Summoning Is the Best Tolkien-Obsessed, Anti-Fascist Metal Band in the World
Stream the iconic Austrian fantasy metal duo's new album, 'With Doom We Come,' and read an interview on capitalism, composing, and why Nazis don't belong in black metal....
Heavy metal has always embraced fantasy, and whether you dig Tolkien or not, it's impossible to deny the appeal of a band like Summoning. The Austrian duo's influence can be felt across the dark musical spectrum, from symphonic black metal and video game soundtracks to the spookily programmed world of dungeon synth. Summoning's music is heavily symphonic, heavily melodic, and heavily atmospheric, centered on glorious sagas and gloomy stories from Tolkien and other more obscure fantasy authors. The end result is undoubtedly mystical, grandiose, and elaborate—but is also endearingly earnest, and that's a big part of why they've enjoyed such sustained success and loyalty from their fans for so many decades. Despite its baroque character, there's not a whiff of pretension or self-importance here; yeah, Summoning is nerdy as hell, but if they don't have a problem with that, why should you?
Formed in Vienna, Austria in 1993 at the height of black metal's infamous Second Wave, Summoning separated themselves from the corpsepaint-smeared pack by embracing a very specific aesthetic based on Tolkien-inspired fantasy instead of Satanic horror. While their earliest material hewed more closely to a traditional black metal template, the soaring, bombastic albums they're best remembered for are firmly ensconced within the verdant realm of Middle Earth. Founding duo Silenius (vocals, keyboards, bass) and Protector (vocals, guitars, keyboards, drum programming) have remained the heart of the long-running project since 1995, when founding drummer Trifixion and backing vocalist Pazuzu exited the band, and have steered it through the release of epic after epic, from 1995's classic Minas Morgul to their stellar new album, 2018's With Doom We Come. They're both involved in other musical projects, as well, with Silenius (a former member of Abigor) contributing to Amestigon and Kreuzweg Ost and Protector moonlighting in Ice Ages and Brachialilluminator.
Not only are Summoning quite busy and unabashedly nerdy, they're also quietly, resolutely political—though neither member felt the need to make mention of that until 2014, after a certain group of Youtubers began using their music to soundtrack Nazi propaganda videos. As it turns out, the two programmers behind Summoning are as anti-fascist and anti-Nazi as they come, and have been ever since their early days playing anarchist squats around Europe. As Protector wrote in a statement on the band's then-website (which has since fallen into disuse), "I never wanted to associate Summoning with any kind of political topics as our music is not connected to reality at all, but as National Socialism-supporting bands are constantly spreading their political thoughts, I think the time has come to finally stand up and show people that Nazism is not the only ideology of the current metal scene."
He then goes on to illustrate exactly why he believes fascism and Nazis are so incompatible with metal, and with black metal in particular (adding in the odd winky-face emoji here and there for good measure). It's a great read, especially coming as it does from a black metal musician who's been around since the genre's early days. Protector also voices his support for free speech, which he reaffirms during our conversation below while voicing the opinion that, in order to enact true change, the people must raise their voices together. (If I knew anything about Tolkien, I'd try to make some kind of Lord of the Rings reference here, but since I don't, I just want to note that I think it's really fucking cool to see a beloved, long-running European black metal band like Summoning spit on Nazis and voice their support for Black Lives Matter).
With Doom We Come is out today via the band's longtime partners, Napalm Records. Stream the album in full below, and read on for our Q&A with Silenius and Protector. (We generally try to avoid publishing email interviews on Noisey, but made an exception this time; English isn't a first language for the Summoning guys, and they wanted to make sure they made themselves clear.) Read on.
Noisey: It's been 5 years since we last heard from Summoning, and before that, there was a 7-year gap between full-lengths. What's keeping you so busy in between visits to the studio? I know you're both involved in other projects, and I've got the feeling you're also perfectionists when it comes to Summoning...
Silenius: Yes, we are both involved in other projects, and yes, we are kind of perfectionists when it comes to Summoning, but none of this is the reason for this long break between the releases. Most of all, there are personal reasons. Before [2013 album] Old Mornings Dawn was released, I was totally fed up with this black metal sound; later I was hit by a heart attack, that threw me back for another year; or, I was simply lazy, or had no inspiration at all. All this caused so much time in between our releases, and this time it was nearly the same. In the beginning, very quickly the songs where composed, but then we had to find sounds for the instruments, and the quarrels began because I was never satisfied. This was a very long and frustrating situation that nearly broke the band; in the end, everything turned out fine again, but it took some years to achieve this.
With Doom We Come is your 8th album since 1993, and really is classic Summoning. You hit upon a unique, engaging formula from the very start, and have stuck with it faithfully for decades. Have you ever been tempted to mess with the formula, and get weird?
Silenius: Not really. Maybe we would get weird if we had to release a Summoning album every second year, but with all this long time in between, it is still an exciting process to build up new musical paintings from Middle Earth. And, coming to the formula: yes, it is the same formula over all those decades, but we always try to make small changes within our sound, or put new details within the songs, so that the Summoning output still breathes the spirit of Tolkien and develops in small doses.
What goes into the creation of a Summoning album? Your love for Tolkien is well-documented, and something that fans have come to expect; after all these years, how do you keep unearthing fresh lyrical ideas and stories from his texts?
Silenius: When we compose a song, we never have any lyrics at hand; in the beginning is always the song, not the lyrical concept. This time it was a bit different, because most of the songs have been built up and created out of the ashes out of the Old Mornings Dawn sessions. From this, several riffs, song structures, and even some unfinished songs had been left, [and] all of this we threw on a heap and built up new songs by composing new melodies, rearranging the old ones, making new structures. That is why the composing process was not as long as usual, because it is always easier to build up something when you already have the first piece of a puzzle, than to start from zero. When the songs are finished, then I try to collect the lyrics, because then I already see what kind of mood one song has and on which scene or story it reminds me in connection with the Middle Earth concept. It is the unbelievable richness—not only of the stories, but of the details—that make the stories alive. All the history of this world, the languages and the races, all this together makes the Middle Earth concept unique and admirable, and for a very long time, Tolkien was the only one who could achieve this with no one around that could match him.
I should also mention that we do not use just poems from Tolkien himself, but also from different, often unknown writers, which we bring into a Middle Earth surrounding. In the latest case, [the songs] "Mirklands," "Herumor," and "Silvertine" are such examples.
I'm a Tolkien novice at best, but I have seen a number of interesting political analyses of his work, many of which pointed out his social conservatism and reactionary edge. As big Tolkien fans and scholars, how do you interpret the political landscape of Middle Earth?
Silenius: Yes, Tolkien was a very conservative and religious man. He fought in World War I, and the industrialization of his home region influenced a lot his way of thinking; together with a lot of other things, this formed his character and way of thinking, and of course this found a way into his books in one form or another. Tolkien himself always got angry when people tried to make allegories of his saga and try to make everyday life interpretations. On the other hand, it was clear that the Middle Earth concept is an alternate Earth conception—all this doesn't happen on a fantasy planet. It's simply a kind of fantasy creation story, and as he was totally into languages and in love with old European mythology, all this was put together and made the essence of what later became The Lord of the Rings, or The Silmarillion.
Back in 2014, you wrote an open letter outlining your own stance against fascism and the reasons why metal and National Socialism, fascism, and racism are incompatible. This perspective is still a bit lacking in the extreme metal narrative, and is so important now that right-wing extremism has taken hold in so many countries (including both of ours). How do you feel about the current state of politics in metal?
Protector: I am always glad when people mention my statements, because it was very important for me to make my opinion about fascism and racism clear. I used to be quiet about it for all those years, because I knew that the mood of summoning is not connected to politics at all, but when I saw that my music was used for a "tribute to the Third Reich," and someone wanted to create such a connection, then it was clear for me to react on it. My deep disgust against such ideologies is nothing new, but was always a strong part of me since I was a child. Later, when I started to get into the metal scene, I was in those punk pubs rather than in typical metal pubs. With my first metal band Marligom, we played in anarchist occupied houses and where I felt most comfortable, surrounded by a left-wing audience. For me, metal music (as well as generally underground music) mean being brave with your head up, not kneeling in front of any leader. It meant for me standing up against the commercial system, the rich elites, not spitting down on people who are defenseless.
For me, metal is a result of the glorious 60s and 70s, where people had so much power to stop criminal wars like the Vietnam War—the times when people felt they could change the world if they are united, no matter if they are white, black, female, or whatever religion they have. And as I described in my statement, metal music (as well as other rock- related music) is very connected to multicultural influences. It was black people who [first] started to sing in rather noisy way, it was blues that heavily influenced metal music. It was guitar players like Jimi Hendrix who used the electric guitar in a very distorted way for the first time, and the classical music instruments we know today are often based on Arabic, Turkish, and Persian instruments like the oud and the zurna.
Actually, I never considered all those NSBM freaks as serous. In the Third Reich, their music would have been considered as "entartet" [degenerate] and pure noise, their long hair as unmanly, and they would have been one of the first to go into some concentration camps. I also don't see them as politically dangerous; people who make such music wont reach the masses and never create any influence on the mainstream politics. I see all those rising right-extreme parties of Europe and Trump in America who reach millions as much more dangerous—for the world, and for any kind of music.
Why do you think some metalheads are still drawn to fascist thought and imagery, despite its incompatibility with the genre?
Protector: For me, it is just a stupid kind of pseudo-rebellion. They think they shock the establishment with some swastikas, while they don't realize that fascists always have helped the big capitalists to stay in power. They were always some kind of ally in the fight against "communism" (what I call "Stalinism"). Fascists could only rise with the huge financial help of big capitalists who helped them. When they were in power, they had a good life and made German capitalists like the Krupps super big, while they let the normal people rot in their shitty wars. They were the reason that their beloved nation was finally just a heap of rubble and that all culture was gone, and they turned out to be fucking cowards who did not even take the responsibility for their selfish crimes. They are the last scum on earth for me.
Silenius, you also play in a martial industrial band, Kreuzweg Ost, which is another scene that has had issues with fascist infiltration. As someone who's resolutely anti-fascist and anti-Nazi, how do you navigate those spaces when confronted with those on the right-wing spectrum
Silenius: In the middle of the 90s, I [began to] find metal's development boring, and I explored music from the industrial ambient and martial scenes. In those times, a lot of black metal bands all had their dark ambient or ritualistic side projects, and so I stepped into this scene and was fascinated by this complete untrendy and even more radical musical aspect. When you are used to musical structures, powernoise or dark ambient can be a shock at first, but the more I drowned into those sounds, the more I was occupied with them. In Austria, we also had projects like Allerseelen, Der Blutharsch, or the powernoise project Rasthof Dachau, and yes, they played with this fascist symbolism, but for me, it was always clear that this was more a form of shocking. And, as these musical forms [are] so uncommercial, the bands could take the provocations farther than in the black metal scene.
Protector, you also wrote about the importance of free speech, which has become a hot button issue over the past few years; do you still feel the same way after seeing the way the world has changed since 2014?
Protector: Fortunately, we still have free speech, but free speech does not mean much if the speech can not be heard because in a cloud of information, it gets somehow filtered. Today we have free speech, but in contrast to all those racist newspapers who are sponsored by great companies with millions, the voice of a single person can often not be heard. We as single, isolated people are simply not a threat to the system. Free speech is not enough; we need the voices of the masses to be heard in this system. We are still far away from that, but I think that protests like Occupy Wall Street or Black Lives Matter brought us a step further. We need to continue that way.
Your music has always been described as grandiose, bombastic, epic—all very fitting adjectives —with an almost cinematic scope. Have you ever thought about venturing into soundtracks or other composition work?
Silenius: There was a time when I really though that this could be a way of composing beside Summoning—for example, making music for computer games would have been interesting, and of course movie soundtracks are also something which I could always imagine to do, but in the end of course nothing of this happened because of very profane reasons. First of all, I have not been professional enough to do such contract labor. Secondly, when I have a good melody in mind, i immediately want to take it for Summoning and for nothing else, and thirdly, I realized that i never could be creative on command.
Fantasy lies at the core of Summoning, and with that comes escapism, one of heavy metal's most beloved themes. What do you think drives that impulse to visit other worlds (and escape this one)? Why is fantasy so appealing for you?
Silenius: That is a good question, but maybe I can not give you a satisfying answer. One [person] likes fantasy, the other likes horror stories, the third sci-fi, and the next one crime stories. basically for me music as itself is a form of escapism from everyday life, and concerning the fantasy topic, I can remember that I was over-fascinated by this when i was a teenager; I was reading one fantasy book after the other, and when I bought a metal LP, I just looked at the cover, and if it was a fantasy movie, the LP was mine. All this did not change over all those centuries, like so many other things. So the conclusion is that it must be a kind of passion, and I think passions should be cultivated.
How do you want Summoning to be remembered when you're gone?
Silenius: What I [would] really like to achieve is that Summoning shall be remembered as a united body of work. So, I am really happy that we don't have different topics on each album, released on different labels, and changed our style every second year, as so many other bands do. When you remember Summoning, you just think about the typical music and the typical lyrical concept—not more, not less.
Kim Kelly is crowing over this on Twitter.