October has always been my favorite month. It marks the beginning of a seasonal reclamation of man by the world, in which civilization’s mask of sensibility begins to slip away. Tasteless architectural symbols of control over nature digress to their more appropriate forms, as frail refuge against forces beyond our control or comprehension. It is, to misappropriate Agalloch, “a celebration for the death of man… …and the great cold death of the Earth.”
Last year I posted a six part series on some of my favorite black metal, folk metal, and related genres for the season. I had intended to do something similar this year, but time just did not allow for it. I never got around to coming up with a central concept on which to focus. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the two bands I have listened to the most this month, Opeth and Summoning, both defy all standards of classification.
I would like to showcase both, but I can’t imagine doing so properly without embarking on a project way beyond the scope of my time and desire to write at the moment. So I will keep this short and sweet, featuring only Opeth’s Orchid (1995) and Summoning’s Let Mortal Heroes Sing Your Fame (2001), and perhaps in the process still introduce you to some amazing music you had not heard before.
Opeth – The Apostle in Triumph
Everyone has heard Opeth, right? Their fame is fairly unprecedented among metal bands that are actually worth a damn. Yet, out of touch with what is and is not popular today as I am, I still get the impression that what I think of as Opeth is just as relatively obscure as it had been when I first heard them well over a decade ago.
Opeth as a popular band, in fact, is entirely foreign to me. Their first album to make the US charts, Damnation, came out right around the time I stopped listening to them altogether, and long after my interest had begun to wane. I was introduced to Opeth, like everyone around the turn of the century, via Demon of the Fall. My Arms Your Hearse was one of the most emotionally charged and breathtaking albums I’d ever heard. At the time, if you wanted to hear more, you had to look backwards, to Orchid and Morningrise, both of which were very different beasts. With them, if no one reminded you of the distortion and growled vocals, you might forget, amidst Akerfeldt’s soft, subtle lamentations, that you were listening to metal at all.
It took both a long time to grow on me. It’s not that they were inaccessible, but that peculiar teenage ability to focus in on a single masterpiece with no appreciation whatsoever for its surroundings had hold of me. There I was covering My Arms Your Hearse from start to finish on my new guitar (sure wish I could still do so now), and I’d listened to Morningrise maybe five times. Orchid never broke through the cellophane. I finally turned to them just barely in time to soak them up before history left them in the dust, a last minute love affair I was conscious of at the time. They ended up becoming my two favorite Opeth albums, and still are.
Even though My Arms Your Hearse was, alongside Blind Guardian’s Nightfall in Middle-Earth, easily the most influential album in my life, Orchid and Morningrise are the two I look back on most nostalgically, and their melancholy beauty always reverberates the sensation.
Opeth – The Twilight is My Robe
So maybe Orchid isn’t really Opeth’s best album. Perhaps I am biased beyond reconciliation. But at any rate, my obsession with it certainly isn’t some subconscious desire to show I am an “old school” fan–the sort of accusation I tend to see on those rare occasions that the album is mentioned at all. Whether you find my placement of it at the top of Akerfeldt’s discography unjust or not, I encourage you to give The Apostle in Triumph and The Twilight is My Robe long hard listens. Agalloch being a decidedly winter-oriented band, I have experienced no music which captures the melancholy side of the autumnal season better than this.
Summoning – A New Power is Rising
I obsessed over The Hobbit as a child, the Lord of the Rings as a teen, and The Silmarillion in my earliest adult years. J.R.R. Tolkien pretty well haunted most of the formative years of my life, and I am forever indebted to him. A few months ago I picked up one of his books for the first time in perhaps a decade, committed to reading them all, but time simply did not allow for it. As with all undertakings though, it influenced my taste in music for the time at hand. I spent much of the summer re-exploring Summoning–a band I’d never actually encountered until Oath Bound in 2006. Thus they were readily at hand at the start of October, and since then they’ve comprised over half of everything I have listened to.
I dare say no single author has had more impact on music than Tolkien, and while I will always regard Nightfall in Middle-Earth as the greatest relevant triumph, Summoning’s discography is a close second. The one band I know of which has taken Tolkien as their lyrical and musical muse pretty much exclusively, they have forged an entirely new style of music over the years that captures that feeling I always got reading him to perfection.
Summoning – South Away
Summoning emerged from black metal, but from the very beginning they stood apart. By Let Mortal Heroes Sing Your Fame in 2001, my favorite album of theirs, this connection had dwindled to little more than the vocals and some tremolo guitar. The constant use of keyboards (often set to replicate brass) and the heavily reverberated, slow drumming are what characterize them best, along with frequent spoken vocal loops.
Perhaps they intend to sound fairly sinister, with lyrics focused more often than not on the darker forces of Tolkien’s tales, but the effect for me is nothing of the sort. The drums paint a vast, diverse landscape of mountains, forests, rivers and plains that are entirely neutral–dangerous to be certain, but more enticing than aversive. They beckon you out to explore the unknown, steeped in mystery–a fantasy world which is here Middle-Earth, but could just as soon be your own back yard on an autumn day, when the changes at hand call on you to leave humanity behind and wander off into the amoral wilderness.
Summoning – Runes of Power
I love black metal, horror, and everything of the sort, but I think the word “neutral” best describes what I have been tapping into this Halloween season. No real glorification of evil for its own sake, nor any embrace of bygone cultures and values here. Orchid and Let Mortal Heroes Sing Your Fame both tap into the individual’s relation to the world absent civilization’s presumptions and impositions–to the mystery of nature and the manifold possibilities within it which mundane daily life denies–be the experience melancholy or thrilling.