It’s been a while since I spoke to the man behind Ifernach, but the band’s intensity has not diminished. That’s a good thing since Ifernachis one of the torch bearers of traditional black metal, full of fury and hatred. It is radically opposed to all, defying mainstream appropriation. Yet, this album shows a gentler side of Ifernach as narrator and guide on a journey through his world.
I’ve seen some conflicting reports on the tracklisting of this album. For example, some reviews state that the song ‘A Cursed Spear…’ is an ambient track. I listened to the version on Bandcamp and have described songs thusly.
Ifernach is built on the Mi’kmaq heritage and the Irish roots of its sole member. We previously would mostly see the first; this album takes a swing for the second element. I think this is exemplified by the title ‘The Green Enchanted Forest of the Druid Wizard.’ though there are tons of cultural parallels. Yet, the folky part on this same track, after a good 6-minutes of eerie, melodic black metal, speaks for itself. It also fits the style of Ifernach, who never really sounded like your run-of-the-mill band in the first place.
If that wasn’t surprising enough, now follows the fingerpicking, 9-minute acoustic ‘The Passage of Dithreabhach’. It’s of remarkable beauty and takes us deeper into the forest that is this album before we truly get hit with its force on ‘A Cursed Spear…’. It’s a solid track, meticulously rhythmic, filled with gurgling vocals and an abyssal, dark quality. That’s what you get for awakening the dark gods of the ancient forests, I presume. Under that skintight drumming and bass-ing, chanting and melodies weave and spread out, which add to the mystique. It’s really, really tasty, and as we then enter ‘In the Hollow of the Togharmach’, I’m sort of sorry for the break with this intermezzo track. I want more violence from Finean Patraic.
And so, that is exactly what he provides on the two-part ‘Teinm Laida’, a reference to ritual practices banned by Saint Patrick. There’s a proper groove to the second part, actually, which really works in its favor. I’m surprised at the accessibility of these songs, which is not something I would say Ifernach is widely known for. It doesn’t take away from the ferocious nature of the barrage, the gritty hailstorm of the guitars and cymbals. The hammering fury of the blast beats; it’s all there. However, my favorite track must be ‘A Winter Tree Clad in Black Frost’. An almost Burzum-esque effort of a hypnotic journey through nature, amplified by synth elements hidden in the repetitive riffs’ haze. Ok, maybe there’s a bit of a mellow part to it, but I think it’s an apt description anyway.
‘Hidden Palaces Under the Green Hills’ is the closing track on this album, another collection of nature sounds and ambient, heightening this record’s mystique.
Dwarrowdelf claims to be: “walking the utterly untrodden path of Tolkien-based epic metal”. A bold claim from the UK-based project, as Tolkien and metal have been bedfellows since the early days of the genre (the man himself had little to say about this I’m afraid). Think about Blind Guardian, who soar high to this day thanks to their themed records. Even if you want to ignore bands who on a few occasions used Tolkien material. As a worshipper in the waters of Summoning, one should tread carefully and even if that is considered a band with a sound that is slightly one dimensional, there’s epic black metal from the likes of Emyn Muil. In so far, alone, this one-man project is not, but that shouldn’t stop us from checking out ‘Evenstar’.
Dwarrowdelf: More Elvish Than Twilight Force
That doesn’t mean it can’t be good, however, and Dwarrowdelf is something else in the way of cinematic-sounding metal. I would not go so far as to call it overproduced, but the black metal element is dim and remote on this record. Though, you would probably not say so after the barked vocals and intro of ‘Estel’, opening track on this record that tells the story of Aragorn and Arwen (she being the titular ‘Evenstar’). Sure, there’s the soaring ‘reach for the heavens’ tremolo riffs, but they sound more heavenly than hellish. Not saying black metal needs to be evil, but none of the grim aesthetics remains.
In a sense, Dwarrowdelf sounds like you would imagine white metal would sound. Full of epic moods, emotive guitars, clean vocals full of heroism and boldness, and of course richly decorated with synths, it is a clean record in the most complete sense of the word and I find myself warming to that. If Summoning is the best soundtrack for reading the books, this is probably what I would have preferred for the movies. I mean, if ‘The Eagle of the Star’ isn’t more elf-metal than even the faithful Twilight Force, I don’t know what is. Now, on this album O’Dell does ad more folk and melodeath to the sound, but I think for this genre of fantasy metal that doesn’t really fit one classic definition, that’s the way to go. More so, the vision of using guests on your solo project shows ambition and a high standard, which is admirable. It’s particularly in the details, like the fantastic ‘In Pursuit of Ghosts’, where the tin whistle from Kristoffer Graemesen adds a haunting element, that this shows itself.
The following track, ‘The Three Hunters’, is also a more energetic gem on this record, where other songs may take the lamenting tone a bit much to my opinion. But that’s an opinion you can discard. Why? Because, as a whole, this album is a great listening experience and I highly recommend checking it out.
Artist: Dwarrowdelf Label: Northern Silence Productions Origin: United Kingdom
Welcome to another selection of tasty dungeon beats (not really, it’s not beats… I mean, that would be way to hipster) from Akerius, Casio Tomb, Meadow Grove and Vale Minstrel.As I listened to these, I was reading ‘The Dragons of Autumn Twilight’ by Weiss and Hickman. You know what I’m talking about. Anyways, pretty nice to have som good atmospheric tunes to go with that book. So here goes, enjoy these dungeon synth finds!
Header image: Partly broken tower in the Anacopia fortress in the hills above New Athos in Abkhazia. The fortress played an important role on the border between Byzantine Christendom from the Umayyad Caliphate. King Leon I of Abkhazia had his seat here.
Akerius – Shadowed Paths Through Middle Earth
Self-released Artist origin: France (Réunion)
This is actually an oddity for Akerius, who normally is inspired by medieval/alchemic themes from his region of origin (Occitania). A Tolkien-infused dungeon synth album in the best tradition of this act, filled with mystery and subdued notes. Akerius stays true to the sound, with slow, steady rhythms and an all-together aura of mystery on this record. The music is always sombre, which is pretty much the whole tone of Tolkien’s works when you are venturing outside of Valinor and the Shire. The droning sounds really give shape to that sense of dread and danger, while the higher notes weave their own patterns. At times, Akerius does the odd surprising thing, like the intense drumming on ‘The Malefic Fortress of Utumno’. It shakes you up a bit, and helps you keep your eyes on the road in this dark land. I love how Akerius manages to make such small gestures in his music, but those small shifts take you to a whole new level of epic drama. ‘Shadows of Mordor is a prime example of how small nuances can make such an impact. As far as dungeon synth goes, for those who like to leave the cave for open-air threats, Akerius is as good as it gets for your personal peace of darkness descending.
Casiotomb – Exkursion in das Hügelgrablabyrinth
Heimat der Katastrofe
Artist origin: Unknown
So, technically I’m out on a limb here listing this release in dungeon synth, but the vibe is there. Casiotomb just uses the sound of the 8-bit (or less) videogame soundtrack to emulate the feeling of a dangerous dungeon crawler. There’s a simple excitement that only those who played these ancient video games can really understand and this crawler-soundtrack captures perfectly what the vibe of those games was. A gritty bass layer, primitive, scratchy and not really heavy on the thudding keeps you on edge, as the spooky music beeps and blurps onward. In a way, it makes you wonder how with so little these composers managed to do so much. I particularly love the spiralling sound on ‘Devoured By Vermin’. Seems like you just lost a life. The energy is high on this album, electric even. No time to stop, there’s a monster lurking around the next corner and each tick your supplies dwindle (remember that game aspect? I’ve never eaten a thing in Skyrim… pfff). This record is fantastic.
Meadow Grove – The Exile of Lord Bearston
Meadow Grove is a Finnish dungeon synth project that focuses on the story of a knight, named… as you may have guessed, Lord Bearston. The Lord refused to bow before the encroaching empire and is now on the run. The songs tell the story very precisely, step by step. Musically, Meadow Grove is an artist that enjoys minimalism. There are rarely complex layers at work in the music, neither do the sounds wholly conform to the medieval setting of the story. At times, the synthetic nature of the sound is clearly audible, even a bit scifi in this form of audio-storytelling. Notably on ‘Reflections in Solitude’. That’s only odd if you have focused on the music and not the story because there everything makes sense for Meadow Grove. Having ordered the cassette, I was charmed by the DIY aesthetic, which also made me take a closer look at the story. This is a project in which you can hear (and see if you get a physical copy) the love for the art itself and that’s, to me, the coolest thing dungeon synth can do. It’s what makes it more real than any Netflix production. Meadow Grove is definitely a project still developing and when the sounds are more tailored to an organic feel, this can go a long way.
Vale Minstrel – Warden of the Vale
artist origin: USA
If you ever genuinely wanted to get the vibe of sitting down by the fire in a tavern, located in a beautiful, lush green valley, this is your chance. Vale Minstrel is encroaching upon the terrain of comfy synth with his ‘Warden of the Vale’ release. Call it medieval synth if you like, it strikes that bardic cord with simple flute-like synths and interwoven repetition. It’s what you imagine hearing in the background as you bend over that tankard of ale you wish to gulp down as you listen to a wondrous tale. Only ‘A Minstrel’s Control Spell’ the sound goes a bit off as all the melodies spiral together. It’s an oddity on this otherwise perfect collection of medieval tunes. I can just picture the damsels curtsying and tip-toeing over the dancefloor. Somewhere in the back some dwarvish type shouts something incoherent and indecent but is further ignored. Peace, tranquil (like ‘Awoke! Near a Moonlit Grotto in the Glade of Green’), time to escape to the fantastic realms. In that case, Vale Minstrel is a worthy companion. I do wish the songs on this 100th Ancient Meadow release were slightly longer. That way you could linger in their magic a moment more.
I’ve always found An Autumn For Crippled Children an odd formation, ever since they were introduced to me. Their music feels different, yet clicks with the essential vibes of black metal. Some outlets have described them as a pure proponent of blackgaze, which is a term that not everyone is equally excited about it seems. On ‘All fell silent, everything went quiet’, the band pushes further into the regions in which only a few bands dare venture.
The new album is the eighth full-length release by the Dutch trio in their 10-year run, making them a very productive collective. The warm tones on this release make me think a bit more of Alcest than the scorned Deafheaven. The music flows like a warm bath, particularly the second track ‘Water’s Edge’ tells you everything you need to know about the sound An Autumn For Crippled Children is going for. The mellow vibe, the major key and gentle jamming contrast sharply with the raspy vocals. There’s an element of rawk and roll with that scrappy sound of the guitars as the two collide, but eventually, all flows together like a stream of sonic honey.
I wouldn’t call the music joyous, but there is an exuberance in the sound of songs like ‘Silver’—a drivenness and burning energy. It struggles for release that never really comes. I find myself longing to the moments of release when the blast beats fall away, and the melody soars freely. The vocals are frequently buried in the sound frequency, allowing it to merge together. Check out, for example, the track ‘None More Pale’, which is what black metal sounds like when all sounds are clean. Or maybe I just imagine that. It has a certain pop-sensibility to it, but still carries the epic, dramatic movements I love so much.
What may be an issue for those listening, is that its smooth sound may lack the fire that keeps you ‘onboard’ while listening to a record. To me, songs like ‘The Falling Senses’ work well, due to their relentless pace and energy, but others, like the title track, become hazy summer days. Where your vision becomes blurred, the heat plays tricks on your eyes and you slowly drift off. I think that’s the bridge with postrock, in a very complete and fully immersive manner, but it’s something you have to like and I happen to do. Which is why this is a great album in my book. Band: An Autumn For Crippled Children Origin: Netherlands Label: Prosthetic Records
Rarely have I taken the time to pay homage to a label (though I have a share of favorites that I should perhaps create some articles about), but this one is quite special and one I appreciate extremely: Haeresis Noviomagi. I’m saying a label, but it is in fact more of a collective of musicians that loosely expands, encapsulating other bands and projects as it morphs and grows.
Header image from Facebook page Haeresis Noviomagi
Flag bearers of Dutch Black Metal
I have not been following black metal music in the Netherlands so long to know what have been pivotal collectives or points of interest where meetings of minds took place. You see throughout the history of the genre that interesting things happen where like-minded spirits meet. A few years ago now, there was much ado about the ‘new wave of dutch black metal’, particularly focused on the region of Utrecht and bands like Terzij De Horde, Laster, Verwoed and others (I would not understate the importance of a band like Dool). Bands like Grafjammer and Wrang are essential bands that feed the underground spewing forth these bands. But at the same time, the hermetic group of Haeresis Noviomagi may have played an essential part in crafting this new, quintessentially Dutch sound. By now, they’ve solidly merged with the Utrecht scene, bringing forth collaborations such as Nusquama and playing in the aforementioned Dool (O. from the group joined them in 2019). More significantly, the group was deeply involved in the thematic one-time work for a performance at Roadburn, which was titled Maalstroom. I was there and enjoyed the spectacle immensely (read the interview here).
Hence a look back at some of their noteworthy releases from the Haeresis Noviomagi front, that I feel embody the best that has come out of their stables.
Galg – Monochroom (2014)
You won’t find any references to Galg on the website of Haeresis Noviomagi and only scarce mention of the project in any interviews. The reason for that fact is that Galg proceeds Haeresis Noviomagi. It’s an entity that has existed outside of their realm, but to me has been pivotal in shaping the final form the collective took. Much of the typical sound and visual art of the group can already be seen in this early release. It also happens to be a record I came across and conducted an interview about. Instead of conjuring up new words, I’ll just quote what I wrote at the time:
‘Monochroom‘ is a 26 minute descent into despair. The opening is like a bell tolling for mass. A bleak buzzing evokes dark clouds and a grim day. Samples from speech add an atmosphere of unholy ritual to the sound while the buzzing sound of the amps continues like an abysmal depth for the listener. A slow chanting arises from that deep bass sound. The sound swells up and suddenly blast beats emerge and intense guitar work lays out a barrage of dark sound while the sound of wind is sweeping through.
Lubbert Das – Deluge (2015)
The watershed record for the collective is the debut EP from LubbertDas, their most focused black metal outlet in my opinion. It’s dirty, decadent, and violent at times, but also illuminated by the unique approach of the band and ability to implement influences like Hieronymous Bosch in their work. In a way, Lubbert Das is always on par with Turia. These projects feel like two sides of the same coin to me. ‘Stone, God’s Blood’ is the first track on this EP, unleashing after a solid build-up. The track takes a slow pace and offers a lot of room for distant screams and generates a lot of atmosphere. It becomes a seductive feast of entrancing darkness.
The second half is ‘Forlorn Ages’, delivering atmospheric black metal with that ferocity in its foundation. Blast beats and furious screams, in a tapestry of sound. Descending slowly down into a pit of despair. The song flows in all majesty, as the train rattles on and on at a high pace. The movement of the sound slowly mutates over the 14-minute course of the song, but that tremolo guitar with the big echo makes everything sound so cavernous, so immense.
Iskandr – Euprosopon (2018)
Iskandr is a project by O., who also plays in Turia and previously was active in Lubbert Das. After the formative full-length ‘Heilig Land’ and the EP ‘Zon’, the second full length has become a record I return to frequently. The project’s name refers to Alexander the Great, who people called Iskandr in the eastern parts of his realm. The title refers to the impossibility of the perfect man and explores the concept of new ‘heroism. Steeped in the masters of pagan black metal and exploration, this is a record full of majesty and vigor.
Though black metal is the foundation of the sound, ‘Euprosopon’ floats with big arches and esoteric chanting, while the fundaments of the sound surge forward with blast beat drums and rigorous guitar riffs. There’s something specific about the melody lines that rhythmically speaks to you from realms beyond the Occident. Further from the rigid reaches of the west, maybe even from beyond lost in the mists of time the guitars resound. It’s as if the songs are the soundtrack to what is to come, with a mid-paced black metal subtlety and highly sophisticated effects. Iskandr embraces you and shows you magic on ‘Regnum’, unleashes a show of force on ‘Verban’, and takes you to a dreamy state on ‘Heriwalt’. It’s an album that is solid as a rock, but furtive in its mythical state. In other words, it’s great stuff.
Nusquama – Horizon Ontheemt (2019)
With the apparition of Nusquama, the Haeresis Noviomagi group joins forces with musicians from Laster, Vuur & Zijde, Fluisteraars, and more. This musical endeavor has a wholly different vibe, yet also feels like a good fit within the overall opus of the group. Sun-touched black metal, with all the harrowing aspects as well as the soothing nature of warm riffs and melodies. The name comes from Latin and Thomas More used it to refer to the necessity and impossibility of a hopeful alternative. Those are the words the band shared, not my own, as they tell it best in my humble opinion. The record was written in a period of over 2 years, and recorded in 2018 in an old coach house. An affable nod to their nostalgic inspirations of poetry and naturalism.
The contrast is clearly audible on opener ‘De Aarde Dorst’. The guitars soar, while the drums and bass weave intricate patterns on the ground. The voice spits venom, particularly audible on ‘Wrevel’ where it is vitriolic in its vehement assault. The melodies don’t balance it out much in this track, though there are soothing passages and ominous chanting to boot. But there’s also a sense of majesty and pride in the music like you can hear in the big movements on ‘Vuurslag’. It’s as if the waves of the music imagine the rising of the sun, which I feel the lyrics refer to.
I can go on because a track like ‘Eufrozyne’ employs the furious blast beats and rising guitar riffs as a herald’s call, where ‘Ontheemd’ offers another thick slab of atmospheric black metal. ‘Met Gif Doordrenkt’ is then the final track and a worthy closer of the album. Intensive drums, soul-crushing riffs and so much feeling in that sound, it’s imposing. Clocking over 7-minutes, it feels like the song takes you on an upwards trajectory, ever higher and warmer.
Turia – Degen van Licht
For me, ‘Degen van Licht’ has been a ray of light in 2020. I feel that I can say this unironically (the title translates as ‘rapier of light’) because this is one of the best albums this year for me. I don’t need to point out how shit this year was. Turia has released multiple great records, and I would recommend all of them. Yet, this is something else by the mysterious threesome from the east of the Netherlands. It’s their third release and was preceded by split records with Vilkacis and Fluisteraars. Ok, so I’m a huge fan of this album and the reason is its remarkable clarity and cohesiveness. It feels like one, big slab of music, meant to quiet the turmoil in your head and focus your energies. it obviously has a dark edge. It is black metal, but also a radian beauty that I admire.
The album has a brief intro, but how good is it to hear those clear notes break the murmuring thunder. Similarly, the main riff on ‘Merode’ is an absolute beauty, calm and soothing, while also speaking of dreams of another world. Waxing and waning over the aggression brought on by the scratchy bass lines and screechy vocals, it’s a contrast again, like in much of their work. ‘Met Sterven Beboet’ is a bit more crunchy in its sound, also packing a bit more of a punch along the way. The guitar that weaves those clean notes, however, is what I find most spectacular and warm.
I keep hoping for another glimpse when listening to this song. More majestic, but sticking with the theme, is the title track. The sound feels fuller, grander, more stiffly in its expression. In a good way, much like the playful sound of ‘Storm’ doesn’t diminish the bleakness that is inherent to this album. After a brief interlude, we get to ‘Ossifrage’. That’s an old name for a vulture that likes to drop bones to break them, so that’s a good black metal title. It’s a richer song, showing the full diversity of the band and craftsmanship behind their songs. It’s all good, isn’t it?
Empyrean Grace -Bestowment of the Seraphic Key
I guess this is the birthday release for the five-year anniversary Certainly, there was a Lubbert Das/Turia split, a Iskandr EP, and re-releases, but this one took the cake. A one-track wonder of almost 30 minutes of ephemeral black metal of the highest order. This is truly majestic stuff. It’s not clear who is involved in this project and if it will see further releases or any form of continuation (much like other side-projects of the Haeresis Noviomagi family, it is all shrouded in mists). But it is fantastic and I wish I could get my hands on the tape, for the collection you see…
The shimmering guitars in the intro unfold into a black metal sound that has a certain ‘kosmische’ feel to it. Yes, I’m referring to the kraut rock-like dreamy state the first few minutes of the song bring you into, not least due to the ethereal vocals that resound through the wall….nay, flow of music. The song changes, and fierce blast beats and a threatening sound follow a bit later. Yet, the music retains an almost ritualistic atmosphere, though I won’t mention the band that springs to mind when I say that. Kaleidoscopic, is how they describe it, layered, hallucinatory and all those words make perfect sense to me with this album. It’s like fata morgana, a mirage, a dream state, this record brings you into. That’s what makes it so wonderful and moreover, so promising for more.
Phew, today is a day where I simply need some excellent guitar riffs and, if possible, something with cats, and look what the proverbial cat just dragged in? A lovely new E.P. by Swedens very own BlackSolstice, titled ‘Terrathree’. This band from Stockholm features drummer Peter Eklund in its ranks, who also was in Dark Funeral, so that’s all good and well. This is their fourth demo release.
On the cover of this record, we see a cat. You’ve seen it now, too; it’s quite obvious. It’s even got a third eye. Did you know Lovecraft firmly (H.P., the one who is now less cool because in the ’20s he was a bit of a racist) believed cats are extraordinary beings? I mean, you only have to read his books where they are heavily featured as supernatural creatures. I remember it that way. Thus, it is so.
Three tracks with an indeed earthy sound to it grace your ears on this cool EP. Thick guitars, hazy like a hot summer day (that’s gone now too, thanks 2020), burst onto the scene on ‘Part of Me’. Clean, almost proclamation-style vocals resound strongly. You know what? This is as straight up as they’ll serve it anywhere. I am reminded of my favorite Scotsmen Hair of the Dog a bit. I mean, this is t-shirt-free rock’n’roll. Ok, it may be a bit easy at times, but I like the solid groove a lot. That continues on ‘Ember’ with those scalding licks, instantly delivered in the intro. Sweet stuff, a bit more emotional, though. What’s that pounding sound of the drums? They sound a bit peculiar, but it actually works with those dull thuds as they hit hard. “Here we are, shooting stars…” sounds a bit cheesy. Sorry, honesty prevails.
‘Strong-minded’ basically means stubborn, so that’s a thing. I kinda feel that stompy, headstrongness coming from the first hits of the skins on this track. The vocals of Magnus Lindmark do not entirely convince me on this track. I mean, he’s strong but not particularly musical on the slightly elevated pitch. I’m not feeling it, you know? I mean, I get that he ‘Didn’t find the cure’, but did you really try? I think that’s the only miss on this track; for the rest, it again is a solid slab of hard-rocking-metallesque fist-pounding material.
Emyn Muil has never pretended to be anything but Summoning worshipping atmospheric black metal. Rigid, dungeon synthy patterns, with an occasional blast beat and barked vocals? Yes, it’s all there and even more so on the latest release titled ‘Afar Angathfark’. A term I can not directly link to anything in Tolkiens work, but that shouldn’t stop anyone. The album cover, which is remarkably social realist in vibe which I dig, depicts a mailed fist clasping the dark crown with three jewels. For those familiar with The Silmarillion, this begs no explanation. It’s the iron fist of Morgoth, holding the Silmarils. This is the tale of Fëanor, the greatest of the elves.
Emy Muil is a one-man-band project by Saverio Griove, also known as Nartum. He has previously released two records under this banner, both playing into the classic fantasy imagery and depictions. The new artwork is a refreshing change, I have to say. Epic black metal, named after the valley where Sam and Frodo meet Gollum. This may be something you’ve gleaned from the Sam Jackson movies, which I notoriously dislike. Yet, that is another story.
The hunt for the jewels of Valinor
The title track sets the tone for the album and is not particularly remarkable yet, but that’s why it’s an intro here, fully instrumental. It’s the rich sound of the ‘Halls of the Fallen’ that fully entices you. The song rolls out like a rich tapestry, full of depth and grandeur. The bombastic drums set an imperial vibe, which fits with the start of the story. The vocals are clothed in synths and mellow progressions, allowing the listener to be carried away. ‘Noldomire’ follows and that is probably the best track on the album. Of course, that’s mere opinion, but it is great atmospheric dosing in warm notes. A voice-over disrupts the flow, which is a great tool for such a narrative album.
It’s on with ‘Heading Eastward’, however, that the real hunt is away. The Noldor travel, chasing the enemy and thief. This is done with bombastic melodies, soaring drums that crack like whips. A great might arises after a mellow start, and here the epic nature of Emyn Muil truly soars. The music turns to something more sinister, subtly snaking its way through the dark with eastern rhythms on the prelude that is ‘Udun’, before we launch into the 9+ minute ‘Where the Light Drowns’. The battle drums, the flutes, it heralds the coming of strife with bombast and power. Everything feels very merged in the music, as the sound is heavily produced. It’s hard to hear what is organic and what is electric in the music of Emyn Muil. That is not a problem, as the music has an atmosphere of filmic suspense. It is the experience that counts, and even the ethereal vocals contribute to that effect. If that doesn’t do it for you, check out the gothic vibes on the ‘Black Shining Crown’ track, which refers to the cover obviously. The track is more aggressive, the vocals more biting and yet the gentle bells just emphasize that force.
Flowing through the tales
The record flows, it never seems to have any real breaks in the meandering songs. Because of that, it feels like one big story that Emyn Muil serves you. Certainly, songs have brief introductions, such as we hear on ‘In Cold Domain’, which has a distinctly Nordic theme to it. Fitting. But when those dulled drums come in and the synths weave a pattern, the song becomes a blanket that moves on and on. ‘Arise in Gondolin’ maybe the odd one out, feeling distinct more like a dungeon synth song due to its… perhaps even quirky introduction, but then it launches into a battle like a hymn. Still worshipping Summoning though, but add to that the bells, and flourishes and at times it feels like it is Christmas morning. Sometimes Emyn Muil puts too much in it and mellows the wound out too much, but its the style of the band. It’s just an observation that I’m keen to make.
If you like your Summoning-like songs epic and full of warmth, check this out. It is really good.
Band origin: Italy Label: Northern Silence Productions
I thought, at first, that this album was a reference to the Forgotten Realms. I was wrong, but Mystras does like referring to forgotten times and history in its music. The name is derived from a fortified town in Laconia, Greece, which inspired the project. The first offering from this project is ‘Castles Conquered and Reclaimed’.
The project was founded by Ayloss, who has also been active in Divine Element, Spectral Lore, Ontrothon, Sage of the AncientGlass and more. In this project, he brings together epic black metal and folk/ars nova music. Multiple guest musicians have joined in this project, to create something worthwhile for you to listen to (members of Lüüp, Art of Simplicity, and SpiderofPnyx join Ayloss on this record). The concept is in fact a bit more tricky to explain. Mystras focuses on the downtrodden, the rejected, in a sense. That helps turn the album into a rebellious battle cry, a medieval black metal statement if you will.
Ancient rebellions arise anew
The sound of Mystras is very particular. Imagine lo-fi black metal, but even more thin and caustic sounding, then in turn laced with folk elements. At least, that’s what follows after the opening title track. Particularly English folklore appears to interest Ayloss, who refers to Wat Tyler and The Cutty Wren in the first three songs. Both are very nice tunes though. The instrumental ‘The Cutty Wren’ has all the charm of an English folk song. Gentle and swooning, but full of nostalgia. On ‘The Murder of Wat Tyler’ a little of the violent sound returns in a primitive sounding metal tune of 13 minutes. The lyrics are pretty dense and long, so you need that time to get your story across in harsh vocals. It’s fearsome, but also rich in texture, which is why this is such a great track again.
From ‘Contre Dolour’, which feels more ancient than the previous instrumental. we go into ‘Storm the Walls of Mystras’. Another epic black metal track, with massive waves of riffs hitting you in the face. But just listen to how that guitar roars and spins around and through it. There’s a sound of hope, action, and strife. The theme is in fact rebellion against emperors, fighting against the Byzantines who are doomed to fall. It’s a complex matter in a history book and I feel that Ayloss is crafting an own version here in some ways, which works.
Zealots of Thessaloniki
Another thing I love is basically how the melodies just soar over the rumbling black metal madness son both ‘The Zealots of Thessaloniki’ and ‘Wrath and Glory’. There are the uncouth fury and savagery, but also majestic riffing to create beauty in the darkness. And you would indeed think this would not work together, as it apparently clashes big time, but Mystras makes it work. The first song is about self-rule implemented by the Zealots, who ruled the city. It’s told through a song that is at times gruff with its woven patterns, much like a reed chair I would say, the way all the hard parts chafe and clash. It’s a strange comparison, but it helps illuminate how much space the song offers. It’s not a thick production, but purposefully thin. That’s pretty cool for the result it brings.
Majestic, strong and surprising, a record to write home about. Mystras unleashes an album, right for this time. An album filled with the antidote against the racist and nationalist currents of our time, by looking back at how people make the difference. True medieval black metal with a ray of hope.
Tobias Möckl is also known as Wintherr, and has a love for winter landscapes. That’s, in fact, the main theme for his project Paysage d’Hiver, which has released a ton of demos and splits over the years. In fact, the project is 23 years old and it required a global pandemic for Möckl to finally drop a full-length album with Paysage d’Hiver. In 2020, the album ‘Im Wald’ became a reality.
It’s not the only project of the Swiss musician, he is also active in the fabled Darkspace and runs the label Kunsthall Productionen. Stylistically, Paysage d’Hiver is an ambient black metal project, as the atmosphere of the music is the most important aspect according to the artist. It’s songs all connect to the same story, which tells of a realm of winter, with the same name obviously,
A winter walk in the forest
‘Im Wald’ is the magnum opus, with a running time of 2 hours. Musically, this is the sonic equivalent of a long walk in the forest, under an obvious layer of white, pristine snow… as the darkness of the autumn sets in on ‘Im Winterwald’. The music is blisteringly intense, but the melodies soar above the jagged treetops and create a mesmerizing specter. One can even detect a hint of that Darkspace weirdness, due to the futuristic keyboard lines that interlace the song. It adds wealth to the tapestry of sound.
Icy storms of black metal
All tracks are fairly long actually. ‘Flug’ takes its time, for example, building up through hazy ambient sounds/field recordings that demonstrate the forest is never truly quiet. But that’s how the song unfolds. Now and then, the guitars come to the forefront, but the babbling of a brook is louder than the acoustic twanging of the strings for most of the song. The music serves as a frame for nature, not vice versa, providing a mournful dirge to the wintery forlorn realms. At other times, the sound scours everything else away from your aural perception, particularly on ‘Kälteschauer’ you are subjected to a hailstorm of distorted guitars with the vocals piercing through the noise like a howling wind. At other times, the tracks can be punishing, caustic. ‘Weiter, Immer Weiter’ is that type of song, plowing through the snow, against the wind that blows with an icy gale. It’s intense and punishing, but the journey is rewarding.
Interesting is that the language choice is switching between German and French on this album only once for the song ‘Le Rêve Lucide’. This track actually feels more traditional black metal, with a pleasant rhythm and clear sound. Crisp riffing, thundering drums the way you like it. To me, it’s one of my favorite tracks. Dark, necro vocals, a constant pushing melody, and rhythm. it’s perfect. But it’s not surprising that an album of black metal of over 120 minutes can be so good. It’s music that needs to bewitch, to entrance you, and transport you to other realms. It’s fantastic to have so much in one go.
Get your dungeon synth digest with Toadlickers, Hole Dweller, Vervamon, and Borg. Some good stuff to get into your system. Ok, maybe not all as dungeon synth as it should be, but it fits. And it’s cool so… enjoy.
Header image: Temple of Mokva in Abkhazia, an ancient working temple. According to legend, the king of Leon refused to pay the builder, claiming the surroundings were not visible from the tower. After the builder climbed up to look at the surroundings, and prove the king wrong, the king removed the ladder to let him starve. The temple was looted by the Turks and rebuilt in the 19th century.
Toadlickers – Hangover Songs
Label: Knekelput Recordings
I’m not sure if you could call Toadlickers dungeon synth, but it’s definitely using the format to amplify its comical storytelling. Ok, so let’s imagine a goblin tavern, deep under the surface of the Forgotten Realms or any other fantasy realms. Drunk goblins roll around, frolicking and fighting, gobbling food and tittle-tattling in guttural tones. Then the band called Toadlickers starts playing. The rhythm is a bit martial, repetitive, but also jolly and a bit incoherent. Fighting ceases, and the noisy masses rise to their feed to do the goblin dance. Yes, you can think about the Labyrinth movie with David Bowie as the Goblin King. Opening track ‘Now I want to lick some toads’ is an instant classic, as is my favorite ‘Too Many Mushroom Candies.’ It sort of sounds like the famous ‘Silvester Anfang’ is being played by… well, drunk Goblins. Smash your tankards, hop without a care around and sing along with Toadlickers.
Funny thing is, there’s a long-standing dichotomy in fantasy with there being good and evil. But what if these are just perspectives, and evil creatures are just as many beings that want fun, fulfillment, and a lot of liquor?
Hole Dweller – Flies the Coop II
Label: Dungeons Deep Records
This ‘demo’ release by Hole Dweller can be called the last of an era. The act released a new EP recently, and the sound has changed remarkably. Good on Hole Dweller, less good for the fans of these iconic releases. This demo fills the hole between the first and second release (‘Flies the Coop’ and ‘Return To Roost’). Adventuring? No thank you, would Bilbo have said. However, the protagonist of Hole Dwellers’ pastoral dungeon synth saga responded with a resounding yes and has gotten himself into an adventure. The music is filled with joy and passages that speak of the tranquility you will find in the realms of Middle Earth. Some jokes are for insiders, like the title ‘The Hospitality of Elves is Nearly That of Halflings.’ It’s what makes this record such a lovely endeavor to retreat into.
I particularly relish the song ‘With a taste of Miruvor’, which has a slow beat, and repeats it’s energizing sounds. It soothes, but also breathers live back into you as you listen. Hole Dweller likes to create ambient sounds, like a woodpecker hammering away on a tree trunk, the sound of the wind, and a hazy sound to the synths that playfully unfold the songs. As an act, Hole Dweller, much like Toadlickers, offers new pathways for dungeon synth to explore without ever really deviating from its original journey.
Vervamon – The Path Through The Evergreen Forest
Label: Knekelput Recordings
Vervamon is too old, too cold. Dungeon synth, produced between 1999 and 2010, but finally released into this scene ready to devour ay original material. Vervamon debuted this record during the North-East Dungeon Siege live stream, with this fantastic video (below). So all in all, this is a release that captures some original atmosphere and sounds.
So, that makes Vervamon the sound of the ancients and it is highly distinct from most music you’ll find labeled dungeon synth from that era. It takes great stylistic liberties, even approaching religious music in the tonal arrangements on opener ‘Snagdaa’. I read ‘Snaga’ for a while, thinking this was a Gemmell reference. ‘The Path Through The Evergreen Forest’ is, however, more of a narrative than a record. Tracks like ‘Dwalende Gedachten’ contain a lot of samples and less music. When it comes up, it guides the listener to the next installment. I particularly like ‘Sneeuw en spar (eerbetoon aan de duistere troon)’. Maybe because it is a tribute to Darkthrone. I like Darkthrone a lot. My favorite track, however, remains ‘Woundmannen’. That’s the one from the video, but it’s also the most consistent and powerful.
‘Ancient Shores’ ends the old work on this record, the last two tracks are newly released. They didn’t do much for me, it was too much the sort of dark ambient you can play in the background. It sounds but doesn’t have the same storytelling strength. It makes me think of some of the tracks created by From The Bogs Of Aughishka. That’s good. It’s a fascinating journey, but not for purists… or the weak of will.
Borg – The Sacred Mound (by J. Morlak)
Borg is a relatively new kid on the blog in the dungeon synth landscape, but ‘The Sacred Mound (by J. Morlak)’ is far from an early release in his works. Sure, the artwork stands out like a sore thumb, referencing early 90s paint/WordArt craftsmanship, but the music is surprisingly handsome. We discussed earlier the jolly tavern sounds of Toadlickers, and Borg in a way is similar. It’s synth-driven folk music, with a highly immerse vibe. Certainly, it sounds Nordic, with bold and clean sounds, but enriched with various percussion sounds, it’s a joy to listen to. Some songs really feel magical, but also from remote worlds we know little about. ‘Palace of the Amfibian Lords’, for example, feels oriental (using the term very broadly to indicate some sonic influences here), where other songs play with nature sound imitations (such as ‘Gently Sway The Forest in the Wind’).
I’ve been curious to find out more about the title, as there’s a name mentioned there, but I haven’t been able to link that to ‘The Sacred Mound’, which does happen to be a 1993 Icelandic family film (I would hope to watch it, but can’t verify it as yet). Letting go of that, it’s a fantasy record that tells tales of the magic that is in nature and transforms the way we think about dungeon synth as a musical form. It can be playful, like the title track, or epic like your Northrend entrance soundtrack in World of Warcraft, in ‘Bows For Strings And Arrows’.