("Rotting Horse..." takes some lyrics from Tolkien and some from Wordsworth, for example).

Stronghold is a powerful and evocative album full of wonderful melodies and memorable chorus' but I feel it is not up to the same standards of LMHSYF and Oath Bound, both of which defined epic keyboard-driven metal, but at the same time it is superior to Dol Guldur and Minas Morgul due largely to the excellent vocal melodies, memorable choruses and cinematic scope and feel of the tracks. Of course these qualities were evident on the earlier albums, but from Stronghold onwards Summoning were a much more focused band and their songs became tighter and more cohesive making for a better realized experience — the tracks don't seem as drawn out as those on Dol Guldur, and Stronghold is a more satisfying listen because of it. By the time Stronghold has finished you feel as though you have embarked upon and returned from a great journey, one that you will want to repeat, or perhaps parallel by launching straight into LMHSYF.

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